Despite Kenley Jansen‘s homer trouble this week, the Dodger bullpen has been very good this year, depending on how you gauge such things. (Total sidebar for a moment – remember when Jansen blew his first save chance in April and every fool with an internet connection exploded in a fury of “herr durr derp he doesn’t have the heart to pitch the ninth inning?” Now we’re seeing articles about whether he can handle non-save situations because he’s been so good in the ninth. I hate this planet sometimes.)
Back to the bullpen as a whole, there’s more than a few ways to look at their success. They have the third-most shutdowns; they’re tied for the sixth-fewest meltdowns. By straight ERA, they’re 10th; by FIP, they’re tied for 12th, though it should be noted that the difference between the Giants in fifth at 3.45 and the Rays in 14th at 3.67 is so miniscule as to be barely noteworthy. They’re eighth in OPS against at .657; they have the third-highest strikeout rate, thanks in large part to Jansen. Really, the only area where they’re not doing all that well is in walk rate, where they have the sixth-highest mark in the game, though that’s a group-wide affliction, since only Josh Lindblom can say he has a walk rate lower than three per nine.
No matter how you choose to value a bullpen, the Dodger relief corps ranks between solid and excellent. Here’s my favorite part, though: the seven members of the bullpen who have pitched seven innings or more this year are doing so for a combined salary of less than Juan Uribe is receiving to be injured and awful in 2012. Only Todd Coffey (who has been very effective since his return from injury, even if his season stats don’t reflect it) makes even a million; only he and Jamey Wright make more than $500,000. Jansen, Lindblom, Scott Elbert, Javy Guerra, & Ronald Belisario each make between $480k and $492k. (Before anyone complains that arguably the two least valuable members of the bullpen make the most money and that this makes Ned Colletti an idiot, please go check out the veteran pay scale in this sport.)
For the grand total of something like $4.4m, the Dodgers have put together a very effective bullpen, and assuming Shawn Tolleson sticks around long enough in Guerra’s absence to make a contribution, we’ll be able to say this is an eight-man group making less than $5m. That’s about $1.5m less than James Loney is making this year. It’s slightly more than Juan Rivera alone is getting. It’s roughly one-third the dead money owed to Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones, & Juan Pierre in deferred payouts just for this season. It’s not a whole hell of a lot of money, is the point, just in case you hadn’t quite had that drilled into your skull yet.
If you’re dying to point out that I’ve neglected to include Matt Guerrier, making $4.75m this year as part of a 3/$12m contract, well, that’s sort of the point. Guerrier was adequate at best last year before missing most of this year with arm woes, but the lack of return we’re seeing on that contract is just further illustrating the point that big multi-year deals for non-elite relievers are almost never ever a good idea – a point that was made many times, here and elsewhere, before Guerrier ever threw his first pitch.
But don’t take my word for it; we have data to rely on. Over the last two offseasons, (2010-11 & 2011-12), 18 relievers have signed free agent deals that total at least $5m or more. The results haven’t been pretty. Six of them – Guerrier, Mariano Rivera, Jose Contreras, Rafael Soriano, Ryan Madson, & Bobby Jenks – have suffered major injuries which have cost them most or all of a season. Three more – Kevin Gregg, Brian Fuentes, & Heath Bell – have to be considered busts, at least so far; while Grant Balfour may not fall into the “bust” category, he’s already lost his closer’s job this year, and in New York, Frank Francisco is carrying a 5.57 ERA, though it’s not totally deserved. (The table I linked is slightly misleading for the five guys who signed before 2012, since it includes their generally good work in 2011 as well, so Bell doesn’t look as bad as he really has been as a Marlin.) Some of the others have been inoffensive if not game-changing, but the only guys on that list who can really say they’re really making a difference for their new teams are J.J. Putz, Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Joaquin Benoit, & Jonathan Papelbon, and even in Papelbon’s case, you can easily question whether an aging team with huge problems on offense and a manager who doesn’t know how to run a bullpen should really have spent $50m on a closer. This proves either that you should only import free agent relievers with names that start with “J”, or that the rate of success on big-money bullpen arms is dreadfully inefficient.
Now, that’s not to say that you should only ever rely on cheap homegrown relievers, because I’ll be the first to admit that building a bullpen around a converted catcher, a flaky drug user on his third organization after multiple suspensions, a guy who walked 7.3/9 at age 24 in Double-A, and two veteran afterthoughts isn’t exactly a repeatable business model. But after all we’ve learned over the years, we should know that relievers are infamous for their volatility, and it’s more than possible to build an effective, efficient bullpen around young arms supplemented with a few low-cost (i.e., one year for less than $5m, many of whom are succeeding this year) veterans, with a lucky NRI invite here and there – an area which Colletti has shown to be surprisingly effective in.
Better yet for the Dodgers, there’s more where that came from. As we’ve talked about several times, they have a multitude of young power starters in the minors. Some – perhaps Ethan Martin, or Chris Withrow – aren’t going to pan out as starters, just like Lindblom & Elbert didn’t, and that opens up a path to potentially being successful out of the bullpen. So far, the Dodger relievers have been very good for a very reasonable price. Let’s hope that any thoughts of big spending to supplement them in the future keeps the past in mind.