Tradition isn’t just the Angels’ new motto, it is also a concept that drives a lot of Mike Scioscia’s strategic decisions with the roster. But sometimes there are very good reasons to break from traditional concepts and practices and when it comes to managing the Angel bullpen, the time is right for a change.
Fuentes the closer? Maybe not so much anymore.
The last few decades have seen an amazing boom in specialization in the bullpen, in particular the idea of having a closer. The whole closer thing is a nice idea in some cases, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t really make much practical sense a lot of times, especially when your “closer” is only marginally better than the other relievers in the bullpen, which is what I believe to be the case with Brian Fuentes and the Angels (that is my polite way of saying that I think Brian Fuentes is a chump).
The Angels have been tooting their own horn this off-season about how deep their bullpen now is with the signing of Fernando Rodney and recovery (we hope) of Scot Shields and they are right to do so. Now the Halos are armed with five good but not great bullpen arms when you include Fuentes, Jepsen and Bulger. The thing about this pentaverate of solid relievers is that each of them is probably good enough to serve as a closer but all five them have fatal flaws that prevent them from being elite enough for the job. So I say instead of arbitrarily anointing one member of the group as the closer and finding defined roles for the rest, I say Mike Scioscia should go against the grain and go with a bullpen by committee.
Now, don’t be confused by what I mean when I say bullpen by committee, I don’t mean just a closer by committee where Fuentes and Rodney combine to handle the eighth and ninth innings depending on the handedness of the opposing line-up, I mean a full blown bullpen committee where each of the five relievers is more or less an interchangeable part. Instead of assigning specific innings to specific pitchers, the Angels could maximize the effectiveness of their relief corps by calling upon whichever reliever is deemed the best man for the given situation no matter what inning it is. To see how this could work, let’s break it down by player:
Brian Fuentes – One thing the Angels best consider before they give Fuentes the official closer title is that he is the only lefty in the bullpen. They should also strongly consider the fact that Tito is pretty good against lefties and not as effective against righties (especially last year). While he pretty much allows the same batting average against both types of hitters, righties have a career slugging percentage over 50 points higher against Fuentes and he walks righties at at rate of 4.15 per nine innings as opposed 2.89 against lefties, not to mention that Tito strikes out lefties at a higher rate as well. To me, this means that Fuentes shouldn’t be saved for the ninth inning when there is a good chance he will face nothing but righties. Instead, Scioscia should deploy Fuentes when the best left-handed hitters are due up for the other team. Since Fuentes can at least hold his own against righties, he can stay in and face them as well, thus avoiding him becoming the highest paid LOOGY in the league. It just doesn’t make sense to me to have right-handers like Shields and Rodney facing tough lefties and then bringing Fuentes in in the ninth to face the right-hand heavy bottom of the order, which is definitely a scenario that would regularly occur under the traditional model of bullpen usage.
Scot Shields – Assuming that Scot Shields is back to his old form, he might just be the linchpin of this plan since he is the quintessential all-purpose reliever. Shields’ platoon splits are virtually identical, he can strike guys out and he tends to induce more grounders (though not overly so). Nor does the situation seem to affect Scot much, his OPS in high leverage situations is .648 whereas his OPS in low leverage situations is .641. Finally, Shields is also the best righty-reliever on the team when it comes to preventing inherited runners from scoring, so he can be called in at any moment.
Fernando Rodney – Rodney is a lot like Scot Shields in that he can get the strike out and induce groundballs. The two differences he has from Scot are that he is a little more vulnerable when facing lefties (but not enough to be concerned) and that he allows a lot more walks. Those walks are ultimately Rodney’s achilles heel. Because he issues so many free passes, Fernando is a hard guy to trust with runners on base since he won’t necessarily make the hitters earn their RBI and potentially turn a small threat into a big mess. To me, that makes Rodney best-suited to pitch only in situations where he can start the inning clean, rather than with inherited runners. Ironically, that would probably result in him getting more closing opportunities than the other guys, but that is more of a side effect than an intended result.
Kevin Jepsen – Is it possible for the Angels to have a ROOGY? If so, Jepsen is the man. We are definitely dealing with a small sample size when it comes to Jepsen, but as of right now he profiles as a guy who gets pounded by lefties but is death on righties. Jepsen doesn’t just get righties out either, he has a great strikeout rate against righties and allowed just four extra-base hits (and no homers) to right-hand batters in 33 innings worth of righties faces. So, no matter what the inning or however many men are on base, if the Angels really need to get a right-handed batter out, Jepsen should get the call from the pen.
Jason Bulger – Small sample size rears its ugly head once again, but Jason Bulger’s Angel career has been marred by one fatal flaw: home runs (though his minor league stats suggest this might be an anomaly). Other than his propensity for allowing dingers, Bulger is a very good all-purpose reliever. He is a guy who could be used in most situations against most batters if not for their constant worry that he will allow a longball. That doesn’t mean Bulger can’t be useful though, he just needs to be deployed carefully so that he doesn’t end up facing big boppers in crucial situations. That probably mostly means that Bulger would either be used to start innings or to face one or two less powerful batters in high leverage situations where there is a need for a strikeout.
Mike Scioscia has some interesting choices out of the bullpen now.
In a way, each of these guys now has their own role under my plan, but these roles are actually based on logic and insight rather than the number of the inning. Fuentes goes from closer to a glorified high-leverage LOOGY, Shields is the jack of all trades, Rodney the inning starter, Jepsen the ROOGY and Bulger the hybrid. The only real risk in the strategy is that there is some unpredictability to how each pitcher would react to their role, but Fuentes would really be the only one making a big change from his current role, though he has been a non-closer before, so it shouldn’t be a huge mental hurdle.
But alas, this is one of those ideas that probably makes so much sense that it won’t happen. But the first time you see an Angel game this season where you see Kevin Jepsen facing the best left-handed hitter on the other team during the seventh inning followed by Brian Fuentes closing the game out against three straight week right-handed hitters, you’ll at least know that there is a better way.