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The Rays Bullpen Makes Big Spenders Look Dum

The double-surprise success of Fernando Rodney has received appropriate documentation and laud, but a grander epic is unfolding daily in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen.

The Rays ‘pen has the second best ERA and third best FIP in the MLB. Their ERA trails only the National League Reds, and their FIP has only one AL rival, the New York Yankees. Only the Rangers (30) and the Diamondbacks (35) have fewer meltdowns than the Rays bullpen at 36 (and the Rangers have a much better offense, meaning fewer meltdown opportunities).

And it has been the same story since 2008. The Rays bullpen has made relief magic on a mom-and-pop-store budge:


Source: USA Today.

The Rays are paying approximately one (1) Jonathan Papelbon this season for one of the best bullpens in the Majors. And they are accomplishing this one excellent pitch at a time.

Let’s examine the key components of this shut-down pen — which has a 0.84 ERA over their last 30 games, according to Jason Collette.

Fernando Rodney (Closer):
Rodney moved laterally along the rubber, and somehow, perhaps as a direct result of the release point change, the Archer has a career-low — less than half his previous career low — 4.2% walk rate. Combined with a strong 25.6% K-rate and a 55.6% groundball rate, his 0.79 ERA almost looks reasonable.

Fernando has been good, and the Rays defense is good too, but his 2.25 FIP presents a more reasonable description of his ability — assuming anything 170 points lower than a career number can be reasonable. Still, he has 38 saves, 25 shutdowns and only 2 meltdowns. In the American League, only Octavio Dotel and Greg Holland have a better FIP. Whatever the Rays and their PITCHf/x wizards saw in Rodney has paid off, and if they can bottle that success, look out. (Currently earning: $1,750,000)

The Pitch:
Though his slider currently rates as the best in the majors (among relievers), he throws that breaker only about once per week. His changeup, ranked No. 8 in the nation by rate and No. 1 by impact, is what makes him filthy. He throws heat from 96 to 100 mph, but his 86 mph changeup, which Bollywoods away from lefties, dominates both hands — and he throws it for strikes in any count.

Jake McGee (High-Leverage Lefty / Two-Inning Man):
If any player in the Rays bullpen is getting groomed for something, it is Jake McGee. The 25-year-old lefty has dominated southpaws in 2012 (2.84 FIP) as well as right-paws (2.47 FIP). His career numbers suggest righties will always give him a little more trouble than his creative-hand brethren, but if he can sustain the success he has had in high leverage situations in 2012, then the Rays will either make him a King Closer or get an Atahualpa ransom for him. (Currently earning: $484,200)

The Pitch:
McGee has the best, most necessary fastball on the team. Rodney’s fastball might have more zip, but McGee both needs and uses his heater more. McGee throws his fastball 80.1% of the time. Not surprisingly, his 95+ mph left-handed laser is tied for a No. 3 ranking in the MLB. Hitters facing McGee know what he is throwing, but the knowledge does not help them.

Joel Peralta (High-Leverage Righty / 8th Inning Setup):
Davey Johnson accused the former Washington Nationals pitcher of applying a foreign substance (pine tar) to his pitches. The umpires felt Peralta had too much a the ol’ grip juice in his glove, and he got a short suspension. Don’t tell Davey Johnson, but Peralta’s post-Targate numbers (over the following two months and 70+ batters faced) have been under a 3.00 FIP with a sub-1.00 ERA. Over the whole season, his 2.22 SIERA ranks No. 9 in the MLB. (Currently earning: $1,750,000)

The Pitch:
His split-finger fastball ranks No. 1 in the AL and No. 2 on the MLB, behind only Jose Arredondo of the Reds. The splitter comes in around the same speed as his curve, but drops a whopping 10 inches less than his breaker. He also throws a praiseworthy fastball — one of the few Rays pitchers with two above average pitches (his fastball ranks No. 29 in the MLB).

Kyle Farnsworth (High-Leverage Righty):
The Rays closer from the 2011 season missed much of the first half while recovering from injuries, and with Rodney getting his Katniss on, Farnsworth has eased into high-leverage 7th and 8th inning duty. His 2.77 FIP looks great, but his 4.19 xFIP shows the concern: He has yet to allow a home run.

His 0.0% HR/FB rate will not continue, but neither should his career-high walk rate (14.3% BB-rate, almost three times as large as his 2011 numbers). His fastball control has looked better over recent appearances, so it seems quite likely he could be back to form well before October. (Currently earning: $3,300,000

The Pitch:
In 2011, Farnsworth’s slider ranked No. 9 in the MLB. It only works, though, if his fastball is getting him to a two-strike count, which has not happened enough in 2012. He is only 63 batters into the season, though, so there is time for his repertoire to improve. (On many other teams, a closer returning from injuries gets leaned on like Tiny Tim’s crutch.)

J.P. Howell (Medium-Leverage Lefty):
After missing all of the 2010 season, the Rays’ former Chairman of the Closer Committee pitched poorly through his shortened 2011 appearances. But he has regained his Ice Man powers in 2012. He recently set the Rays franchise record for longest scoreless streak, and with each successive appearance, he is extending it (currently at 24.2 IP). After a rough start to the season (+5.00 xFIP in May), Howell has been on lock down.

