Search for perfection

After yesterday’s game, I saw at least two people in my Facebook feed who were – understandably – very unhappy with Aaron Loup. One of the two wanted him demoted, released, or quite possibly immediately shot, even though yesterday’s outing was the first one all month in which he allowed earned runs. It occurs to me that fans demand perfection from their team’s bullpen, at least when they have a lead in the late innings. So I was wondering: how close do bullpen pitchers get to achieving perfection?

To try to estimate this, I looked up the numbers for a bunch of relief pitchers: the current short-inning relief Jays, the league leaders in saves in both leagues, a few well-known historical figures from the Jays’ past, and a couple of other relief pitchers who had great seasons. On the wonderful Baseball Reference web site, I counted the following information as best as I could:

  • Number of perfect outings (no hits, no walks, no runs, nada)
  • Number of scoreless outings
  • Number of bombs (which I loosely defined as allowing three baserunners in one inning of work)

I also looked up each pitcher’s inherited runners scored rate, and subtracted it from 100 to get the strand rate, which was the percentage of runners on base when a pitcher entered the game that did not score.

So here are the numbers:

Pitcher Games Perfect Outings Scoreless Outings Bombs Strand Rate
Aaron Loup 31 5 24 5 75%
Brett Cecil 25 8 18 3 62%
Roberto Osuna 30 14 23 4 68%
Jonathan Papelbon 26 5 23 0 75%
Santiago Casilla 31 11 26 3 64%
Glen Perkins 31 10 27 1 83%
Huston Street 27 13 22 3 60%
Mark Melancon 34 17 31 2 83%
Trevor Rosenthal 30 11 28 0 78%
Jason Grilli 27 9 21 3 76%
Casey Janssen ’14 50 20 38 7 100%
Brett Cecil ’14 66 26 57 6 62%
Tom Henke ’92 57 20 44 6 71%
Tom Henke ’85 28 9 22 4 67%
Duane Ward ’92 79 20 68 6 70%
Duane Ward ’93 71 29 58 6 65%
Mariano Rivera ’05 71 33 60 3 89%
Dennis Eckersley ’92 69 26 56 4 95%
Joey McLaughlin ’83 50 8 28 10 55.00%

I included Joey McLaughlin in there as a baseline: the 1983 Blue Jays had a truly bad bullpen, and McLaughlin was the primary culprit.

Things I have noticed after doing this rather brief study:

  • Almost everybody has a bad day every now and again. Historically, your closer is going to get beaten up a few times a year, and there isn’t much you can do about it. Even Henke and Ward – the Holy Duo of bullpens past – got stomped occasionally. It will be interesting to see if Rosenthal and Papelbon can make it through all of 2015 without racking up at least one bomb.
  • Closers are used differently now. There were more outings of more than one inning in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, teams are more likely to save their closer for the 9th.
  • In 2014, Casey Janssen inherited only five runners all year. He stranded all of them, happily.
  • And, most important: the Jays’ short relievers appear to be somewhat worse than the game’s best closers. It’s only a couple of games difference here and there, but there is a noticeable difference.

The interesting question is whether trading multiple prospects to take on Jonathan Papelbon and his salary is worth it (assuming that he is available). On one hand, flags fly forever, and the Jays’ fan base would welcome an actual post-season berth after so long. On the other, trading away prospects will hurt the Jays’ future: look where the Phillies are now.

My own belief is that the Jays’ financial people are extremely reluctant to spend money on a closer. The Jays have done this three times, and all turned out badly:

  • Before the 1985 season, the Jays traded for Bill Caudill and then signed him to a multi-year contract. He showed up with unexpectedly reduced fastball velocity, and eventually lost his job to Tom Henke.
  • Before the 1998 season, the Jays signed Randy Myers to a three-year deal. He had a disappointing season, and the Jays’ front office was more than willing to give Myers to the San Diego Padres when they claimed him on waivers in August. The Padres wound up paying Myers over $13 million to not pitch for them.
  • In 2006, the Jays signed B.J. Ryan to a four-year contract. They got one good year, one lost year due to injury, one sort of okay year, and one year where he was ineffective and was released. This cost them $35 million.

Given this history, I suspect that Rogers is not willing to risk the wrath of their shareholders by throwing money at any more relief pitchers. I could be proven wrong – I have been before – but I suspect that the Jays will have to make do for the rest of the season with what they have. Their fans can only hope that the offense scores enough runs to make up for this.

One thing is reasonably certain: no one is ever likely to write a song about Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, or Roberto Osuna, as someone once did about Tom Henke.

One final thing that I noticed: the Jays’ short relievers are throwing more strikes than they did last year. Here’s the numbers:

Brett Cecil:
2014: 53.1 IP, 27 BB
2015: 22 IP, 7 BB

Aaron Loup:
2014: 68.2 IP, 30 BB
2015: 26.1 IP, 3 BB

Steve Delabar:
2014: 25.2 IP, 19 BB, 1 trip to Buffalo
2015: 15.2 IP, 6 BB

Liam Hendricks:
2014 (as Blue Jay): 13.1 IP, 4 BB
2015: 31.2 IP, 5 BB

Roberto Osuna didn’t pitch for the Jays in 2014, but his control is reasonably good too: 32 innings pitched, nine walks. I suspect that the Jays’ bullpen has been told to challenge the hitters more. The results haven’t always been better, but at least they’ve been different.

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About davetill

I'm a writer and occasional web designer. I live in Toronto.
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