Why Has Our Bullpen Consistently Been A Weakness?

For the last few years, the Red Sox’s bullpen has always been the achilles’ heel of this team. You would wonder, that over the course of the years, Theo Epstein would realize the value of the bullpen and start shoring it up. However, what if he realizes the value of the bullpen is low and the money is better spent elsewhere – on starting pitching, on offense? That’s the reason why I think Theo has generally ignored the bullpen – that while there are very good pitchers out there who can lock a game down in the bullpen, there are very few, and the few that do command so much money that it’s not feasible to pay them. I wonder if the signing of Keith Foulke was more because of managerial and clubhouse pressure. You certainly need pitchers of quality, but these pitchers of quality come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and to be sure, money.
Take for example John Halama. Prior to this season, we signed John Halama to a one-year deal for a (relative) pittance of one million. Over the prior three years, he had had a 2.64 ERA coming out of the bullpen. We signed him at a relative pittance to provide us excellent, sub-3.00 ERA innings out of relief. In theory, this is a great exercise. In reality, Halama had a 6.18 ERA before he was dumped. I have a feeling it is because every time he went to the bullpen in prior years, it was because he wasn’t quite good enough for a rotation spot and pitched to get a rotation spot, showing his great numbers. This year, he was a reliever, so he pitched not trying to fight for his job because he had one. It’s the same mentality why I believe there is clutch hitting in baseball – the human factor. The human factor cannot be disregarded, but it was still a good move for Theo.
To continue this example of John Halama, let’s say that he did in fact log a 2.64 ERA for us this year out of the bullpen. Here are the people that come closest to doing what John Halama did in this fictional season with at least 50 innings (he was at 43.2, and in this fictional season, would certainly have logged 75 plus):
Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels just so happens to have posted the exact same ERA, in 67.1 IP. Luis Ayala of the Nationals has a 2.66 ERA in 71 IP, Scott Eyre of the Giants pitched 68.1 IP with a 2.63 ERA. Joe Nathan of the Twins had a 2.70 ERA in 70 IP. Eddie Guardado had a 2.72 ERA in 56.1 IP for Seattle.
I’m going to throw a few more names out there, then I’ll make my point.
– Mariano Rivera (NYY) : 78.1 IP, 1.38 ERA
– Derrick Turnbow (MIL) : 67.1 IP, 1.72 ERA
– Billy Wagner (PHI) : 77.2 IP, 1.51 ERA
– Greg Aquino (ARI) : 31.1 IP, 7.76 ERA
– Keith Foulke (BOS) : 45.2 IP, 5.91 (I am only using this for statistical purposes. I am in no way making light of his injuries, or the fact that I think he can dominate again.)
– Paul Quantrill (NYY/SD) : 69.0 IP, 5.35 ERA.
– Braden Looper (NYM) : 59.1 IP, 3.94 ERA
Now, check out the table:



John Halama 1.00
Francisco Rodriguez 0.44
Luis Ayala .363
Scott Eyre 2.45
Joe Nathan 2.10*
Eddie Guardado 4.00
Mariano Rivera 10.50
Derrick Turnbow .322**
Billy Wagner 9.00
Greg Aquino 0.325
Keith Foulke 7.00
Paul Quantrill 3.0
Braden Looper 3.50

