The Bullpen Will Be Better in 2013: Fun With Numbers

Author’s Note: This piece is part four in a 6-part series reviewing the Mets’ 2012 season and previewing the 2013 season. For part one, on the outfield, click here. For part two, on the rotation, click here. Part three covered the Mets infield, which you can read here. Part 5 will offer an outlook on the team defensively, and whether or not they should improve. 

The Mets’ bullpen was bad in 2012. (How bad was it?) The Mets’ bullpen was so bad in 2012, they’ve been retroactively blamed for the 2006 NLCS (You’re off the hook, Carlos Beltran!). But seriously, they stunk. The good news, however, is that there’s a lot to suggest they won’t stink so much in 2013. Let’s get started.

Below is a chart summarizing the Mets’ relief pitching in 2012. In the interest of making a reasonably-sized chart, I’ve included relievers with over 20 innings pitched individually and grouped everyone else into a single row:

 * Fangraphs lists the collective WAR of the relievers as -0.1, which I attribute to rounding (the numbers in the chart above add up to 0.0)

Oct. 3, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; New York Mets relief pitcher

Bobby Parnell

(39) throws during the ninth inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. The Mets won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Bobby Parnell quietly enjoyed another solid season out of the Mets’ pen, pitching 68.2 innings with a solid 2.49 ERA. The secret to Parnell’s success has been the development of a legitimate secondary offering, a curve ball taught to him by Jason Isringhausen in 2011. The curve, which offers a significant speed differential to his blazing fastball and a decent break (compared to a largely flat slider he used to throw) has allowed Bobby to develop into a legitimate pitcher, and not simply a thrower relying on his power alone to carry him.

From the chart above, we can see that the additions Alderson made last season largely didn’t work out. His three primary acquisitions – Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco, and Ramon Ramirez – did provide significant innings (163.2, or 35.7% of the relief innings in 2012), but they combined for a 4.34 ERA. That number is nicer than it looks, as Rauch’s 3.59 ERA offsets the 4.75 mark from the other two).

Manny Acosta pitched just over 10% of the Mets’ relief innings, but he allowed more than 14% of their earned runs. It’s a tale of two seasons with Acosta though, as his second half was dominant (1.78 ERA in his final 25.1 innings). In his first 22 innings, he surrendered 29 earned runs! (If we remove those numbers from the overall total, the bullpen’s ERA drops to 4.29).

This leads to an interesting hypothesis: how unlucky were the Mets relievers?

The answer? Fairly. As a small test, I’m going to take the five most-used relievers (Parnell, Ramirez, Rauch, Acosta, and Francisco), and remove their three worst appearances (by ERA) and their three best appearances (by ERA) and see how it compares to their regular numbers (denoted as ERA’):

September 21, 2012; Boston, MA USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Scott Atchison (48) pitches during the eighth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It drops nearly an entire run! By removing the worst 15 appearances (3% of the bullpen total), we’ve removed 42 earned runs (17.7% of the total)! And in doing so, we’ve cut the overall relief ERA by 0.53 runs.

Admittedly, it isn’t an entirely fair assumption I’ve just made; it would be disingenuous to suggest that other bullpens don’t have such poor luck. However, it does offer reasonable evidence that when it rained in the Flushing bullpen, it poured.

This was especially true for embattled closer Frank Francisco (Rising Apple writer Michael Lecolant took an in depth look at Francisco’s season here), whose 2012 was by most measures a disaster. Suffering through nagging elbow and knee injuries, Francisco posted an ERA (5.53) that was 2 runs higher than his ERA over the previous four seasons (3.54). Though Francisco became more hittable (10 H/9) and his walkrate soared to 10.7%, his high strikeout rate (23.9%) and unusually high BABIP (.339) both suggest that all wasn’t bad for Francisco. If his control issues were in fact exacerbated by injury, Francisco could improve significantly in 2013.

Looking forward to 2013, the biggest reason to be confident about the bullpen’s success is their turnover. GM Sandy Alderson has signed a slew of relievers to minor league deals (including Scott Atchison, LaTroy Hawkins, and former Met “Perpetual” Pedro Feliciano), and is rumored to be finalizing a deal with Brandon Lyon.

For the interest of “review”, I’m going to recreate the first chart above, but I’m going to substitute Atchison, Hawkins, and Lyon in lieu of Acosta, Ramirez, and Rauch:

Aug. 29, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Brandon Lyon (31) pitches during the eighth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Toronto won 8-5. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

We notice two things: First, that the ERA drops by 0.66 runs; second, that the bullpen became worth an additional 2.0 fWAR. Though the strikeout rate goes unchanged, the walk rate drops by more than a percentage point (10.2 vs. 9.1), and their WHIP drops slightly as well (1.39 vs. 1.35).

If I were a betting man (and I am), I would bet (and I will) that the opening day bullpen will probably be composed of holdovers Bobby Parnell, Frank Francisco, Josh Edgin, and Jeremy Hefner (as the longman) and newcomers Hawkins, Lyon, and Atchison. On paper, they represent a significantly improved pen for the Mets.

The true test of a bullpen’s meddle, however, is the performance of those behind the first seven. Pitchers Pedro Feliciano, Jeurys Familia, and others will be waiting in AAA Las Vegas for an opportunity, and others (such as young lefthander Jack Leathersich) are rising quickly through the system. How they actually perform remains to be seen, but it’s certainly hard to fault the front office, as Alderson has made several low-risk veteran signings that, even at their worst, would be challenged to match the struggles of their predecessors.

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