July 29, 2003

From Rags to Riches: The story of Theo and his bullpen

A major league bullpen is a very complicated thing these days.

There is this fascination with having one reliever in a role which only allows him to pitch the final inning of games that his team is leading by 3 runs or less. Regardless of what you think about the importance of having a "closer," doesn't it seem sort of dumb to place a label on one of your best relievers so that he is only used in certain, predetermined situations?

Wouldn't you want the freedom to use any reliever, let alone your best reliever, in whichever situations arise during a game that you feel they would be the most valuable in? And what's more valuable, getting the final 3 outs in a 4-1 game or coming into a tie game in the 8th inning or a game your team is leading 2-1 in the 7th to pitch out of a bases loaded jam? It's obviously a rhetorical question, but I hope we are all in agreement on the answer.

Well, before this season, new Boston GM Theo Epstein and his "stat-head" front office (which includes the stat-head, Bill James) decided that they thought such labels and restrictions were dumb and they chose to ignore them. They let Ugueth Urbina, their high-priced "closer" from last season, leave, and they didn't replace him with another "established closer" with a bloated salary. Instead, they built a bullpen without a closer at all and simply put together the best group of relief pitchers they could.

Unfortunately for them, the group they put together just wasn't all that good. The Red Sox bullpen struggled from the very start this season, blowing late-inning leads in each of their first 2 games. The media - both Boston and national - jumped all over them for what was almost universally described as their "closer-by-committee" setup. Of course, what the Red Sox were doing had absolutely nothing to do with closer-by-committee or anything having to do with a closer at all, and that was the entire point. Not surprisingly, the majority of the mainstream media didn't bother actually checking into any of this.

Whether you want to call the Red Sox bullpen "closer-by-committee" or "closer-less" or even just a "bullpen" (which is what I prefer), the fact is that it has been very poor for the majority of this season. While the bullpen and their lack of a "closer" hasn't exactly cost them their chance at the post-season, like so many ESPN personalities and newspaper reporters opined early this season, the bullpen has been a weakness for the team and has no doubt cost them games.

But, while shuttling guys in and out of the bullpen and watching them struggle during the early part of the year will cost a team a few wins, ultimately, the most important thing for a championship-level team like the Red Sox is to end up with the right pieces in place by the end of the year. The Red Sox are are 63-42 right now, which puts them 1 game back in the AL East and and in the lead for the Wild Card.

In other words, if the season ended today, they'd be playing in the playoffs, so the most important thing for Boston - and any other team in a strong position to make the post-season - is to make the final changes to the roster and to head into August and September with the group they want to go to battle with down the stretch and into October.

By making a few trades and by sorting through the options they already had to determine which ones worked the best, the Red Sox have completely made over their bullpen in just a few months. They have turned what was once a major weakness into what now appears to be a major strength.

Here are the relievers who pitched for Boston in April, sorted by the amount of innings they pitched:

Mike Timlin

Ramiro Mendoza

Brandon Lyon

Steve Woodard

Chad Fox

Jason Shiell

Alan Embree

Bob Howry

Kevin Tolar

Howry was a complete bust, posting a 12.46 ERA in 4.1 innings before being sent to the minors, where he has stayed all season. Chad Fox, who the Red Sox hoped was fully recovered from the injury that kept him out for all but 3 games in 2002, has not been completely healthy or effective this whole year and currently has a 4.41 ERA in just 16.1 innings.

Brandon Lyon has pitched well and was a very nice "scrap heap" find for Boston. He appeared in 42 games and pitched a total of 52.2 innings with a 3.93 ERA, and even went 9/11 (82%) in save opportunities (Urbina had a save percentage of 84% last year). Then, last week, the Red Sox traded Lyon to the Pirates in exchange for veteran left-handed reliever Scott Sauerbeck. Turns out Lyon is now injured and may be done for the year, which the Pirates are understandably a little upset about. I don't know enough about the situation yet to really comment, so I'll just stick to the on-field stuff and say that Boston added a nice left-handed arm to the bullpen.

Ramiro Mendoza was a complete mess early in the season and hasn't been much better of late. After 6 straight seasons with the rival Yankees, where his ERA didn't rise above 4.29, Mendoza joined the Red Sox and had a 9.39 ERA in April and followed it up with ERAs of 5.65, 4.70 and 5.40 in May, June and so far in July. For the year, he has a 6.33 ERA in 58.1 innings and opponents are hitting .352 off him.

Out of the group of 9 relievers that the Red Sox used in April, I would say just 2 of them (excluding Lyon) are "keepers" at this point. Mendoza and Fox may be used down the stretch and into the post-season, but I don't think they'll be trusted in many important situations. No, the two guys who lived through the early bullpen wreckage and walked out alive are Mike Timlin and Alan Embree.

