Looking at the Best Ways to Construct A Bullpen

With the struggles the Phillies’ bullpen has faced recently, and the potential for closer Jonathan Papelbon to be traded, I’ve seen various conversations on how best to construct a bullpen pop up. There isn’t really a consensus on the matter. Based on the unpredictable nature of relief pitchers who get only a small sample of innings in which to perform — 60 to 70 innings is one-third of a season for a starting pitcher — I have long advocated putting the ‘pen at the bottom of the list of priorities. That’s not to say that one cannot put together a great bullpen by throwing money at the problem, but anecdotally it seems to fail at a much higher rate than it succeeds.

We need some data on the matter, so I looked at the top-five bullpens in baseball by ERA (min. 20 IP per reliever) and compared it to the Phillies. (Note: only five Phillies relievers crossed the 20 IP threshold, so I lowered it to 15 IP for them.) Note that contract amounts list the 2013 salary, not the total salary or the average annual value.

* Denotes the closer

Braves ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Craig Kimbrel* 1.53 Draft Pre-Arb $ 655,000
Eric O’Flaherty 2.50 Waivers Arb-3 $ 4,320,000
Anthony Varvaro 3.08 Waivers Pre-Arb $ 490,000
Luis Avilan 1.78 Amateur FA Pre-Arb $ 491,250
Cory Gearrin 3.30 Draft Pre-Arb $ 491,250
Jordan Walden 2.59 Trade Pre-Arb $ 541,500
David Carpenter 2.16 Waivers Pre-Arb $ 490,000
2.74     $ 7,479,000

Lots of waiver claims by GM Frank Wren. To look at the way the Braves constructed their pen and say “just draft a Kimbrel” is obviously foolish. Looking at their quantity of waiver claims, there are plenty of relievers who simply don’t fit in on a team but would contribute with a change of scenery. Jason Grilli was in this position with the Phillies in 2011. As the team was destined for the post-season and the back end of the bullpen was sealed up with Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo, GM Ruben Amaro didn’t see a reason to push out someone on the other end for a reliever having success in a handful of innings at Triple-A after posting spotty results at the Major League level previously in his career. The Pirates happily took him and let him handle the eighth inning, eventually making him the closer to start the 2013 season.

Does this mean the Phillies should put a claim in on every reliever that hits the waiver wire? Of course not, but the Phillies have been very inactive in this regard. At worst, you pay a couple hundred thousand for organizational filler; at best, you find a diamond in the rough for the bullpen. That, my friends, is called low-risk, high-reward.

Twins ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Anthony Swarzak 2.77 Draft Pre-Arb $ 502,500
Ryan Pressly 2.12 Rule 5 Pre-Arb $ 490,000
Jared Burton 3.51 Free Agent 2 years $  2,050,000
Josh Roenicke 3.31 Waivers Pre-Arb $ 505,000
Casey Fien 3.82 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 500,000
Glen Perkins* 2.20 Draft 3 years $ 2,500,000
Brian Duensing 4.00 Draft Arb-1 $ 1,300,000
Caleb Thielbar 0.00 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 490,000
2.88     $ 8,337,500

The Twins filled up their bullpen mostly with drafted players and Minor League free agents. For a mid-market team, this is a very frugal way to put together a bullpen. This method relies heavily on your organization’s ability to evaluate talent. As the Twins are with the Phillies as one of the least-analytic, that is risky, but it has worked out and the Twins have their scouts to thank.

Royals ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Greg Holland* 1.93 Draft Pre-Arb $ 539,500
Tim Collins 2.57 Trade Pre-Arb $ 534,500
Bruce Chen 1.93 Free Agent 2 years $ 4,500,000
Kelvin Herrera 5.20 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 508,175
Luke Hochevar 2.67 Draft Arb-3 $ 4,560,000
Juan Gutierrez 3.04 Free Agent Arb-1 $ 750,000
Aaron Crow 4.29 Draft Pre-Arb $ 1,280,000
2.92     $ 12,672,175

The Chen salary really sticks out if you don’t know his story, but he has been with the Royals since 2009 and had been used almost exclusively as a starter. However, they moved the 36-year-old to the bullpen for the 2013 season and it has worked out for them. The Royals signed him to a two-year deal after the 2011 season with the intent on using him as a starter, so $4.5 million isn’t as bad as it looks. The same story applies to Hochevar. So, they didn’t really fill up their bullpen with free agents; they just added a couple of failed starters. And that’s okay.