*Nathan just signed a 2 year, 10 million extension.
**Turnbow is making the league minimum.
Now, while it is true the most effective pitchers eventually make the most money, let’s look at a few things.
ONE: Derrick Turnbow was a minor league free agent meaning the Angels did not even think he was good enough to hold onto him on their 40-man roster. Any team could have had him, and he signed with the Brewers.
TWO: It is much more probable that the money (Quantrill, Foulke, Looper in a sense) will end up being more of a bust than a reward. It can’t even really be termed a reward because you’re paying them to pitch effectively!
THREE: Cheap pitchers who pitch well are awesome pickups. Disregarding F-Rod (under Angel control, in line for a big raise eventually) and Luis Ayala (he is still under the Nationals’ control, and is being paid the minimum plus a few extra bucks) and you have Scott Eyre (probably the least known of all these pitchers in the table save for Aquino) who is actually one of the most effective. You have Mariano Rivera making over ten million (yes, it is justified) but Derrick Turnbow also had an excellent season.
The money and the effectiveness are all over the map. Why invest money in something that might turn out to be more of a bust than a reward? If you pay someone good money (Foulke, Rivera, etc.) to pitch, then anything less than the expected (excellence) will be a bust. If you pay someone average money (Eyre, Looper) than if they pitch great, you’ve got a great pickup. If you pitch to your norms, you’re earning your money. (NOTE: Looper is actually paid an average amount of money but with the market and job [closer] he is in, he is a bust. Market and job position term Looper a bust, not particularily the money.) If you’re terrible, you’re not really considered a bust. If you pick up very cheap options (Turnbow, Halama) and they pan out, what a deal! If not, you shrug your shoulders and move on.
I’m not advocating the Turnbow and Halama route, because that’s playing with fire, but I am certainly advocating the Epstein route that simply did not turn out well this year. What did Epstein do? He INVESTED his money in a sure-fire closer, Keith Foulke. (Side note: Too many people are writing Keith Foulke off. He was hurt! We’re giving Schilling the same leeway, give Foulke the same leeway!) He then is trying to find deals to pan out the bullpen. He’s trying to find quality arms to pay them average money. Sometimes they work out (Mike Timlin, Alan Embree) and sometimes they dont (John Halama, Matt Mantei).
This is why it’s silly for us to consider signing BJ Ryan or Billy Wagner to contracts. Both, first off, are going to look to close. We already have a closer with money invested in him that quite frankly, I’d take over Ryan and when you consider Foulke has had a better five-year stretch than Rivera, I’d take him over Wagner. Theo is not going to pay good money to Ryan or Wagner to risk having them being busts. Sure, they could reward us with a lot, but we could use that money and take more risks on pitchers who could turn out to be just as good and then use the money saved elsewhere (first, second, starting pitching).
Right now, we have Keith Foulke in our bullpen. We also have Mike Timlin, who is very close to signing a contract. With five starting pitchers, we can assume at lease six relief pitchers in the bullpen, and possibly a seventh. It always alternates between six and seven. We’ll go with six for this exercise, but include a potential seventh.
Keith Foulke and Mike Timlin anchor the top two. It would be a shame if we did not bring Mike Myers back after the excellent season he had, so let’s bring him back, too as he won’t command much money. Why not Chad Bradford? Myers and Bradford did their job well, benefitted us, and here’s the key: did not cost too much.
Foulke, Timlin, Myers, Bradford. Assuming we do not trade a pitcher, we will have Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen (hard to yank a starting slot away from Arroyo when he led all Boston starters in quality starts). This means we now have five of six slots covered. Jeremi Gonzalez is going to have to fight for a slot, as will Chad Harville. You could give the job to Craig Hansen, but first off I am hesitant to do such (although if we go with seven pitchers then go right ahead) but you also have other people you can bring into spring training to compete for jobs. Paul Quantrill, Matt Mantei, Wade Miller, Jose Lima, Joe Mays, Brett Tomko, Ismael Valdez, Jeremi Gonzalez, etc. There are many pitchers out there who would sign a low-base contract to fight for a pen job. They’re all righties, though. The final slot should go to a final lefty. You could bring back Mike Stanton, you could sign John Halama again, you could try Alan Embree, or simply promote Lenny DiNardo.
For having one of the worst bullpens in major league baseball this year, our bullpen situation seems quite settled if we can sign everyone we want (very feasible considering the money they’ll demand is quite low). Foulke, Timlin, Myers, Bradford, Papelbon, Hansen and/or DiNardo. Only Foulke out of these all makes any significant money. DiNardo, Hansen, and Papelbon all will make the league minimum. Myers made 600 grand this year, and I would assume would want a modest raise. A million, perhaps? Timlin I would say would be around three million (made 2.5 in 2005). Bradford had 1.4 million to him this year, and I would guess signs around the same. That’s a low-salaried bullpen that is effective.
What if Myers leaves? Or Bradford? Then you simply bring in competition with promise. Any of the pitchers listed above could come cheaply and every one of them has had success at one point in their careers and any one of them could find it again. Sure, they could never find it, but for a last option out of the bullpen, it’s a good risk.
Basically, the point of this column was twofold. First off, it’s to show that the bullpen can be extremely fickle, and I think it’s best to err on the side of caution rather than throw money everywhere. You should really go after “average” pitchers and hope you strike gold. If you don’t you have just as good of a chance of them staying to career norms. That’s two thirds of a shot of you getting a return on your money, while only one-third if you pay out the nose for an excellent reliever. If you pay someone little to no money, you have 100% shot of getting full return on your money.
The other point is to show how stable the Boston bullpen is. We may have had our troubles, but at the end of the year, we ended up with a pretty decent bullpen and I think can be pretty good this past year. If we trade Bronson Arroyo or David Wells retires, then Papelbon goes into the rotation, and we go out looking for deals. If Mike Myers gets a two-year deal elsewhere and Bradford signs for more guaranteed innings elsewhere, we now have three holes. Not great, but I wouldn’t rush out and sign BJ Ryan to a four-year contract worth six million a year. No, I’d go find an average reliever out there and pay him. Brett Tomko, Mike DeJean, Chad Fox, Jason Grimsley, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Matt Herges, the list goes on. Heck, even Scott Eyre is a free agent.
We have consistently had an average to a below-average bullpen because of the pitchers, not the theory behind it. The previous two years were a pretty average bullpen, and we showed that we can win with an average bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Theo Epstein and Bill James and the rest of the front office knows that an average bullpen can win games on a World Series winner, hence money is not poured into it. Risks and injuries crippled the bullpen for 2005, but that doesn’t mean the theory is wrong. You just learn from your theories, stay away from John Halama, recognize when pitchers are close to breaking down (Alan Embree) and then you go and you do the same exact thing – you sign pitchers to low risk, high reward contracts and stack depth in the minor leagues.
The theory worked in 2004, it didn’t work in 2005. If you want to sink all your money into the bullpen and have an excellent bullpen in 2006, go right ahead. But that money will not be put into starting pitching or offense. Starting pitching and offense is where games are won. Bullpens are where games are held, but not won. An average bullpen can win a World Series.

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