BCB Tryouts: The Fickle Nature Of Relief Pitching

Christian Petersen

Check out this post from a prospective new BCB author.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Nehm is one of several recent applicants to write for BCB, and one of a handful we'll be allowing to "try out" in the coming weeks. His debut post is below; check it out and let us know what you think.

Also, the Frosty Mug is off this morning while I tend to another commitment. It will return on Monday. - KL

This past season, many Brewers fans believed that their team underperformed. They thought that the Brewers could have been a much better team and could have easily made the playoffs if the members of their bullpen simply would have done their jobs. Because of the bullpen woes of the past season, fans pegged fixing the bullpen as Doug Melvin's most important offseason priority.

This seems like a relatively straightforward request. The relievers that were on the team weren't getting the job done. Get rid of them. Get new ones that will perform better. Done.

In the past two weeks, Doug Melvin has gone out and signed two very capable left-handed relief pitchers (Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez) to help the Brewers bullpen. Gorzelanny and Gonzalez both put together successful seasons as members of the Washington Nationals last season and should contribute to a rebuilt Brewers bullpen.

I say should contribute because it's not that easy when it comes to relief pitching and that's what is so fascinating to me. From year to year, the variance in relief pitching performances is incredible to me. I know there are a plenty of reasons why these changes occur, but for the most part analyzing why these changes occur is still much easier than predicting which season these changes will occur.

In an attempt to find some answers, I decided to take a look at the composition of the Brewers' bullpen each of the last three seasons.

2010

Three years ago, the Brewer bullpen looked very different than the bullpen that we will see in 2013. At the start of the season, the Brewers' closer position was held by future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. As the season went on, Hoffman ceded his position to new face John Axford. The Brewers had six relief pitchers record 45 or more relief appearances: Todd Coffey (69), Kameron Loe (53), John Axford (50), Trevor Hoffman (50), Carlos Villaneuava (50), and Zach Braddock (46).

The Brewers' bullpen posted a 4.48 ERA in 518 IP in 2010. Brewers' relief pitching gave up an average of 4.96 runs per game, which was the 4th worst average in the league. (League average for relief pitching R/G was 4.38.)

2011

Two years ago, the Brewer bullpen put together a dominant season and became one of the best bullpens in all of baseball with the acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez during the All-Star Break. John Axford was arguably the best closer in all of baseball converting 46 saves in 48 save opportunities. The Brewers had only three relief pitchers record 50 or more relief appearances: John Axford (74), Kameron Loe (72), and LaTroy Hawkins (52). There were also six pitchers to make between 20 and 40 appearances: Marco Estrada (36), Francisco Rodriguez (31), Taskashi Saito (30), Zach Braddock (25), Tim Dillard (24), and Sergio Mitre (22).

The Brewer bullpen posted a 3.32 ERA in 449.2 IP in 2011. Brewer relief pitching gave up an average of 3.94 runs per game, which was 8th best in the league. (League average for relief pitching R/G was 4.28.)

2012

Before a much improved September, the Brewer bullpen was on track to become one of the 10 worst bullpens in the history of baseball. Luckily, they were able to avoid making history and had to settle for having a bullpen comparable to only the Astros, Mets, and Cubs (according to WPA from Fangraphs).

This past year, the Brewers featured four relievers making 70 or more relief appearances: Francisco Rodriguez (78), John Axford (75), Jose Veras (72), and Kameron Loe (70). Manny Parra didn't appear in quite enough games to join the above group with 62 appearances, but had 26 more appearances than the next closest reliever, Jim Henderson (36). The Brewers also had two other players appear in more than 25 games: Tim Dillard (34) and Livan Hernandez (26).

The Brewer bullpen posted a 4.66 ERA in 512.1 IP in 2012. Brewer relief pitching gave up an average of 4.52 runs per game, which was 21st in MLB. (League average for relief pitching R/G was 4.32.)

A couple things strike me when looking at these numbers:

  1. The Brewer leader in relief appearances was different in all three seasons.
  2. The Brewers had 15 different pitchers make "significant" contributions to their bullpen in the last three seasons.
  3. Of those 15 pitchers, only three will be on the roster next season. Two of which will contribute to the bullpen. (Marco Estrada will be in the starting rotation.)
  4. If given the chance, it seems Ron Roenicke will lean on 3-4 relievers for close to 70 appearances during the upcoming season.
  5. Kameron Loe and John Axford were in the top three in appearances in each of the last three seasons.