Blue Jays ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Brett Cecil 1.59 Draft Pre-Arb $ 510,000
Aaron Loup 1.95 Draft Pre-Arb $ 494,200
Steve Delabar 1.73 Trade Pre-Arb $ 498,900
Esmil Rogers 4.23 Trade Pre-Arb $ 509,000
Casey Janssen* 2.10 Draft 2 years $ 3,900,000
Darren Oliver 2.86 Free Agent Option $ 3,000,000
Brad Lincoln 4.15 Trade Pre-Arb $ 490,000
2.95     $ 9,402,100

The Blue Jays have a dominating back of the bullpen, with three arms posting sub-2.00 ERA’s. Oliver is the only free agent; otherwise, three have come from the draft, and three have been acquired via trade. Like the Twins, the Jays — though more Sabermetrically-inclined — are putting a lot of eggs in their talent evaluation basket. As far as power arms go, they know what they’re looking at, it looks like.

Brewers ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Burke Badenhop 3.41 Trade Arb-3 $ 1,550,000
John Axford 4.22 Free Agent Arb-1 $ 5,000,000
Alfredo Figaro 3.07 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 490,000
Brandon Kintzler 4.03 Purchased Pre-Arb $ 491,000
Tom Gorzelanny 2.60 Free Agent 2 years $ 2,750,000
Mike Gonzalez 3.33 Free Agent 1 year $ 2,250,000
Jim Henderson* 2.03 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 492,000
3.00     $ 13,023,000

The Brewers finally demonstrate how to use free agency correctly. Another reliever, Francisco Rodriguez (“K-Rod”), didn’t meet the IP minimum but is another solid free agent pick-up by GM Doug Melvin. But notice how their most expensive free agent, Gorzelanny, still cost under $3 million.

Phillies ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Jonathan Papelbon* 2.12 Free Agent 4 years $ 13,000,000
Antonio Bastardo 2.73 Amateur FA Arb-1 $ 1,400,000
Jeremy Horst 6.23 Trade Pre-Arb $  497,000
Mike Adams 3.96 Free Agent 2 years $ 5,000,000
Raul Valdes 7.65 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 505,000
Chad Durbin 9.00 Free Agent 1 year $ 1,100,000
Michael Stutes 5.17 Draft Pre-Arb $ 490,000
4.66      $  21,992,000

The Phillies are spending nearly two times as much as the most expensive bullpen in the top-five. Papelbon by himself earns as much as the top-five’s most expensive bullpen (Brewers). If the Phillies hadn’t spent a combined $19.5 million on Papelbon, Adams, and Durbin and instead used internal options, bargain bin free agents, trade acquisitions, and/or waiver pick-ups, do you think we would have seen poorer quality?

In recent years, we have seen teams increasingly signing their coveted soon-to-be free agents to long-term contracts. This is particularly true with starting pitchers: Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw will soon join the club. We haven’t seen this with closers. This is mostly because teams traditionally don’t use young players in the closer’s role. In a way, it helps depress the value of their best arms. (Check out how good Ryan Madson was for the Phillies for the price.) What you see in the top-five bullpens, though, are four drafted closers and one Minor League free agent closer (Henderson).

Given how volatile bullpen arms can be from season to season, some teams no longer mind driving up their relievers’ price tags by giving them high-leverage innings prior to free agency. When they hit free agency, they will be content to let them walk away only to be criminally overpaid by a team with less guile, like the Phillies did when Papelbon left Boston.

There are a few different ways to put together a bullpen. We know that one of the least trustworthy and least efficient is the path the Phillies have chosen: by throwing long-term, big money contracts at veteran arms.

