Boston’s Bullpen Of Misfit Toys

Andrew Bailey is set to make his Red Sox debut this week. After being sidelined with a thumb injury for the entire season, the Red Sox are expected to activate Bailey on Tuesday. Bailey was acquired to take over the closer role after Jonathan Papelbon left for Philadelphia. And while his injury has certainly hurt the Sox, they’ve performed pretty well without him.

The Red Sox were supposed to be set in the late innings after last offseason. The team acquired Bailey and Houston Astros’ closer Mark Melancon to bring stability in the eighth and ninth innings. Bailey, of course, immediately suffered an injury and has yet to pitch an inning for the Red Sox. Melancon, on the other hand, has been downright awful in his 28.0 innings pitched. If you had known these two things would happen heading into the season, you probably would have predicted a lot of failure from the Red Sox bullpen.

But that hasn’t been the case. While the Sox have had their fair share of issues, particularly early in the season, the team’s bullpen has been valuable. As a team, the Red Sox bullpen has accumulated 3.5 WAR this year, good for ninth in all of baseball. That number would actually improve if you took out Melancon’s contributions. Melancon has taken value away from the team this year, with a -0.2 WAR.

Boston has basically been able to succeed by cobbling together a bullpen by targeting cheap, unwanted players.

Player IP Acquired 2012 Salary WAR
Scott Atchison 46.0 Signed as a FA in 2009 $510,000 0.9
Alfredo Aceves 58.2 Signed as a FA in 2011 $1,200,000 0.7
Vicente Padilla 39.0 Signed as a FA in 2012 $1,500,000 0.6
Andrew Miller 29.2 Traded to Boston in Nov 2010 $1,040,000 0.6
Franklin Morales 30.2 Traded to Boston in May 2011 $850,000 0.4
Junichi Tazawa 21.2 Signed as a FA in 2008 $920,000 0.4
Rich Hill 13.2 Signed as a FA in June 2010 $725,000 0.3
Clay Mortensen 27.1 Trade to Boston in Jan 2012 $486,500 0.1
Andrew Bailey 0.0 Offseason trade with Oakland $3,900,000 -
Mark Melancon 28.0 Offseason trade with Houston $521,000 -0.2

Nearly every player contributing to Boston’s success in the bullpen this season was either eligible to be signed by every major league team at one point in their career, or acquired for next to nothing. Miller was acquired for pitcher Dustin Richardson, Morales was acquired for cash and a player to be named later and Mortensen was involved in the Marco Scutaro trade. Every other player on the list, with the exception of Bailey and Melancon, were acquired cheaply through free agency.

A closer look reveals some similarities between the players Boston likes to take chances on in their pen. Miller, Morales and Hill were all considered strong prospects at one point in their careers before falling out of favor with their original teams. And though Mortensen never reached that status, he was a first round draft pick in 2007. What the Red Sox are doing is still considered dumpster diving, but they are targeting guys that once had strong pedigrees. Flaws kept these pitchers from reaching their potential as starters, but they’ve all turned into decent bullpen pitchers. The jury is still out on Morales, actually, as the team has been so encouraged with his performance that they’ve moved him to the rotation. It’s also important to note that while Bailey makes close to $4 million, the next highest salary in the Red Sox’s bullpen is just $1.5 million.

The Red Sox approach this season really highlights why giving up good talent to acquire relievers is often a poor decision. Relievers are too volatile and get hurt way too often to be counted on for consecutive seasons. While Bailey is likely to add value to the Red Sox going forward, and Melancon will hopefully figure things out, the team has already shown that it can get by without their contributions.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

35 Responses to “Boston’s Bullpen Of Misfit Toys”

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  1. diegosanchez says:

    Isn’t it fairly safe to say that nearly every team in baseball outside of the Yankees cobbles together a bullpen by targeting cheap, unwanted players?

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    • Steve says:

      Derek Lowe
      Corey Wade
      Clay Rapada
      Codey Eppley
      Luis Ayala

      The yankees take this approach as well. Ownership overruled their GM and signed Soriano, but for the most part, Cashman has been fishing the waiver wire for bullpen parts for years.

      +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • BX says:

      Replace “Yankees” with “Phillies” or “Marlins” and you’d probably be right.

      Heath Bell, trading Maybin for relievers, and Jonathan Papelbon say hi.

