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Fixing the Diamondbacks Bullpen

You can use your metric of choice, but it won’t make a difference. The Diamondbacks featured the worst bullpen in 2010, and it wasn’t particularly close. The unit’s ERA was more than a full run worse than the next closest, and their collective WAR was 1.7 worse. Their new GM, Kevin Towers, built some pretty solid bullpens during his years in San Diego, and now he faces the same task in Arizona. It appears that he’s following the same blueprint as a few teams from recent memory.

Both the 2007 Devil Rays and the 2009 Nationals had bullpens that actively hurt the team, removing two or more WAR. In a not so stunning coincidence, both teams also finished with the worst record in their respective years. That changed the next year, when they both displayed tremendous improvement from the pen. Their first orders of business, unsurprisingly, was to blow up the whole operation.

The 2009 Nationals bullpen featured three pitchers worth -0.5 WAR or worse: Ron Villone, Saul Rivera, and Logan Kensing. After combining for 115 innings and -1.6 WAR, they combined to pitch zero innings for the Nats in 2010. The bullpen eradication didn’t end there. Of the 11 relievers who finished with negative WAR in 2009, only two pitched for the Nats in 2010. One of them was Sean Burnett, who was arguably the team’s most productive relief pitcher in 2010. The other was Jason Bergmann, who threw just 2.1 innings last season.

The 2007 Devil Rays also had three pitchers worth -0.5 WAR or worse: Chad Orvella, Juan Salas, and Brian Stokes. Of them, only Salas pitched for the 2008 team, and he lasted just 6.1 innings. Of their remaining pitchers who produced negative WAR in 2007, only Gary Glover pitched in 2008, and even he threw only 45 innings. All of the other laggards were cast off, never to pitch an inning for the newly dubbed Rays.

In addition to subtracting the worst producers and and replacing them with higher upside arms, both teams also added a closer the following season. In 2009 the Nationals got the bulk of their saves from Mike MacDougal, who was worth -0.2 WAR on the season. In 2010 they signed Matt Capps to close games, and that worked well for them. In 2007 Al Reyes recorded all but two saves for the Devil Rays. During the off-season they added Troy Percival, who was on the comeback trail. That didn’t end up working well, as Percival was the least productive reliever on the 2008 squad. But perhaps the moved helped add stability to the Rays’ 2008 pen.

The differences were easily noticeable. The 2009 Nationals’ bullpen finished with -2.5 WAR while the 2010 team produced 4.7 WAR, sixth most in the majors. That 7.2-win swing certainly played a role in the 10-win increase the Nationals experienced last season. The Rays didn’t improve quite as much, though their 5.5 win swing coincided with a season in which the team reached the World Series.

The Diamondbacks appear to be following this blueprint. They’ve added a closer in J.J. Putz, and have, at least by implication, committed to catapulting the worst offenders of the 2010 bullpen. Bob Howry and Jordan Norberto likely won’t throw another inning for the team. Chances are we’ve seen the last of Esmerling Vasquez and his insane walk rates. Saul Rivera, a negative producer for the Nats in ’09, won’t see the Diamondbacks again in ’11.

The only negative WAR pitcher who will see time in 2011 is Juan Gutierrez, who finished 2010 with a 5.08 ERA and 5.83 FIP, which amounted to -1.0 WAR. His ERA was actually 6.69 in early August, just before he hit the DL with shoulder inflammation. Who knows how long that had bothered him. He came back and was lights out in his final 18 appearances, allowing just three runs in 17.2 innings while striking out 15. He appears to be the exception to the rule of jettisoning the worst producers.

To replace the poor producers from the 2010 bullpen, Towers has been busy adding arms. He received David Hernandez, who responded well to a bullpen move, and the hard-throwing Kameron Mickolio, from the Orioles earlier in the winter. Then he added Putz to close games, resigning the shaky Gutierrez to a lesser role. Aaron Heilman, one of the team’s better relievers in 2010, is coming back. He’ll compete for a rotation spot, but with so many options it’s sure that a number of them will fit into the bullpen.

After experiencing terrible bullpen results in 2007 and 2009, the Devil Rays and the Nationals rebuilt with a purpose and made great strides the next year. The Diamondbacks appear to be following the same blueprint. They’ve added a quality closer and have replaced the worst parts of the 2010 bullpen. I’m not sure that they’ll see improvement to the level that the other two teams did, but it’s certainly possible. I’m confident that the Diamondbacks will finish with a middle of the pack bullpen in 2011. Combined with a decent starting staff and a budding offense, they figure to finish with more than 65 wins in 2011.