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37 comments

  1. Richard

    June 26, 2013 08:06 AM

    I’m not disputing the overall point – that spending a lot of money on the bullpen is not a good idea – but I don’t think this really makes the case. It’d be interesting to see a similar breakdown for other teams with lesser bullpens.

    That the Phillies spent a lot of money on the bullpen is not why it’s the worst in the baseball. The most expensive arm is the best, for example. The young, cheap guys haven’t worked out (that is, they haven’t performed well this season – and recall that virtually everyone thought the bullpen was going to be a strength this season, based on the arms held over from last season), and the three most expensive guys have the lowest ERAs. Durbin, money-wise, is analogous to a waiver pick up – spending $1M on a reliever is not the problem; thinking Chad Durbin is the guy to spend it on is the problem.

  2. Bill Baer

    June 26, 2013 08:22 AM

    Yeah, that could be a post by itself, going back and looking at the free agent arms the Phillies have picked up and how they’ve almost all been disasters:

    Danys Baez
    Jose Contreras
    Chad Qualls
    Brad Lidge (extension)
    J.C. Romero (at the end, but he faltered more due to misuse)

  3. Dristone

    June 26, 2013 08:24 AM

    @Richard Even our most expensive arm hasn’t worked out well though, and the fact that he is making what he is blows it even more out of proportion. Granted, it could be due to the misuse of our “closer” by Charlie, but that’s another argument. I think Papelbon would have less blown saves if Charlie used him more often in close games where it’s not a “save situation.”

  4. Richard

    June 26, 2013 08:32 AM

    Papelbon’s been very good, actually. Four blown saves is not a lot (though, yes, four in a week is, but everyone has slumps, and to be fair, he hasn’t exactly had the best defense behind him).

  5. Chris S.

    June 26, 2013 08:52 AM

    And one of those blown saves was an unearned run given up, even though he should have started the 9th inning against the Padres two nights ago.

  6. Chris S.

    June 26, 2013 08:54 AM

    Also speaking of Waivers since it looks like Mike Adams is done for the year with 3 tears in his right shoulder, the Phillies should make a waiver claim for Carlos Marmol. If he can find a way to repeat his delivery and throw strikes he could be one of the best closers/relief men in the game today and he is definitely worth taking a flier on.

  7. Richard

    June 26, 2013 09:03 AM

    well, it was an unearned run, Chris, but he “earned” it… he’d hit a batter, fallen behind 2-0, missed his spot by 18 inches on the ball Ruiz didn’t catch… sure, he probably should have caught it, but it was a terrible pitch

  8. JM

    June 26, 2013 10:33 AM

    @Dristone…Paps has been terrible in non-save situations since coming to Philly(I don’t know what he did in Boston). he had a bad week, but is still one of the few elite closers over a long period of time. Is he worth $13m…no. Is he worth more than anyone not named Mariano or Kimbrel? I think so…

  9. Kevin H

    June 26, 2013 11:10 AM

    A big thing is to look at the closer’s role in an analytic way. Pitching one inning to close out a game is not a high leverage situation and anyone who can pitch in the big leagues will have success in that role. It’s just straight up math. If a guy has a 4.00 ERA that means most innings he doesn’t give up a run. As Phillies fans we saw that play out in 2009 when Brad Lidge couldn’t get anybody out, had a 7.21 ERA, but still converted nearly 75% of his save opportunities. So there is very little opportunity for marginal improvement over an average, random arm and a normal distribution of uncertain outcomes. In 2011 there were no regularly used closers who converted less than 75% of their save opportunities, so Lidge’s 2011 is almost a floor for what you can expect from literally any pitcher if you keep him in that role no matter how poorly he does.

    Lidge- though expensive- proved that any pitcher, even one with a 7+ ERA (that’s less than a run and inning) can “succeed” in the closer role. A guy with a 3.6 ERA (half of Lidge’s) should be successful 85-90% of the time. Can you really significantly improve on that outside of random fluctuation?

  10. Cole Benz

    June 26, 2013 12:06 PM

    Bullpens always seem to be one of the last things teams concern themselves with, yet it always seems to be the one thing a championship contender needs. Its also pretty much a crapshoot in deciding what guy to put your money on when building a bullpen. The guy could light up the ninth inning in one season and could be a complete shell the next.