Let's take a closer look at these two over the last three years because Kameron Loe and John Axford personify the fickle nature of relief pitching and the greater overarching theme of this post.

Coming into spring training in 2010, very little was expected of Kameron Loe and John Axford. After four years with the Rangers, Loe signed a two-year contract to pitch in Japan. After a lackluster year in Japan, the Brewers signed him to a minor league deal. When he was signed, most saw it as Doug Melvin simply filling his minor league squads up with major league arms. Very little was expected of him, yet he was called up early on in the season and made 50 appearances for the Brewers in 2010. In those appearances, Loe found modest success posting a 2.78 ERA in 58.1 IP.

Though not quite as unheralded as Kameron Loe, John Axford had yet to truly emerge as a lights-out closer at the start of spring training in 2010. Axford had put together a nice season at Brevard County (high A), Huntsville (AA), and Nashville (AAA) compiling a 2.77 ERA throughout the season, but the verdict was still out on him as he had struggled the year before at Brevard County posting a 4.55 ERA. Even if he proved to be as successful in the majors, few favored the idea of him making him the closer considering his advanced age (28) to start the season and his checkered past. As we all know, after Trevor Hoffman started to falter as closer, Axford took over and posted 24 saves in 27 opportunities as well as a 2.48 ERA in 58 IP.

After their breakouts in 2010, Loe and Axford became two of the Brewers' most dependable relievers in 2011. In 2011, Loe posted a 3.50 ERA in 72 appearances and was a stable cog in the Brewer bullpen that Roenicke relied on throughout the season. As I had already mentioned, Axford became one of the best closers in all of baseball and an anchor in the 9th inning that helped the Brewers win some close games down the stretch of the season.

With breakout seasons in 2010 and solid 2011 seasons, Loe and Axford were two guys that the Brewers could count on to perform well in the bullpen in 2012. Loe was brought back to be Ron Roenicke's "7th inning guy", while the Brewers discussed a huge contract extension with Axford. It was rumored that the Brewers were considering a four year deal worth as much as up to 50 million. Ultimately, the Brewers decided against extending him, which ended up being a better decision than Doug Melvin could have ever imagined. Both Loe and Axford struggled mightily this season and Brewers fans came to dread each reliever's arrival in the game. (For a more in-depth analysis of the seasons for each player, check out Kyle's MVBrewer posts on Axford and Loe.)

At this point, you're probably wondering why I've recapped the last three seasons of Brewers relief pitching and the careers of Kameron Loe and John Axford. Looking at these three things should help you see there is one thing we know about relief pitching: We know absolutely nothing about relief pitching.

I know that may seem harsh, but it's the truth. Who would have ever thought that after a mediocre season in Japan Kameron Loe would have become one of the Brewers most reliable closers in 2010? Who would have thought that a 28 year-old minor league pitcher would take the closer role from Trevor Hoffman in 2010? Who would have thought that after two great seasons both Loe and Axford would collapse in 2012?

This post has been focused on the Brewers and their bullpen, but this is something that is true of relief pitching league-wide. From year to year, relief pitchers can be extremely inconsistent. There are certainly some relief pitchers that defy this trend, but there are very few relief pitchers that bring that excel year in and year out. Just take a look at the links below that shows the Top 25 relief pitchers according to Fangraphs' Win Probability Added for the last three seasons. Taking a look year-by-year, you'll see that very few relief pitchers are able to excel every year.

2012
2011
2010

Relief pitching just offers so many unknowns. One year, a relief pitcher can be incredibly effective and rarely give up runs. Then, the next year, that same pitcher can be unbelievably ineffective. There are some very smart people out there that can explain why a relief pitcher might have failed during a particular season, but it's extremely difficult to attempt to predict when a collapse or regression may occur.

Though it may not be particular flashy or fun to follow as a fan, Doug Melvin typically spends his offseason filling his bullpen with cheap hard-throwing pitchers that have the chance to contribute to a major league bullpen. Obviously, Melvin has deviated from this plan a few times to make some high-profile signings including Eric Gagne and Trevor Hoffman, but Melvin's typical plan of signing cost-effective relief pitchers seems like a much more sensible approach than signing marquee relief pitchers on the free agent market.

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