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  2. Jerry says:

    The Red Sox did not cobble together a bullpen by targeting cheap unwanted players. The Red Sox targeted Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon to be their 8th and 9th inning guys, and in order to do so, they shelled out both money and young, cost controlled, and good MLB starters in Reddick and Lowrie. The Red Sox targeted, and overpaid, for bullpen pieces that so far have accumulated -0.4 WAR. I’d hardly call that a “smart” approach.

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    • JCA says:

      The author isn’t praising the trades for Melancon and Bailey. You can read “The Red Sox approach this season really highlights why giving up good talent to acquire relievers is often a poor decision” as a criticism of giving up Reddick and Lowrie. What Cwik is pointing out is they did pretty well recovering from losing what they had planned on to be prime pieces, so well that they can pretty much “get by without their contributions.” Cwik also makes a decent point about what type of player can be useful to target if you go the “dumpster diving” approach.

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  3. Detroit Michael says:

    The article doesn’t really describe Mark Melancon’s season well. He had a horrible month and then reverted to the being roughly the same pitcher he was in 2011.

    MAR/APR: MLB, 49.50 ERA, 37.60 FIP
    APR/JUN: AAA, 0.83 ERA, 1.39 FIP
    JUN/AUG: MLB, 4.15 ERA, 3.10 FIP

    Perhaps a secondary lesson here is if one does buy an expensive reliever and he goes into a horrible slump, go ahead and banish him to mop-up duty or even AAA but don’t let him languish there for 7-8 weeks. Otherwise you may get to the end of the season and discover that he pitched his best ball in AAA.

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    • BX says:

      or AAA hitters are significantly easier to get out than MLB hitters.

      we have no way of telling whether Melancon pitched his “best ball” in AAA or in MLB.

      plenty of pitchers dominate AAA just to get lit up in MLB.

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      • Ben Hall says:

        It’s true that AAA hitters are easier to get out than major league hitters, but I don’t remember seeing anyone with the kinds of numbers that Melancon had in AAA getting lit up in the majors. The Sox bullpen was doing quite well, so I’m not sure it made sense to bring him back up, but over 21 2/3 in AAA he struck out 27, walked 3, and gave up 2 runs (no homers).

        Who are some pitchers who dominated AAA like that and got lit up in MLB? I can’t think of any, but I’m not saying it’s not true.

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        @Ben

        Dominating AAA and getting lit up in the majors is kinda Melancon’s MO, except for the one year he was in the NL.

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  4. Nick Smith says:

    Miller could have been had by any team — he was non-tendered by the Sox shortly after they acquired him and signed to a minor league deal.

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  5. Tom Chicago says:

    While the Red Sox are 9th in bullpen WAR I think we can all agree that WAR for relievers isn’t the best stat to be looking at. Scott Atchison pitched brilliantly this season but almost all of his work was done in very low leverage situations. His WPA is just 0.22 despite an excellent WAR.

    Boston’s bullpen in just 14th in WPA, 15th in FIP and 17th in xFIP. These are much more meaningful statistics to describe the quality of the bullpen than WAR is. Calling this a quality bullpen built on cheap, available pieces is disingenuous.

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    • williams .482 says:

      WAR is park adjusted. Those stats are not. Some of those stats with park adjustments:
      - 78 ERA- (8th)
      - 88 FIP- (8th)
      - 95 xFIP- (10th)

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      • Tom says:

        I think Fangraphs needs to take a closer look at how they adjust FIP…. it is based on run evironment park factors (but I believe ignores HR park factors)

        Also xFIP- seems like a questionable stat when xFIP is already adjusting for HR/FB…. once again it is reliant on run environment

        Since Fenway has a heavy split (plus run environment, negative HR factor); the pitchers get the benefit of the run factor adjustment stats (- stats, WAR) and also get the benefit of pitching in a HR suppressing environment (which helps the pre-adjusted FIP)

        In short I think some of the “-” and WAR are kind of iffy when you have a park which doesn’t have similar run and HR factors.

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    • BX says:

      WPA is heavily influenced by managerial decisions.

      Atchison can’t choose whether he wants to pitch in high or low leverage situations; Bobby V picks the situations where he pitches in, and he goes and pitches in them.