    I think maybe the best success is not necessarily how you acquire the players, but how they are used. Get guys into a certain role and hope health holds up. This gets them into a comfort zone and when you’re comfortable you have nothing else to worry about but getting the next guy out.

  11. Cole Benz

    June 26, 2013 12:09 PM

    I also believe that sabremetrics can help in this situation. Looking at track records can show patterns and tendencies.

  12. Phillie697

    June 26, 2013 01:14 PM

    @Richard,

    I think you still missed the larger point. If there is a way to construct an elite-caliber bullpen without spending gazillion dollars, why on earth would you pick the way RAJ chose to do it?

  13. Richard

    June 26, 2013 01:27 PM

    I didn’t miss the larger point at all, 697. I simply suggested the main problem is evaluation of talent, not the dollars spent.

    The Papelbon contract doesn’t really bother me. I know all the arguments against it, so don’t waste your keystrokes. But the fact is, the Phillies bullpen being so bad this year has nothing to do with Papelbon or his contract.

  14. Scott G

    June 26, 2013 02:01 PM

    Maybe the Phillies bullpen being bad has nothing to do with Papelbon, maybe it does. Maybe the team as a whole is bad because Papelbon is here.

    The money spent on Papelbon could have been spent on a quality (maybe not as quality as Papelbon) “closer” AND another arm better than Durbin. Maybe the money could have been spent on a closer and a real RF.

    Not that I’m advocating anyone in particular in this comment, but just because Papelbon has been good (per usual) doesn’t mean he’s not a reason why the bullpen and team as a whole are performing poorly.

  15. #PhilliesTalk

    June 26, 2013 04:20 PM

    The Phillies have one of the best bullpen prospects in the minors at triple-A. His name is Ethan Martin.

    Since I’m the only one among the fan base, media and Phillies organization who sees this there clearly is a problem with evaluating talent.

    Jim Callis in several tweets before and after Ethan Martin was acquired by the Phillies last year stated his belief that Martin would never amount to much as a starter due to his control problems and he would end up in the pen. I have never seen anyone in this prospect evaluation milieu who holds a contrary opinion on Martin.

    Yet the Phillies continue to send Martin out to the mound every week as a starter to repeat the same result over.

    When I saw Martin come out of the pen in spring training this past March it was obvious that he was an answer for the Phillies this year. At least for me it was obvious.

    Ryan Madson was a member of the Phillies bullpen when he was 23 years old. Martin is 24.

  16. Phillie697

    June 26, 2013 05:44 PM

    @PhilliesTalk,

    EXACTLY, and Ryan Madson never amounted to much as a starter ever again. See 2006.

    That’s the point. Why do you care so much that Ethan Martin is converted into a reliever right this moment, therefore squashing any chance of him perhaps becoming a usable starter? This season is lost. Gone. Finished. What the heck is the point of rushing the guy so that you don’t have to be upset about the bullpen, of all things, on a club with holes literally everywhere?

  17. pedro3131

    June 26, 2013 11:11 PM

    How different would our season have been if we would have gotten Uehara instead of Adams / Durbin? I agree with all the points of the article, but I can’t help but look at what he’s doing at Boston and go through the “that should have been me”

  18. Phillie697

    June 27, 2013 12:31 PM

    @pedro…

    Ahm… Boston has 5 regulars batting with a wOBA of .350 or above. Phillies have a grand total of 1 1/2, Dom and Frandsen in only 94 PAs. Our problems go way beyond just the bullpen.

  19. Larry

    June 27, 2013 08:46 PM

    @ Phillie697
    “Our problems go way beyond just the bullpen.”

    How different would our season be without Cole Hamels? They posted it yesterday 35-27. Wow, we would be fighting for 1st place. Yet you want to build around Cole. Please explain why? Now keep in mind take away Cole hamels and you had all that money to spend on upgrades to the bullpen and outfield.

