Get To Know A Bullpen – Closers are for Doors: The Ballad of Tyler Clippard

closers

types of door closers via Society of Professional Locksmiths

 In honor of our “bullpen week” series this week, Court’s going to explore some of the conceptions and notions around the Nats bullpen. 

Do the Nats have one of the games best bullpens in baseball? Should the Nats spend big to add another arm? Is a Tyler Clippard worth almost $6M?

The answers in order: No. Maybe. And definitely. Read on….

No, the Nats are not one of baseball’s best bullpens. They were 18th in fWAR, 19th in xFIP, 24th in K/9 and 20th in REW (more on this later, but we wrote about it yesterday). Sure, they were 9th in FIP (and 14th in ERA) but the big picture here is one of a middle-of-the-road unit.

Before we get too deep in the intricacies of an effective bullpen, I’d like to point out that the best bullpen in all of baseball last year – the Rangers – only accumulated 7.6 total WAR. By comparison, Yu Darvish put up 5.0 WAR for his team all by himself. Fangraphs’ team leaderboard shows us that the 30 rotations accumulated from 25.3 to 4.5 WAR from first to last. Bullpens, by comparison, only put up between 7.6 and -5.4 WAR.

Pitching staffs as a whole ranged between 29.3 and 1.6, thus the median pitching staff was worth about 15 WAR. The median for rotations comes in around 11.5 WAR with the median WAR for a bullpen at only 3.5 WAR. Bullpens account for about a 1/4 of a teams’ pitching WAR while typically providing about a 1/3 of the teams’ innings.

This jives with our understanding of how a pitching staff is constructed – the best pitchers start and the rest go to the ‘pen. So how did the 2013 Nats stack up?

The Nationals’ 16.4 WAR was 12th in total pitching last year, with 13.4 WAR coming from the starters – almost 82%. The bullpen only added 3.0 WAR over the course of the season,  again good for 18th in baseball. We all know the rotation is the strength of the Nats’ pitching, but getting 33% of the innings (477 ⅓ out of the 1445 ⅔’s team IP) and only 18% of it’s WAR is not good enough.

The issues in the bullpen went a lot further than just not having a lefty specialist for some of the year. Some guys regressed, others tanked, while a few may have been hurt by how WAR computes value. We wrote about this in the RE24 post, so you can read deeper thoughts on it there. Point being, WAR is good for us to judge the bullpen as a whole and to compare it to other units, but it’s a little too big-picture when we narrow it down to individual relievers. So we use the slightly finer toothed comb of RE24/REW to compare pitchers who make a living on the smaller scale.

A look at the Fangraph’s leaderboard, this time looking at REW for bullpens, gives us a range of 8.04 (Braves) to -6.07 (Astros) with the Nats coming in at -0.30 REW – good enough for 20th in the league. A REW, or RE24, of 0.0 would mean that the player or team allowed the expected result and was neither an advantage nor disadvantage. So we see that the Nats’ bullpen was slightly below break even last year. Contrast that to the Braves, who had 8.04 REW in 2013. That means the Braves bullpen added 8 more wins to their team than the Nats’ pen did for theirs by limiting damage late in games. This helped the Braves overcome injuries and sub-par seasons from some of their regulars to hold off the Nats. If the Nats are going to recapture the division in 2014, they’re going to need more from their bullpen to help mitigate this advantage.

Here’s a look at how the Nats’ bullpen options stack up not only by WAR and RE24/REW, but also a couple other important stats for a reliever like strikeouts, walks and homers per 9 innings in addition to more the traditional stats like ERA, FIP and WHIP:

# Name Team REW RE24 WAR ERA FIP SwStr% K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 WHIP Age
1 Tyler Clippard Nationals 1.30 11.36 0.4 2.41 3.82 14.3 % 9.25 3.04 3.04 1.14 0.86 28
2 Tanner Roark Nationals 1.26 11.08 1.4 1.51 2.41 6.0 % 6.71 1.84 3.64 0.17 0.91 26
3 Rafael Soriano Nationals 0.76 7.05 0.5 3.11 3.65 9.0 % 6.89 2.30 3.00 0.95 1.23 33
4 Craig Stammen Nationals 0.38 3.67 1.0 2.76 2.82 13.1 % 8.71 2.98 2.93 0.44 1.29 29
5 Ross Ohlendorf Nationals 0.37 3.68 0.3 3.28 4.03 9.1 % 6.71 2.09 3.21 1.19 1.16 30
6 Erik Davis Nationals 0.19 1.71 0.3 3.12 0.62 10.1 % 12.46 1.04 12.00 0.00 1.27 26
7 Jerry Blevins Athletics 0.06 1.03 0.3 3.15 3.88 9.9 % 7.80 2.55 3.06 1.05 1.07 29
8 Ross Detwiler Nationals -0.36 -3.20 0.9 4.04 3.66 6.6 % 4.92 1.77 2.79 0.63 1.49 27
9 Drew Storen Nationals -0.64 -5.91 0.2 4.52 3.62 9.4 % 8.46 2.77 3.05 1.02 1.36 25
10 Xavier Cedeño – – – -0.77 -7.34 0.0 6.57 4.02 9.1 % 6.57 5.84 1.13 0.00 1.86 26
11 Ryan Mattheus Nationals -1.15 -10.26 0.1 6.37 3.44 6.6 % 5.60 3.82 1.47 0.25 1.90 29

