The best bullpen in the world, two years running

Joe Murphy

Bullpens, man. Can't trust 'em. Can't live without 'em. Can't spend on 'em. Can't go cheap with 'em.

Bullpens.

On Tuesday, Fernando Rodney blew a save, costing the Rays a pretty crucial win. He's done that a few times this year. Last year, though, he was immaculate. This year, Rodney allowed as many earned runs between May 16 and May 22 as he allowed in 2012.

Jim Johnson hasn't been quite as automatic for the Orioles this year, even though he's striking out more people than ever. The Orioles were one of the big surprises in 2012 because of their magic bullpen. The pitchers are mostly the same this year, and it's not like they're bad. It's a good enough bullpen. But it's not magical this year. They're a fickle thing, these bullpens.

I wanted to take a look at how the bullpens were doing this season compared to last season, but evaluating bullpens is kind of a tricky thing, too. A bullpen's collective ERA isn't very illuminating, and stats like holds and saves are useless. So I looked at a combination of different stats:

FIP
Fielding-independent pitching. The strikes, walks, home runs, and innings. What the pitcher is supposed to control, in other words.

WPA
Win probability added. The difference in expected winning percentage before and after a plate appearance.

Clutch
Similar to WPA, but with some additional context.

Add them up and you get ... something better than ERA, at least. Here's how teams ranked in 2012.

Team (2012) FIP WPA Clutch Average rank
1. Braves 2 3 7 4
2. Orioles 10 1 1 4
3. Rangers 9 2 3 5
4. Rays 1 4 13 6
5. Royals 5 6 12 8
6. Yankees 6 8 9 8
7. Padres 8 13 5 9
8. Pirates 14 10 4 9
9. Giants 11 16 2 10
10. Reds 3 9 17 10
11. Athletics 15 5 10 10
12. Indians 19 11 8 13
13. Nationals 12 14 14 13
14. Dodgers 7 15 19 14
15. Twins 25 7 11 14
16. Blue Jays 29 12 6 16
17. Diamondbacks 4 19 26 16
18. Tigers 17 18 16 17
19. Mariners 13 23 18 18
20. Marlins 18 25 15 19
21. Cardinals 21 22 20 21
22. Rockies 23 21 23 22
23. Red Sox 20 20 30 23
24. White Sox 28 17 25 23
25. Phillies 16 26 29 24
26. Astros 24 28 21 24
27. Angels 26 24 24 25
28. Brewers 22 27 28 26
29. Cubs 30 30 22 27
30. Mets 27 29 27 28

Okay, so that was about how you remember it. A bunch of playoff teams at the top, and a bunch of hilarious teams at the bottom. Most of them kept the same personnel, for the most part, so let's take a look at 2013 so far:

Team (2013) FIP WPA Clutch Average rank
1. Braves 1 2 8 4
2. Pirates 9 1 2 4
3. Athletics 6 8 3 6
4. Yankees 15 4 1 7
5. Rangers 11 3 9 8
6. Marlins 5 15 5 8
7. Twins 2 5 22 10
8. Royals 3 9 23 12
9. Reds 22 10 4 12
10. Cardinals 7 14 17 13
11. Dodgers 8 19 11 13
12. Red Sox 20 11 7 13
13. Diamondbacks 18 6 15 13
14. White Sox 17 13 13 14
15. Padres 21 12 12 15
16. Rockies 14 7 26 16
17. Nationals 13 21 14 16
18. Rays 4 22 24 17
19. Tigers 10 20 20 17
20. Indians 23 18 10 17
21. Angels 25 24 6 18
22. Giants 12 27 19 19
23. Blue Jays 24 16 21 20
24. Brewers 16 17 30 21
25. Mariners 19 28 16 21
26. Phillies 28 25 18 24
27. Mets 27 26 25 26
28. Orioles 26 23 29 26
29. Cubs 29 29 27 28
30. Astros 30 30 28 29

Everything right is wrong again. Up is down, left is right. The good bullpens are bad, the bad bullpens are good. The Orioles ... what in the heck happened with the Orioles?

A visual representation of bullpen-related nonsense, using the above rankings:

Screen_shot_2013-08-27_at_11


Nonsense. Where are the neat, easily defined patterns? Those lines were zipping past each other in the offseason, and no one had any idea. The Orioles are probably a better team this season, but because they don't have the bullpen they did, they're struggling to remain relevant in the playoff chase.

But right there, at the top. There's a beacon of stability. And no one is talking about it nearly enough. For the second year in a row, the Braves are absolute murder when their starters leave the game.

I'm going to play a game. Maybe it's easy for you, but don't spoil it for the American League fans. I'm going to list three names. Two of them are Braves relievers who are doing quite well, and one of them is made up.

Anthony Varvaro
Ryan Holder
Luis Avilan

Give up? Well, nuts to you. I'm not telling. But one of those is made up, and the other two are real, much to your surprise. The Braves are relying on the second-stringers in the bullpen, and it's working.

Also, Craig Kimbrel is still amazing. Let's bring him up before we get too nutty. Instant Good Bullpen, just add Kimbrel.

It's not like the Braves have been without adversity, either. Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters are both lost to Tommy John surgery -- a crushing blow for almost any other team. The Braves keep rolling, though. Ryan Holder has been an absolute beast. Luis Avilan has deftly replaced the left-handers in the setup role.

Bullpens are weird, bullpens are jerks, and bullpens are untrustworthy hooligans. You can't tell what's real and what's a mirage until it's much too late.

But real or not, the Braves are having another excellent bullpen season. It still might be a fluke. The odds are that it probably is a fluke. No one has a bullpen this good in consecutive seasons -- with turnover, mind you.

The Braves do. Where the Rays, Orioles, Giants, and Nationals have faltered, the Braves have kept on keeping on. Kimbrel (and his ridiculous strikeout rate) are probably buoying the rankings a bit, and the strong starting pitching means less garbage time for the garbage-time pitcher, so everyone is put in a good spot.

If there was something about the Braves and their success that you couldn't put your finger on, it's probably the bullpen. It's a mighty fine bullpen. It really is the common denominator. Maybe this is a step toward appreciating how much that's worth.

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