The NL West looks like it will be highly contested all season. The Diamondbacks currently hold first place by 2.5 games, but they have been hot of late, winning four of their last six, and the baseball season has a way of evening out those hot streaks. I would venture to guess that Kevin Towers doesn’t see his team’s lead as anything close to safe, especially considering how shaky the bullpen has been late in games all season long.
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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As a whole, the D-backs bullpen has been around average, currently ranking tied for fifth in the NL in reliever WAR (3rd in the NL West) with 1.6. Josh Collmenter and Matt Reynolds have combined for 1.5 WAR between the two of them. However, the back end of the bullpen, or more specifically, the portion of the bullpen used in high leverage situations, has been terrible. Heath Bell, J.J. Putz, and David Hernandez have been worth -0.6 WAR combined so far this season. Kirk Gibson seems pretty adamant that Heath Bell is to remain his closer despite his ugly 4.59 ERA and 4.93 FIP. Putz isn’t doing much better with a 4.78 FIP, although he’s tossed only 16.1 innings. David Hernandez’s ERA currently sits at 4.58, while his FIP is 4.46.
They’ve all been disappointing, and they all have let up a lot of home runs. Bell has let up over two big flies per nine, and a whopping 22.9% of fly balls hit against him have left the yard. Putz’s home run per fly ball percentage is even higher, at 23.1%, and Hernandez’s is also higher than the league average rate. This is an area where people often look for luck, and potential regression. There is a statistic that accounts for regression in this realm called xFIP, and you will often see it cited as a better ERA predictor than FIP. Since xFIP regresses the HR/FB stat to the league average, and Bell and Putz both have abnormally high HR/FB rates, xFIP views them in a much more favorable light than does FIP. Bell’s xFIP for 2013 is 3.29, and Putz’s is 3.52. Considering Bell has thrown only 33.1 innings, and Putz has thrown less than half that, it is pretty reasonable to expect that they will let up fewer home runs as the season progresses. I’m usually not too quick to accept xFIP as gospel, because I do believe that the amount of luck in hitting a home run can be slightly overstated by the stat. At the end of the day, if hitters are consistently going yard against you it usually means that you’re consistently throwing hittable pitches. But regardless, I expect neither Bell nor Putz to continue with a HR/FB in the .20’s.
Either way, sending Bell out there every time there’s a save situation while he’s struggling is not the best option. In a bullpen like Arizona’s it makes a lot more sense to blur the lines between traditional relief pitcher roles, and use guys when they are most likely to succeed. For example, Josh Collmenter has allowed just a .265 wOBA against righties in his career, and gets most of his outs via strikeout or fly ball. Brad Zeigler on the other hand has been getting batters to ground out over 75% of the time over the last two seasons. Will Harris has held lefties to a .278 wOBA so far in his brief major league career and his minor league track record is equally impressive.
Using these guys in high leverage situations will allow Putz, Bell and Hernandez to work out their kinks in the middle innings, and if Collmenter, Zeigler, Harris, and the rest of the bullpen are used intelligently, there is no reason why they can’t be effective. They should certainly do better than simply sending Bell out there every time the rulebook arbitrarily deems the game in need of “saving”.