We can pretty easily see that Tyler Clippard either tops or comes close to topping most of these categories, which is why I believe he’s worth the raise he just received. He led the bullpen in RE24/REW, Swinging Strike %, and WHIP last year meaning he was the best at reducing the other team’s chances at scoring, making batters miss and keeping guys off base. That basically sums up everything you want from a reliever.

While Soriano was the “closer”, Clippard was the better pitcher. Not being the closer allowed Davey Johnson the freedom to use Clip where and when he most needed him. When the team’s best reliever is their closer (as is usually the case) then convention can override necessity and managers often call in a lesser option to get vital outs as their bullpen ace sits idle. Too much gets made of the title, both by players and managers alike (not to mention fans), but as long as saves pay, that’s the scenario we’re looking at. Considering all that, Clippard is as rare as he is good.

This list of stats also shows us that the Nationals’ bullpen isn’t as deep as some believe. Only one of Roark and Ohlendorf will make the team as the right-handed long man and there aren’t enough power arms with wipe-out stuff. Only three regular members have a K/9 over 8 – Clippard, Stammen and Storen. Erik Davis is intriguing based on his K/9, but that came in a tiny sample size. He hasn’t topped 10 K/9 in the minors since rookie ball so it’s doubtful he could do it in the majors over an entire season. Davis could be an improvement over somebody like Mattheus, but a K/9 around 8 is more reasonable expectation.

Rizzo’s flirtation with Grant Balfour makes a lot more sense after looking at this list too (although trading Storen does not). We know Soriano, Clip, Stammen, Blevins and one of Roark or Ohlendorf are making the team. That leaves room for Storen as well as a free agent upgrade. Most assume another lefty will be added (thus Balfour was assumed to be a replacement for Storen) but the Nats just need to add the best possible reliever they can. If he’s left-handed, then great.

Unfortunately the FA pickings are slim. Madson, Hanrahan and Bailey offer upside but none will be ready for the start of the season. It doesn’t hurt to bring guys in on minor league deals (like original Nat Luis Ayala) but I’d also like to see a couple of the starting pitching prospects get a look at bullpen roles – in addition to Sammy Solis. I think Nate Karns should get a look as well. He’s behind Roark and Jordan as rotation depth and if he adds the couple of miles-per-hour to his fastball that are typical of such a move (see Craig Stammen’s GTKAN), he could be a real weapon. He has a K/9 of almost 11 in the minors so he brings a strikeout pedigree that few of the others listed above have. His fastball averaged 93.4 mph during his time in Washington, so it’s a reasonable assumption that he could average 95 or more in a part-time role.

AJ Cole is another power pitching starter that could be a mid- to late-season option, much in the way the Cardinals used Michael Wacha last year. The Nats have resisted calling up starting prospects as relievers, but perhaps the Cardinals’ success at doing just that will change their mindset. Xavier Cedeño could also be an option as a second lefty if Detwiler makes the rotation. While his K/9 is only 6.57, it’s 9.82 against fellow lefties. His FIP is 2.50 against same-handed batters too, down from 4.02 overall. He’s atrocious against right-handed hitters, but he’s as good as anyone available on the open market for the left-handed specialist role.

The bottom line is that the Nationals need more out of their bullpen than just 3.0 WAR as a unit. Every little edge the Nats can get will be critical to winning the division and the bullpen certainly provides an opportunity to improve. That said, the big money is probably better spent elsewhere – like on AJ Burnett – considering the remaining free agent options. However, the real solution could already reside in the minor leagues if the Nats are more aggressive with their top pitching prospects. Maybe there’s another Tyler Clippard in that bunch. 

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