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Are Relievers Really Melting Down More This Season?

There has been much ado this season about all of the bullpen machinations across the game. Partially fueled by injuries to mainstay closers like Mariano Rivera, Brian Wilson and Joakim Soria, but also from managers with itchy trigger fingers, it seems like we have all needed our own Darren to keep up with the many revolving doors. But in looking at the aggregate numbers two months into the season, this year doesn’t look a whole lot different than last year.

The comparisons aren’t perfect, mainly due to when this season and last started. Aside from the two-day Mariners-A’s Japanese extravaganza, this season started in earnest on April 4th and 5th, whereas last season kicked off on March 31st/April 1st. As such, teams had played 110 more games last year at this point (in reality, that is 55 games, but we’re looking at each team’s stats within each game). With that caveat, let’s take a look:

Year GS SD MD SV BS Indiv w 1+ SV Indiv w 1+ BS Indiv w 2+ SV Indiv w 2+ BS
2011 1636 1251 694 411 214 71 131 43 52
2012 1526 1145 656 392 189 81 123 49 44

The one number that jumps out is that 10 more players have saved at least one game, even though fewer total games have been played. Otherwise, it’s hard to make too much of anything out of these numbers due to the disparity in games played. So let’s remove that and take a look at the numbers broken down by games played:

Year SD MD SV BS Indiv w 1+ SV Indiv w 1+ BS Indiv w 2+ SV Indiv w 2+ BS
2011 0.76 0.42 0.25 0.13 0.04 0.08 0.03 0.03
2012 0.75 0.43 0.26 0.12 0.05 0.08 0.03 0.03

The differences here are pretty minute. There were more shutdowns and less meltdowns in the first two months of 2011, but not anywhere enough to make a difference. And from a more basic viewpoint, there were more blown saves last season. The picture doesn’t look any more disparate when looking at individuals. I’ve compared both pitchers who had any saves, as well as pitchers who had at least two or more, in order to strip out the occasional emergency, extra-innings or blow-out save. Either way, the per-game rates are the same.

What’s even more interesting is that on the team level, the two teams with the most meltdowns and most blown saves — the Mets and Rockies — haven’t changed closers all season. The same is true for two other teams — the Astros and Cardinals — who are in the top five in meltdowns. But while shutdowns and meltdowns are better than saves and blown saves that doesn’t mean they are being used by evaluators, particularly the pitching coaches and managers who are ultimately responsible for who does and does not compile saves.

So let’s look at saves then. In looking at teams with two or more saves, we find that most teams have stuck with one closer. While teams are averaging 1.6 players with two or more saves, much of that average is driven by just a few teams, as 16 teams have only one such player. Compared to last year, this up slightly, when the average was 1.47 players with two or more saves at this point in the season. Not a big difference. At this point last year, 18 teams had just one player who had racked up two or more saves. In each season, there were just three teams who had three or more players with two-plus saves.

In looking at this season, it seems like more has happened than last season, and the fact that Ryan Madson, Soria and Wilson went down before they could even save a game have helped fuel that perception. But stuff like that happens every year. Last season, Joe Nathan didn’t even last 15 games before he lost the closers job, and he didn’t get it back until the second half. Fernando Rodney lasted even less time in Anaheim before being replaced by Jordan Walden. Managers may be promoting and demoting people to and from the closers role more frequently, or perhaps we’re simply talking about this more. After all, @closernews didn’t exist three years ago, nor did our very own Bullpen Report. But at the end of the day, the difference between the players who are accruing saves this year and those who did last year are not all that dissimilar. The same holds true for shutdowns and meltdowns. When we take a step back, we see that through the first two months, this season has played out pretty much just like last season.