The Pen is Mightier

When the Orioles got off to a hot start in April, it was in large part due to their bullpen.  The O's PR department included in their gametime press notes a section called "the Pen is Mightier" in which they noted the bullpen's successes.  Times have changed as Mike Dejean has pitched more and that section is no longer included.  It's probably for the best because every time I read it, I couldn't help but think about the Jeopardy skit on Saturday Night Live involving Darrell Hammond impersonating Sean Connery and his mis-reading of the aforementioned title.  My giggling caused some awkward moments in the pressbox.

Regardless, I thought it was an apt title for a look at how effective bullpens have been so far and perhaps a glimpse into what to expect for the final two thirds of the season.  Bullpen usage can offer tell tale signs if a team is about to collapse or if their fast start is sustainable.  So without further ado, here's the data.

Which pens have been used the most?
It's not much of a surprise that the Orioles, who've been using mostly rookie pitchers in their rotation, are leading the majors in bullpen usage.  Their relievers average almost 4 innings per game (3.98), by far the most in baseball.  However, the O's are not the only team guilty of overusing their bullpen early.  There are nine other teams that use their bullpen an average of 3.3 or more innings per game: Milwaukee (3.70), Arizona (3.55), Cleveland (3.49), Pittsburgh (3.48), Colorado (3.45), Tampa Bay (3.41), NY Mets (3.40), Minnesota (3.36) and Houston (3.33).  Most of the names on here aren't that surprising, given that they don't have a lot of talent in the rotation - Tampa, Cleveland and Colorado, for instance.  However, it is surprising to see Houston on this list given the quality of their rotation.  Minnesota's numbers should go down some once Johan Santana and Kyle Lohse get straightened out. 

Which pens have been used the least?
The bullpen that has been used the least came as a huge surprise to me: St. Louis (2.68).  They were followed by a couple more surprises: the White Sox (2.73) and Montreal (2.77).  At the beginning of the season, I don't think anyone expected that those teams would get as many innings out of their starters as they are getting.  The other teams under 3.0 innings per game are the Cubs (2.80), Oakland (2.86), Texas (2.91), Florida (2.91) and Boston (2.95).  The only surprise there is Texas, which has gotten surprisingly good innings from Ryan Drese, RA Dickey and Kenny Rogers.  In all likelihood, that won't continue as they revert back to career norms.

Which pens have the best strikeout rate?
Probably the most important ability of the bullpen is to be able to get out of jams and the most safest way to do that is with strikeouts.  Houston has the only pen that strikes out more than a batter per inning (1.033).  Others with excellent strikeout rates are Anaheim (0.956), Los Angeles (0.919), Arizona (0.913), Baltimore (0.892) and Minnesota (0.888).  The Twins rate equates to 8 strikeouts per 9 innings.  I don't think anyone should be surprised that a bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez or Eric Gagne would strike a lot of hitters out, but the emergence of strikeout pitchers in the D-back, Oriole and Twins' bullpen might come as a surprise.  However, the strikeout rates for Jose Valverde, BJ Ryan and Joe Nathan are in line with their career rates and should be taken seriously.  The Cub (0.876) and Padre (0.869) pens also have good strikeout rates.

Which pens have the worst strikeout rate?
Pens that can't strike hitters out have to depend on luck and defense, which is another way of saying that they are unlikely to sustain any success.  San Francisco has the worst strikeout rate in the majors and there are other factors that point to this pen as possibly finishing as the worst in baseball.  They strike out fewer than 6 batters per 9 innings (0.619 per inning).  Other pens that are almost as soft are Cincinnati (0.684), Milwaukee (0.684), the Yankees (0.701) and St. Louis (0.707).   The Reds showing up on this list is somewhat surprising given their success this season and given that they entered the season with 2 very good strikeout pitchers, Reith and Wagner.  However, Wagner has struggled and closer Danny Graves is not a strikeout closer so the numbers do make some sense.  While many people expect them to fail because of the their rotation, the Reds' pen is more likely to be their undoing.  What doesn't make sense is that the Yankees are here.  After all the money they spent this offseason bolstering their pen and with Rivera at the end, it's a shocker to see them here.  Their rotation is good enough to buy them enough time to fix it.  It's a good thing that the Cardinals don't have to use their bullpen too often.  With this K rate, they would struggle to keep pace with the Cubs and Astros if they did.

Which pens allow the fewest baserunners?
Another responsibility of the bullpen is to keep their manager sane by keeping the opposition off the bases.  The teams that are best at that are: Philly (1.189 WHIP), Boston (1.253), St. Louis (1.281), Houston (1.284), Anaheim (1.291) and surprisingly, Tampa Bay (1.293).  When they acquired Billy Wagner and Tim Worrell, it was expected that the Phillies would improve significantly in keeping runners off base.  St. Louis is somewhat of a surprise here given how infrequently they strike hitters out, but they field a strong defense every night so relying on the teams' glovework isn't necessarily a bad idea, as long as it's in small doses.  Tampa is the real darkhorse here in large part because they really didn't make any major moves this offseason to address their pen.  Danys Baez has been solid as the closer, but the additions of lefties Trever Miller and John Halama have been huge so far.

Which pens allow the most baserunners?
I don't know if a team with a bullpen that allows lots of baserunners (relative to the league) has ever made it to the playoffs.  My guess is that it's never happened.  So unless something drastic happens in the next few months, don't look for Colorado (1.610 WHIP), Cleveland (1.562), San Francisco (1.554), Arizona (1.523), Baltimore (1.518) or Detroit (1.514) in the postseason this year.  As good as the O's pen looked early on, their starters still aren't giving them many nights off and with Sidney Ponson struggling, that probably won't change anytime soon.  The Minnesota pen has been a little too lenient allowing baserunners as well (1.457), which has been a significant factor in the high ERAs of some of their starters.  Hopes in the Bay area that Bonds will get another shot at the post-season look pretty grim: the Giant's pen is near the bottom in WHIP, strikeout rate, home runs and extra base hits allowed.  Given the park they pitch in, that's not a good combination.  Likewise, the Indians pen hasn't been effective, allowing 81 extra base hits so far, almost 30 more than league average.

So what does this mean?
For one, if you have Giants, Indians or Brewers starters, you're probably gonna lose a few more wins than average because of meltdowns in the bullpen.  Conversely, Angels, Red Sox and Cardinal starters will probably hold onto more wins than a starter on a neutral team.

If Jimy Williams continues to use his bullpen as frequently as he has, they are going to tire in the second half.  Given Clemens' age, Pettitte's and Oswalt's injury histories and the lack of a solid fifth starter, the Astros could have trouble closing the deal if they regain the lead in the division. 

As good as the Yankees starters potentially are, their bullpen could once again be a weakness in the second half.  Not so much that they won't challenge for a playoff spot, but it could be the difference between them making the playoffs or going deep into October, and not.

As good as their strikeout rate is, the Baltimore pen will be exhausted by August at their current rate.  It doesn't appear that Ponson or Lopez is the answer for more quality innings, so one or two of their young starters will have to grow up fast.  Pitching more aggressively will certainly help. 

If the Twins hope to repeat as AL Central champs, they are going to have to find or trade for more quality arms.  Getting Santana and Lohse right will help, but they need more innings out of the starters and more effective innings from their pen.  Maybe this is the year that they trade some of their outfield depth for pitching because once the White Sox settle their closer situation, they are going to be a tough team to beat.