Timlin has pitched in 45 games, totaling 58 innings with a 3.41 ERA. He's got an amazing 47/5 strikeout/walk ratio and opponents are batting .253 with a .276 on-base percentage off him. Meanwhile, Embree has appeared in 41 games, pitching a total of 40 innings with a 3.83 ERA. His strikeouts are down from his past levels, but he's limited batters to a .222 batting average. I would guess that Timlin and Embree have earned the right to be trusted in important spots the rest of the way.

So, they've got Timlin and Embree, along with Sauerbeck, as far as relievers-who-can-be-trusted go. That's 3 relievers, so now all they needed to do was find themselves a couple more guys and they had a real, championship-level bullpen.

The Red Sox traded third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona for closer-turned-starter Byung-Hyun Kim. At first, Boston used Kim in the rotation, but the need in the bullpen was too strong and he was eventually moved there. He has now established himself as the team's best reliever and is 2-2 with a 3.86 ERA and a 23/4 K/BB ratio in 18.2 innings out the Boston bullpen.

And now, late last night, the Red Sox traded Phil Dumatrait, a solid pitching prospect in Single-A, and a PTBNL to the Cincinnati Reds for right-handed reliever Scott Williamson.

After 105 games and countless changes, the core of their bullpen now looks like this:

Byung Hyun-Kim

Scott Williamson

Scott Sauerbeck

Mike Timlin

Alan Embree

That looks a whole lot better without the "Woodards" and "Howrys" and "Tolars" mucking it up, and without Mendoza and Fox in key roles. In fact, I would say the current Boston bullpen has to be considered one of the best in baseball.

Of course, if Boston does get to the post-season, their regular season reliance on 5 or 6 relievers will no longer be an issue. In my opinion, a team can get by pretty well with 3 dependable relief pitchers in the playoffs, and having 4 is just a bonus. The Red Sox may have 5 and, at the very least, they have 2 guys that can definitely get the job done.

Here is what Williamson and Kim have done as relievers over the past 2 years:

                     ERA      IP      SO     BB      H     HR

Byung-Hyun Kim 2.37 103 115 30 82 6
Scott Williamson 3.04 115 136 61 80 11

Those two are now, without a doubt, one of the top 1-2 punches in any bullpen. Over the last 2 years as a reliever, Kim has struck out 10 batters per 9 innings and has a K/BB ratio of 103/30, with a sparkling 2.37 ERA. Williamson's strikeout rate is even better (10.6/9 IP), but his control is quite a bit worse. However, batters have hit just .181 and .218 off him during the last 2 years.

In addition to being great relievers, Kim and Williamson are especially valuable because they are very capable of pitching multiple innings at a time. Kim has started 12 games this year and Williamson was a starter in the minor leagues and, as recently as 2000, started 10 games for the Reds.

For most teams that abide by the closer label, a pitcher's ability to go multiple innings means he can come into a 3-1 game in the 8th inning instead of the 9th inning. For a team like the Red Sox, who don't care about who gets a "save," that means the pitcher can come into a tie game and pitch 2-3 innings or he can come into a game they have the lead and pitch a couple innings or - *gasp* - he can come into a game they are trailing by a run and try to shut the other team down for 2-3 innings while the offense tries to come back.

The Red Sox have transformed their bullpen from bad to good and it's not only good, it's flexible. And it's all because Theo Esptein, Bill James and the rest of the Red Sox front office got together and decided it was dumb to let a meaningless statistic control the way they ran their bullpen. It may have hurt them early in the year when they didn't have the arms to make the plan work, but they've got everything sorted out and they've definitely got the arms now. Come playoff time, you can bet they'll feel a whole lot better with Byung-Hyun Kim and Scott Williamson available to go whenever and wherever they are needed than they would have with some guy with 40 saves waiting to show up in the ninth inning to collect his stat.

The Red Sox are for real this year. Their offense is the best in baseball, they've still got Pedro on their side, their bullpen is looking good, and they've got smart people in the front office who are willing to do things that the media may not understand, because it won't matter what Peter Gammons and Harold Reynolds called their bullpen back in April when they're playing in October.

Link of the Day:

Bryball - "Where Opinion Rounds the Bases"

Today's picks:

San Francisco (Schmidt) -110 over Chicago (Wood)

Philadelphia (Myers) +120 over Los Angeles (Brown)

Colorado (Chacon) -115 over Cincinnati (Graves)

Baltimore (Ponson) -100 over Minnesota (Radke)

Total to date: + 920

W/L record: 186-187 (4-1 yesterday for +325.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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