Is the bullpen really that bad?

I swear, this post has been in my head for a while!

Sure, after yesterday’s extra innings win it’s probably  definitely easier to write about the Jays bullpen in this light, but I swear it’s not just because of Saturday’s five innings of shutout relief baseball.

The bullpen has been an easy place to pick on for this year’s Jays squad. It was a bad pen last year, there were no reinforcements brought in from outside the organization over the winter, and early in the season there have been some high profile blow ups.

But that’s the thing about relievers, 90 per cent of the time they have those blow ups they’re high profile. It’s the nature of the game. Give up a four spot in the eighth inning of a close game and it’s hard to hide from that.

And the Jays did plenty of that early on. In the first month of the season they were only one back of the league lead in meltdowns – shutdowns/meltdowns are a stat that essentially determines anytime a reliever increases or decreases his team’s chances of winning by six per cent – with 13.

Strangely, though, over that first month the relief corps was in the middle third of baseball for ERA, FIP and xFIP. The bullpen posted a strong K/9 rate and middling BB/9 rate. Home runs were a bit of a problem, but not a glaring issue, and they also had the fifth highest BABIP in baseball.

So by all metrics, the bullpen, in the first month of the season, wasn’t all that bad except for far too many big melt down innings.

Since then, just about every number has gone in the right directions. More strikeouts, fewer walks and home runs, and an ERA, FIP, and xFIP that are all at or nearly at a run better than in April.

As far as the meltdown stat, the Jays now have had 29 meltdowns, putting them a hair on the bad side of average. It’s still a bit of a problem, and critics might couple that with the ugly numbers in high leverage situations and conclude they need a #Proven closer.

Toronto’s bullpen has some of the worst numbers in high leverage situations – third lowest K%, second highest ERA (13.29!), sixth worse FIP,and the worst xFIP in baseball. Opposing batters are hitting to a .357 wOBA against Jays relievers in those situations, good for fourth highest in baseball.

However, consider two things. First, Jays relievers have pitched the fewest high leverage situations of any team in baseball. That’s in no doubt largely due to the fact the offence has been explosive, giving the bullpen big leads with which to work. It’s perhaps wise to expect this to just be a bad blip, and things will regress to the mean as the season wears on.

You don’t draw conclusions on any 40 at bats for a hitter, or any 40 innings from a starter, probably shouldn’t draw conclusions from 40 innings from a bullpen.

The second thing to consider is the names of the relievers given those high leverage appearances. Coming out of spring training the team rolled the dice with two young hurlers in the back end of the pen: Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro, collectively known as Castruno. The fact they hit 50-50 on that duo is awesome – Osuna has been nothing short of lights out. But the fact they hit 50-50 also means one flamed out. Castro struggled in his 12.1 innings of relief work, before being sent down to AAA.

Additionally, while the team was trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice – two lightning bolts in a bottle? Lightning in two bottles? Something like that – they were also without the team’s best reliever from 2014, Brett Cecil. Old Goggles missed some time in the spring with shoulder problems. It seemed to take a while upon his return to really round back into form. his velocity was down and his vaunted curve ball wasn’t what it was last year.

But since his early return, Cecil has improved each month, as evidenced by a wOBA against that went from .376 in April, to .267 in May and so far .237 in June. His strikeout and walk numbers are strong, and once his home run rates stabilize Cecil should return to the dominant reliever he’s been the past couple of years.

Now I’m not arguing the Jays should just ignore the bullpen. Another arm down there could be huge for a playoff run, and possibly a World Series run. They certainly don’t have an abundance of arms back there. Outside of Cecil and Osuna, you have Aaron Loup, whose been decent, and then Liam Hendriks and Steve Delabar. The latter two have had their moments but still aren’t the season-on-the-line kind of guys.

But the bullpen is ok and there’s always the possibility that Castro returns to provide some help (depending on the seriousness of his recent arm injury), or that Marcus Stroman makes a speedy recovery and can pitch in September. Or perhaps last year’s first round draft pick Jeff Hoffman races through the minors.

There’s also Matt Boyd, who was recently called up to AAA Buffalo after having sparkling numbers in New Hampshire. The jury seems split on Boyd, some think he’s sneaky good others say he’ll get exposed at the higher levels.It’s a possibility he’s a guy who could help out.

With potential holes in the outfield and a starting rotation that I’m still not sold on, the bullpen isn’t a “must solve” situation. If you can get someone to help without giving up much, great. But the bar’s not set terribly high. Get someone at the Loup level and I’m a happy camper.

Save your big bullets for another area.

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