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    • B N says:

      I’d actually make the argument that WAR is a bad metric because the rotation has been so bad. Since WAR is basically a counting stat, your relievers getting more innings will increase your WAR just as much as your relievers pitching better. Basically, a bullpen with a FIP of 4 will look better than one with a FIP of 3 if they have 50% more innings…

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  6. Dale Sams says:

    I think Miller was a first round pick too. These guys haven’t been making highlights every night, but there is definitly something to be said for picking up former first rounders.

    I’d take it further and look for guys taken in first rounds and who turned teams down.

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  7. Dale Sams says:

    Also, Albers should be on that list

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  8. BX says:

    Also another fun experiment: (for the fans of teams with terrifying pens)

    All the relievers combined in this wonderful Boston pen = 3.7 WAR (added in Albers and Breslow for good measure.)

    11 position players in the AL alone out WAR this pen.

    Bullpens are confusing. Important, but confusing.

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  9. vivalajeter says:

    I happen to think it’s more luck than anything else. Virtually every team tries to get cheap bullpen pieces that perform well. Out of 25-30 teams with this strategy, there are bound to be a few teams that have better-than-average bullpens (like Boston) and other teams that vastly underperform expectations (like the Mets).

    I don’t think you can learn much from Boston’s strategy except that sometimes you just need to close your eyes and wish for the best. This same group of pitchers could have easily been one of the absolute worst ‘pens in the league. Luckily for Boston, it didn’t work out that way though.

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    • You can add the Angels to the “vastly underperforming bullpens” list. Decent contracts to Hawkins, Downs, Isringhausen combined with farm fodder like Walden, Jepsen and Carpenter have just, what’s the word?, sucked. Because it’s Fangraphs I won’t mention they lead the league in Blown Saves.

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  10. everdiso says:

    This is the real everdiso checking in to compliment fangraphs on yet another in a long line of articles about fringe players on the bestest sub-.500 team in MLB history.

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    • Sam Samson says:

      So leaving your addiction to snark aside for a moment, which MLB bullpen this year better illustrates the point the writer is trying to get across — that spending significant money and resources on your bullpen is a fool’s game, given the poor returns of the expensive RPs compared with the cheap ones in Boston’s bullpen?

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      • everdiso says:

        I’m sure there are plenty of examples we can get from teams that are actually contending this year. TB and BAL’s ‘pens have been aces this year for peanuts, for example.

        And the Yanks’ pen is even better with only one guy making more than $1.9m….and you’re not going to find many fans crying that they’re paying Soriano $11m instead of Bailey $3.9m at the moment, I don’t think.

        Seems to me just to be another excuse to talk about the sub-.500 red sox again, to be honest.

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    • JF145 says:

      Everdiso is so butthurt that even when the Red Sox hit rock bottom, the Blue Jays still can’t overtake them. Maybe next decade, dude.

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      • everdiso says:

        OK, let’s play nice.

        Say this was a Red Sox site, and we wanted to analyze the Sox’ bullpen this year.

        I’d imagine the first question we’d want to look at was whether or not it was a good idea to decide NOT to pay Papelbon to close. (We don’t even have to look at the follow up move of trading Reddick for a $3.9m Bailey for now).

        I’d imagine most Sox fans aren’t convinced that their surface bullpen numbers really tell the whole story – and that they’d probably want to take a closer look at inherited runner numbers and leverage splits to get a better idea of how good they’ve been….not to mention specifically in the closer’s role and the issue of blown saves.

        If we really want to take a look at Boston’s bullpen (even though a general baseball site analyzing the middling bullpen of a non-contender heading into the final quarter of the year seems kind of strange), shouldn’t this issue be the one that we look at? Whether they should have paid up for Papelbon, with a rigorous analysis of WPA numbers?

        Are there any Sox fans that are happy they didn’t re-sign Papelbon at this point, and are happier with the cost-effectiveness of this middling bullpen?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • everdiso says:

        tldr

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  11. Eric M. Van says:

    Including Tazawa as a player any team could have signed as a FA, though technically true, is highly misleading. He was eligible for the Japanese draft and the Sox broke an industry-wide gentleman’s agreement to pursue him, and gave him the second-highest international bonus (after Iglesias) in team history. Right now it looks like a great move — there are a lot of folks who want to see him re-converted to the rotation for next year.

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  12. JF145 says:

    Oh man, when everdiso gets serious and actually tries to make real arguments you get a glimpse of how legitimately dumb he is.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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