  20. Phillie697

    June 28, 2013 10:28 AM

    So… Many… Holes…

    1. We are 38-42, i.e. 80 games played. How can we be 35-27 without Cole? What, if he wasn’t our pitcher, we wouldn’t have to play those games he pitched? Or do you mean to tell me that if we just replaced Hamels with any of the other scrubs we have, we’d magically win all of those games and hence be a playoff contender? Hell, if you can guarantee that, yes please, let’s waive Cole Hamels. I’ll gladly throw $144M into the garbage if it means 30 guaranteed wins a year.

    2. You assume all of Cole’s losses were his fault. His run-support is 3.18. Not the worst in the league, but it’s pretty bad. You know who else has had crappy run-support? Stephen Strasburg. Using your logic, the Nats would BE in 1st place without Strasburg. He’s a scrub with a 4-6 record. The Nats should totally get rid of him.

    3. That is not to say Cole has pitched like himself 3 months into 2013. He hasn’t. But if every team gets rid of every player who has a 3-month streak of bad performance, there would be no players left in MLB. Surely Dom Brown would be working in Siberia if that was the criteria.

  21. Phillie697

    June 28, 2013 10:33 AM

    Oh yeah, I would like to point out the same Larry who thinks we are paying Cole Hamels too much is also the guy who thinks that the money we’re paying Ryan Howard is totally worth it, because, you know, Ryan Howard is a hero for this team. Yes, Cole Hamels’ 2008 World Series MVP for being instrumental in winning the only World Series win for the Phillies that I may see in my lifetime is totally not not hero-worthy.

  22. Larry

    June 28, 2013 12:55 PM

    @Phillie 697

    A. Ryan Howard has been hurt, had a major injury, if you want to ridicule his numbers last year in limited games then you have to ridicule Chase’s numbers last 3-4 seasons because he was injured, but nobody does that.It’s all hate for Howard.

    B. in 17 starts for Cole, Phillies are 3-14, record is 2-11, 4 starts against the Marlins without Stanton. Look who lee pitched to this year, imagine if Cole had to face a tough schedule like that. Where would his ERA be? Strassburg 4-6 is not 2-11. Every loss hasn’t been his fault, but almost every pitcher in baseball can say the same thing. Cole got lucky the other night, could have been a loss, but crazy errors made us win that game. It goes both ways. He has given up 4th most earned runs in the NL and most doubles in all of baseball!

    C.Every sp pitched well in the 08 ws, even Blanton, but Cole was the only guy to get 2 starts. Lidge saved every game, was perfect and Werth batted 444 in that ws,(played every game) could have easily been an MVP for either of them.

    D. All I’m saying is let’s be fair. If you want Howard gone with his huge contract, then why keep Cole with his contract? You can’t have it both ways. Cole is completely healthy, pitching velocity is at it’s best. As bad as our bullpen is this year, they have pitched better than Cole Hamels. Think about that.

  23. Larry

    June 28, 2013 01:01 PM

    BTW, why keep Cole and get rid of Lee if you think we can compete in 2 years? Lee is obviously a better pitcher. compare their Phillies careers and remember if you look at Lee’s AL stats, make sure you look at Cole’s stats against the AL, because they are bad, well over 4 era.

  24. Scott G

    June 28, 2013 03:52 PM

    But Chase has never had an OPS+ under 110 since he’s been a regular. Why would people ridicule him?

  25. Larry

    June 28, 2013 04:44 PM

    Interesting to see that you pulled out one stat, but also interesting to know that:
    Chase career OPS+ is 126

    Howard career OPS+ is 134

    Chase Utley
    2010- 16 hrs 65 RBIS
    2011- 11 hrs 44 RBIS
    2012- 11 hrs 45 RBIS
    2013- 9 hrs 28 RBIS 1st Half of season

    Clearly Utley hasn’t lived up to his big contract, but people will give him a pass, because he was injured. So why doesn’t Ryan Howard get a pass for 2012 and 1st half of 2013 because he is injured??? That’s my point.