Some critics might fret at the sight of his considerable FIP and ERA gap (2.62 ERA and 4.01 FIP), but his career reliever numbers (3.01 ERA and 3.87 FIP) suggest either (a) he can beat his FIP as a reliever or (b) his pitching style is well-augmented by the Rays defense. A 2.62 ERA might be low, but his history suggests he could be at a 3.20 ERA despite his 4.00ish FIP. (Currently earning: $1,350,000)

The Pitch:
His 88 mph fastball (88 mph, that is, with his wind to the back) survives just enough to set up his No. 27 slider, which he throws comfortably to either righties or lefties (generating a 27% swinging strike rate against righties, 35% against lefties).

Burke Badenhop (Medium-Leverage Ground Ball Man / Two-Inning Man):
Acquired from the Miami Marlins in a bit of a head-scratcher trade for Miami, Badenhop brings a 54.7% career GB-rate to Tampa Bay. His numbers are off a bit this year, as he is getting only a 49.1% GB-rate in 2012, but his ability to go multiple innings — and the Rays’ limited need for more high-leverage pitchers — have allowed the Rays to slot him into big run differentials to try to sort out his pitches. This is, in some senses, a 3.85 FIP long man. Wow. (Currently earning: $1,075,000)

The Pitch:
Despite his (albeit relative) struggles in 2012, Badenhop’s sinker rates as No. 4 in the MLB. He’s not quite Brad “Ground-Ball Man 5000” Ziegler, but Badenhop fills a key role in a bullpen that, for most purposes, expected to need him more than they have in 2012.

Wade Davis (Medium/Low-Leverage Two-Inning Man):
This is the first season Davis has been in the bullpen. He never matched his top prospect pedigree in the rotation (120 FIP-minus over the last two seasons, 58 starts) as his fastball seemed to have lost the edge that helped him post strikeout rates over 20% in the minors. Now that he’s in the bullpen, the heater has ticked up about 1.5 mph, and he has been more productive all around. In another year (in fact, maybe next year), he would be the Rays’ high-leverage ROOGY (27.2% K-rate, 5.3% BB-rate against righties in 2012), but this season, he is on mop-up duty. His 2.56 ERA, 3.38 FIP and 3.21 SIERA, however, allow manager Joe Maddon to use Davis just about any time the team needs him. This is, for those keeping track at home, a second long man under a 4.00 FIP. (Currently earning: $1,500,000)

The Pitch:
In the span of one year, Davis’s curve has gone from dud to stud. He is getting nearly a 40% swinging strike rate against righties with it, and overall, it ranks No. 11 among MLB relievers.

The Tampa Bay Defense and Tropicana Field:
We would be silly to praise Fernando Rodney’s Sega Genesis ERA without giving due credit to the Rays fielders. Despite an unusual influx of errors early in the season, the Rays defense now sports a defensive efficiency rating that ranks No. 7 in the MLB and No. 4 in the AL.

On top of that, the team has pioneered the first pitch-framing-intensive catcher corps, led by veteran Jose Molina. Last I checked, every starter (outside of Jeff Niemann, who had pitched only a handful of games before hitting the DL) has had their called strikeout rate increase in the 2012 season. To career highs.

When you are getting this behind the plate:

It is easier to get better results.

Add in to that equation Tropicana Field. The Rays home ballpark has been nothing less than Safeco South for the last few seasons, and the Rays may in fact be catering to their home park advantages. Whether the are finding pitchers who get poppers in the ample outfield foul territory or deception pitchers who can take advantage of the infield pop up peculiarities, I do not know.

What I do know: The Rays bullpen has the best home FIP in the MLB — and from 2008 through 2012, no AL team’s bullpen has a lower home ERA than the Rays (the Rays are also tied for the best overall AL bullpen ERA-minus over that span).

Conclusion:
It appears the Rays have a bullpen filled with one-pitch wonders. Is it unique to have a bullpen so heavily relying on one pitch? I cannot say that for sure. I think most relievers have at least one outstanding pitch (think: Mariano Rivera‘s cutter) and even if they had another solid pitch, they probably would not need it too much, considering how short their outings typically last.

That said, the Rays do appear to have a unique bullpen in that each of their seven relievers has at least one pitch in the top 30 of MLB relievers. And the only pitcher without a pitch in the top 11 is J.P. Howell, whose unique pitching style seems to result in a sort of synergy productivity.

Whatever the Rays are doing to assemble their bullpens — whether it’s catering to their home park, finding one-pitch specialists or just looking for good stats from marginal guys (like Badenhop) — Andrew Friedman and his crack front office have managed to build the best American League bullpens of the last half-decade, using a payroll no larger than a single blockbuster free agent closer. And 2012 is no exception.

So, GMs, don’t splurge on relievers, if for no other reason than a team cannot be sure how a season will go. Spending $10 million or more on a reliever either smacks of laziness or foolishness. Of the Rays’ 7 main relievers, 3 were cheap free agents (Rodney, Fransworth, Peralta), two were acquired by trade (Badenhop was unwanted in Miami; Howell was a failed starter in Kansas City — though he re-signed with the Rays as a free agent several years later); and only McGee and Davis actually came up through the Rays’ system (5th and 3rd round picks, respectively).

There is cheap, effective relief pitching out there. But you never know where help will come from — until you look for it.

NOTE: Jonathan Papelbon is a great reliever, and after his 37 FIP-minus season in 2011, he pretty much deserves every penny the Phillies spent on him.