This started as a muse with my brother Stu about why the Twins are in the tank. After last night's fiasco, I have to write it down or I'll blow a gasket. The short answer is the bullpen, as anyone who has watched the action can attest. Other parts of their game have not lived up the the Twins Way(TM) at times. But even when they do, the bullpen lets them down. The bullpen has been the one consistently bad aspect of the team's game.
As I project teams going into the year, I typically look at two factors:
1. Do they have the horses (strong starting staff, good hitters throughout the line-up, etc.)
2. Do they have the bullpen to hold down leads and otherwise keep the team in games late?
Lots of teams have item 1. Few teams have item 2. Take the Cleveland Indians in 2005 and 2006. Both teams had the horses. They were essentially the same teams with a few minor changes. But the 2005 team had a solid bullpen. The 2006 team did not. In 2005, they won 93 games. In 2006, they won 78 games. Between those years, they lost their three best bullpen arms (Bob Howry, Arthur Rhodes, and David Riske) and ended up blowing something like 30 saves in 2006. They also used 23 arms in 2006 and only 17 in 2005.
So why didn't we see the same thing coming this year with the Twins, who lost three solid bullpen arms from 2010 (Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch) and a fourth who helped out down the stretch (Brian Fuentes)? I blame myself for homer myopia. But the Twins were consensus division champs by most projection systems. We all said, "We have like 10 arms to replace those four guys, we should be fine." The analysts generally agreed. We might struggle early to find the right mix, but find it we would. Well, there's little hope of finding it when your manager is forced to use three guys with ERAs over 9 in the eight inning with a lead. The minors are not without hope, but the season is practically lost by now. Winning 78 games is a dream only homers like me contemplate.
Obviously, projection systems need to pay closer attention to bullpen strength. One of the consistent messages from SABR people (not naming any names) is that any competent pitcher can close games. Perhaps in aggregate this is right. But good teams have four or five guys who can get tough outs in late-and-close situations. And I would put the emphasis on the word competent. You need four or five competent arms in the bullpen in this day and age. I'm talking about guys who have demonstrated their competence at the major league level, not minor leaguers who show promise. It stands to reason, you can't lose your top four bullpen arms without proven competent arms to replace them and expect to win.
Still, why do projection systems keep making this mistake? It's not just the SABR people, who systematically underestimate the importance of closers and, by extension, other relievers. It's the old guard. Guys like Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and Nolan Ryan, who bemoan the fact that starters don't take the ball deeper into games. I think they wish starters were tougher and, in the process, besmirch relievers. When both baseball religions underestimate the importance of relievers, we have a problem. I hope to shed some light on this problem.
How did relievers become such precious commodities?
In this age, the game requires a solid bullpen for success--something the Twins have typically had in the Ron Gardenhire era, until this year. The reason is multifaceted, but comes down to the simple fact that starters can only get through seven innings on a good day. The average is closer to six. Bert might lament this and blame the current day "sissies" on the mound. But it is not their fault. As I said, the reasons are various. In no particular order:
1. I think pitchers are generally stronger than they were in Bert's day. And they generally throw harder. In Bert's day, you threw hard if you hit 90 consistently. Now those guys are described as "control artists" or "soft tossers." So perhaps they excel in the 20,000 meters rather than the marathon. The best starters learn to make adjustments throughout the game and continue to get outs. But guys like Kevin Slowey are more common: OPS against of 600 the first time through, 700 the second, and 800 the third.
Bert can rail about toughness all he wants. But pitching is like long-distance cycling. When a guy "bonks" or hits a wall, he's no use to anyone. That tends to happen at the 100-pitch mark with the way guys are built these days, which is the reason for pitch counts, as a warning for pitching coaches to pay attention to signs of fatigue.
2. I think the strike zone is smaller than it was in Bert's day. This year, in particular, I have noted a reluctance to call the low strike. Pitch FX can back me up on that. But every year, the umps seem to shrink it one way or another, forcing pitchers to give guys more good pitches to hit. Along the same lines, it seems tougher to get called third strikes than it was in Bert's day. The old saying was "protect the plate with two strikes." Hitters don't have to worry about that anymore.
3. More hitters buy into the Moneyball patient approach. Watching Red Sox/Yankees games is like watching grass grow. Why? Average pitches per at bat. Each team has to throw something like 200 pitches per game in those contests. Only the Twins and Cardinals preach swinging at the first pitch these days. If a guy has already thrown 100 pitches in the fifth inning, he's not even getting into the sixth.
4. The warning system has made pitchers more gun shy inside. Hitters can comfortably lean out and extend plate coverage when they know the pitcher will be warned if he hits them. Along these lines, hitters have no fear inside with all the the armor they wear. Why does Carlos Quentin get hit so much? He never moves. In Bert's day, a hitter was supposed to at least try to get out of the way to gain first base. Umpires very rarely call this. Also, in Bert's day, if a guy didn't move, he was in for a more painful plunk in a later at bat.
5. Hitters are bigger and stronger. The SABR people can trot out a SLG/time chart that shows this clearly. I wonder how many homers Bert would give up against the Rangers if he were in his prime right now. And this is post steroids. It was even worse in the steroid era, which coincides with the advent of the pitch count. We have seen fewer homers post steroids, but no less mental and physical wear and tear on pitchers who have to be almost perfect on every pitch.
I'm sure there are other reasons. For all those reasons and more, the game has changed. And it's no use trying to change it back. All you have to do is look at at typical week for a ball club. To have a winning week, you need to be in five ballgames to the end. The best teams are in every game. If your starters average 6 innings, that's 21 innings you need to cover with relievers. Most relievers can only handle five innings a week and sustain success. So you need at least four competent relievers to win. And if you have an inconsistent rotation, you will need five or six.
I still wonder why no one saw this coming. But it's high time we paid closer attention to bullpen strength when we project whether a team will contend or wait 'till next year.