  26. joecatz

    June 29, 2013 01:59 PM

    One thing I’d like to point out here:

    heres the Payroll for each of these teams:

    Atlanta: 90,039,000/8.3%
    Twins: 82,000,000/10.16%
    Royals: 81,000,000/14.8%
    Blue jays: 119,000,000/7.9%
    brewers: 88,000,000/14.7%
    Phillies: 159,000,000/13.8%

    Other than the Braves and the Blue Jays, The Phillies actually are budgeting, in proportion to their payroll, roughly the same amount as all of these teams, as well as what most teams budget (10-15%) towards bullpens, and the Blue Jays had an 83mm payroll last year that was severely increased due to the trades they made in the offseason.

    People constantly point to the total cost of the bullpen, but thats not out of whack in relation to the budget. Its just being spent on bad choices.

    The problem as Richard says above has NOTHING to do with how much they’ve spent on the bullpen, and EVERYTHING to do with who they spent it on and why.

  27. Larry

    June 29, 2013 08:13 PM

    @Joe Katz,
    Our Closer alone makes almost 9% on the payroll, so the other 5 % is split by rest of the bullpen. I bet the other teams you mentioned does’t have 1 guy making near as much as Paps does.

  28. Joecatz

    June 30, 2013 02:37 PM

    Of course they don’t Larry. That’s not the point. The point is that our bullpen payroll is not grossly overpaid in relation to the percentage of the budget in relation to other teams.

    One would expect a top payroll te to have a higher paid closer.

  29. Scott G

    July 01, 2013 05:32 AM

    Larry,

    Utley is giving above average offense for 2nd basemen, and excellent defense. Howard is a terrible fielder at a much easier position. Oh yea, and Utley isn’t making 25 million a year

  30. hk

    July 01, 2013 06:39 AM

    Joecatz,

    What I think that Larry means about the other teams not having one guy making as much as Papelbon is that the other teams’ closers do not make as much as a percentage of total payroll as Papelbon does. After Papelbon, who gets ~9% of the Phils’ payroll, the next highest reliever in terms of salary as a percentage of team payroll (of the teams shown in Bill’s piece) is Luke Hochevar at 5.6%.

  31. Phillie697

    July 01, 2013 09:45 AM

    @joecatz,

    7.9% is almost half of 13.8%. I love how you just sort of “clump” them together into the “what mos teams budget (10-15%) towards bullpens.” And no, I don’t agree with your conclusion either. Astros’ payroll is about $21M, so even at $500k apiece to put 11 replacement players into the bullpen, they’re spending more than 1/4 of their payroll on the bullpen. Your analysis is way too simplistic.

  32. Phillie697

    July 01, 2013 09:47 AM

    @Larry,

    I have been on record numerous times trashing the contract that RAJ gave to Hamels, and I LOVE Hamels. We could have had him for cheaper, possibly much cheaper.

    However, I don’t think that’s your gripe with Hamels. He could be making $5M per and I think you’d still hate him. So no, I don’t think you would be “fair” yourself.

  33. joecatz

    July 01, 2013 10:20 AM

    Joecatz,

    “What I think that Larry means about the other teams not having one guy making as much as Papelbon is that the other teams’ closers do not make as much as a percentage of total payroll as Papelbon does. After Papelbon, who gets ~9% of the Phils’ payroll, the next highest reliever in terms of salary as a percentage of team payroll (of the teams shown in Bill’s piece) is Luke Hochevar at 5.6%.”

    yeah but thats a different arguement. Thats saying that NO CLOSER should be paid what Papelbon is being paid (and I agree with that, BTW)

    but thats not the point. the point is that you CAN afford to pay a closer 13mm a year provided that you support him with low cost options who are actually good.

    the Phillies mistake with papelbon wasn’t signing him ta a 13mm a year deal. it was handcuffing themselves to a five year term, and not looking at the rest of the bullpen as a complementary to the whole. you have to have a solid 7th and 8th inning option if you are payig for a guy like Paps.

  34. Larry

    July 01, 2013 04:14 PM

    @HK,
    Yes sir

    @ Joecatz,
    Yeah the bullpen has big problems right now. They put all their eggs in 1 basket. I would like to see 4 quality relievers on this team.

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