According to former MLB pitcher/manager Bob Lemon:
The two most important things in life are good friends and a strong bullpen.
Thus far this season, the Minnesota Twins are living up to the back half of that statement, what with an assemblage of firemen that needn’t be watched hiding under cushions or behind fingers.
This got me thinking about how bullpens can best be evaluated, which proved to be a trickier subject than initially anticipated after examining Twins bullpens back to 2001. ERA is no better indicator for relievers than it is for starters, and K/9 or HR/9 are too skewed by the high K/HR era in which baseball currently exists. I thought perhaps Left-On-Base % would be a better metric, but from ‘01-’19 that number was between 71-78% every single season. No help there. Ultimately, I concluded that plain old FanGraphs WAR was the best evaluator of bullpen effectiveness.
Going by WAR, I made some interesting observations:
From 2002-2006, the Twins had a solid bullpen. ‘06 easily stands out among that bunch, what with an astounding 8.1 WAR accumulated by the pen...
Then, from 2007-2015, Minnesota’s bullpen was pretty porous (WAR routinely under 3.0). For whatever reason, relief hurlers posted a 6.0 WAR in 2013, but other than that it was a crapshoot whenever Gardy or Molly made the slow walk to the mound.
The absolute bottoming-out came in 2011, when the guys beyond the CF fence actually had a -0.9 WAR...
That was the season that brought Twins fans Dusty Hughes & Jim Hoey, which should explain a few things. Also, when Michael Cuddyer may have had the most productive inning of relief all season, it isn’t a good sign.
More recently, the Twins have been quite up-and-down in relief. Despite being non-contenders in ‘16 & ‘18, the bullpen WAR held roughly at a respectable 3.0 both seasons. Oddly, ‘17’s WC berth produced a 1.8 WAR relief corps. Well, until one remembers Molitor’s fanatical using of Matt Belisle.
Last year—2019—the bullpen WAR ticked all the way up to 7.4, easily the best since ‘06.
Coming into the recent finale with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Twins relievers looked poised to eclipse even last year’s lofty standard (albeit in a shortened campaign)...
Of course, another old adage among baseball relievers is “have a short memory”. With the Twins up 5-4 looking for the sweep of the Bucs, the seemingly unstoppable Taylor Rogers gave up the lead and let the Pirates celebrate a bit. Hopefully just a blip on the ‘20 radar.
While it doesn’t necessarily take a tremendous bullpen to win a championship (the 2015 KC Royals may take umbrage with that statement), a trophy can’t be lifted with a poor one. The Twins have set themselves up to fall squarely in the former category, not the latter.