Wednesday, April 11, 2012

State of the pen

Topical? Hardly. But after RickyRo's gem this afternoon topped off by Sergio Santos actually converting a save, here's to raining over the Jays' vaunted, revamped bullpen. The offense - averaging 5 runs a game through the first six games - is not the problem everyone thinks it is. Bautista and Rasmus should begin to hit, and even if Arencibia's loopy uppercut never comes around and he finds himself following the same middling career arc as his predecessor, there's enough power, speed and plate discipline on this roster to grind out some runs. (And no, I'm not trying to parrot Buck Martinez.)

The rotation, question mark that it may be, is another cup of tea altogether. The Jays will live or die on the backs of Drabek, Morrow and Alvarez. If those guys self-destruct, the season is over before it begins. Everyone knows this. By passing over on the John Lannans, Roy Oswalts and Livan Hernandezs of this world, Alex Anthopoulos has made a commitment to his aces. If they boom, we're in. If they bust, we're out. That's ballsy. And, you know, good on them.

The bullpen, on the other hand - oh, the bullpen. What is a bullpen, anyway? Philosophically, I mean. Generally speaking, it's a motley assortment of borderline players...guys who lack control, guys who lack stuff, guys who lack endurance, guys who never got a fair shake, guys who got too old. It's a collection of single-inning wildcards, allocated to "roles" by some alchemic mix of gut feelings, matchups and luck. Not even a stat invented to measure pure pitcher performance like FIP can really govern the random deviations that can occur within any given inning. If we can cherry-pick any Ricky Romero inning from today's game, and we pick out his third inning, we'd hardly have a fair barometer of his performance.

So, I mean, even the best bullpens are gambles. The general consensus on bullpen construction, if there is one, would have to be along these lines: find a consistently dominant arm or two, surround him by some guys who tend to outpitch their stuff, mix in some raw talent and a couple of failed starters (for blowouts), then hold your breath and hope for the best. That's pretty much what the Jays did last year: they added Frank Francisco to replace Keven Gregg (proven closer), replaced Scott Downs with Jon Rauch and Carlos Villanueva to team with Casey Janssen  (overperformers) and mixed in some Frasor, Zep, Camp, and Luis Perez (pure skills/long relief). What happened? They led the league in blown saves. Shitty buzz.

So this offseason, what do they do? They replace one alliterative closer with another; replace a 33-year-old former closer in a setup role with a 36-year-old former closer in a setup role; add a left-handed specialist ex-starter after trading a younger version to the St Louis Cardinals; and reacquire a middle reliever. There's nothing wrong with any of that, and 11 innnings of four-hit ball on Opening Day last Thursday certainly gave us hope for this relief corps. But the formula hasn't changed in any meaningful way. If Santos' two blown saves aren't simply an anomaly - say, if his already-dicey fastball control deserts him for any extended period of time - there's no reason he can't have the same early rut that Francisco had last year. Cordero, through a meaningfully miniscule sample size, is already bringing back shades of Rauch. Obviously variance is a necessary and understood caveat at any position in any professional sport, but with a major league bullpen this is magnified tenfold. Two blown saves in two early outings means less than eleven innings on Opening Day, which means less than any given week in the starting rotation. In a larger sense, even if Santos is good - as in better than Francisco - the random allocation of the results of that goodness (i.e. when in the game situation he gives up the 12 or 15 runs he might surrender this year as opposed to when Francisco gave up his 21 runs last year) won't necessarily manifest in any meaningful way.
In short, put your faith in sandy haired kids and Venezuelans. The rest, my friends, is chance.

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