Coming into the 2017 season, the Angels were projected to have one of the worst bullpens in baseball by many measures. Fangraphs depth charts had the Angels unit with the 26th projected best cumulative Wins Above Replacement(WAR) among MLB bullpens. After finishing with the 3rd lowest WAR(0.3), the 5th lowest K-BB%(10.7%) and the 10th worst ground ball rate(44.1%) in 2016, there didn’t appear to be any hopes for optimism with the 2017 unit. Billy Eppler and the Angels did very little in free agency to fix their unit, re-signing Andrew Bailey, signing Yusmeiro Petit and Bud Norris to minor league deals and acquiring Blake Parker(several times). Huston Street injured himself before he could complete 1 Spring Training inning and Andrew Bailey hurt himself a week into the 2017 season. So how is it that the Angels are rolling out a solid bullpen that could be even better moving forward?
The Angels under the radar acquisitions, or clean peanuts, as Angels Win members like to call them, have been wonderful. Blake Parker, owner of one of baseball’s nastiest splitters, has been a revelation so far, with an absurd 18:3 strikeout to walk ratio in 10 2/3 innings along with his 2.53 ERA. Bud Norris has struck out 15 batters in his 12 2/3 innings thanks to a nasty fastball/slider combo, throwing up a 2.84 ERA so far. Yusmeiro Petit has a 2.51 ERA and 14:3 strikeout to walk ratio in 14 1/3 innings, along with the 8th lowest exit velocity allowed among qualified MLB pitchers. Jose Alvarez has struck out 8 batters, walked 2 and generated a 52.4% ground ball rate along with a 2.08 ERA in 8 2/3 innings. Cam Bedrosian, who is out with an injury right now, struck out 9 batters, walked none and allowed 6 hits in his 6 2/3 innings before he went down with a leg injury. Even the recently acquired David Hernandez, who was acquired for a player to be named later(PTBNL) or cash, has 5 strikeouts and has allowed zero base runners in 2 2/3 innings. Deolis Guerra and Mike Morin are the only Angels relievers to have received extensive action and not pitch well, having allowed a combined 12 runs in 13 1/3 innings. If you can look past the lousy performances from the recently DFA’d Kirby Yates(5 hits, 2 home runs in 1 inning) and current Salt Lake Bee Brooks Pounders(6 hits and 4 runs in 2 2/3 innings), the overall performance from this Angels bullpen has been very good.
The group as a whole has some very encouraging numbers. The Angels unit has the 10th highest bullpen WAR(0.8) and has thrown the 3rd most innings(86.1). They rank 9th in strikeout% among all MLB bullpens at 25.7%. They’re owners of the lowest walk% at 6.5%. The Angels bullpen is excelling at the two things a pitcher can control the most: missing bats and throwing strikes. The bullpen is doing this despite boasting the 2nd lowest fastball velocity(92.2 mph) among all MLB units. The one area where the bullpen is struggling is keeping the ball out of the air, as they have the 5th highest HR/9 rate and the highest fly ball rate(43.3%). The quality of contact the Angels have allowed has been near the bottom of the league, which is the reason why the Angels collective ERA(4.17) isn’t a bit better. Still, the Angels are doing very well in 2 of the 3 most important categories for pitchers, a welcomed development for the 2017 Angels. If the Angels home run rate stabilizes a bit and ends up being near league average, their collective ERA might line up more with the 3.70 xFIP the group has put up, the 9th best mark among bullpens.
The interesting aspect about this bullpen is the manner in which the pitchers were acquired. The only members of the Angels bullpen who were acquired at a high cost was Cam Bedrosian, who was picked 29th overall in the 2010 MLB Draft, and Huston Street, who was acquired for a package of 4 prospects in the summer of 2014. Blake Parker was acquired on waivers this past offseason, as was Andrew Bailey late last year. Yusmeiro Petit will make 2.25 million dollars this year and Bud Norris will make 1.75 million dollars. Jose Alvarez was acquired for Andrew Romine, who has been a useful but near replacement level utility player with the Detroit Tigers. Mike Morin is a former 13th round pick. Deolis Guerra is a Rule 5 pick who had a useful 2016 season in Anaheim. J.C. Ramirez, who pitched well in relief last year, is currently showing signs as a useful starter in the Angels rotation right now. The way many of these players were acquired really lines up with Billy Eppler’s way of thinking in regards to building a bullpen. Eppler isn’t the only general manager to shy away from spending money on a bullpen but he has thrown almost no money into his bullpen since he became the Angels general manager, with Yusmeiro Petit’s 1 year 2.25 million dollar deal representing the biggest reliever contract handed out so far. Last year, the bullpen didn’t perform but the 3 top arms going into 2016 were from the previous Jerry Dipoto regime(Huston Street, Joe Smith, Fernando Salas), although Dipoto was responsible for acquiring Jose Alvarez. The point being: Billy Eppler has made it very clear that he thinks he can construct a bullpen by exploring the scrap heap, finding free agent bargains(Norris, Petit) and potential high upside arms through waiver claims(Parker, Ramirez).
There are three things working against the Angels in this approach to the bullpen: 1) It’s very early to make too much of the 2017 results. 2) Many of these players aren’t under club control for too long. 3) Bullpen building is volatile, especially when you aren’t willing to devote money into big relievers. While the early season results are promising, this approach to building a bullpen doesn’t always work. Billy Eppler probably knows this and he’s been very cautious with building this Angels roster since he came on board, so the potential to start acquiring relievers at a higher cost is probably in the cards at some point. For now, Eppler’s patience and knack for finding under the radar relievers is paying dividends through the first month of the 2017 season.
The Angels have turned a weakness into a strength so far in 2017 and that bodes well for a team with playoff aspirations. Right now, the bullpen has 4 arms who are providing reliable production(Parker, Norris, Petit, Alvarez). The best reliever on this team is hurt(Bedrosian). 2 other potential above average relievers are also hurt(Andrew Bailey and Huston Street). David Hernandez has flashed promise in a small sample. While it’s unwise to depend on every player reaching his best case outcome, there’s reason to believe this Angels bullpen can be a strength this year. If the current reliable arms can maintain their success when Cam Bedrosian returns, they’ll have 5 legitimate bullpen arms. If Huston Street, Andrew Bailey and David Hernandez just provide average to above average production, the Angels very quickly have a deep bullpen, one that has the ability to be a quality unit that can also pitch a lot of innings. If the Angels want to compete this season, they need the bullpen to keep up their current production for much of the season. If they can do that, the team might find themselves in a playoff battle in September.