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Even Here We Are: Is The Blue Jays' Bullpen Headed For a Fall in 2009?

Thanks to the great Paul Westerberg (nee of the Replacements) for today's title.  We're five games into the 2009 season and while the Jays have played impressive baseball with both their rejiggered offense and their young starting pitchers showing promise, one thing that hasn't looked great so far is the one thing fans were counting on to shine, the Jays' bullpen.  I won't get into the stats as we're talking about tiny sample sizes, but they've walked 9 thusfar in 15 innings.  

Last season, the Jays' had mlb's best bullpen, but they also threw the fewest innings of any bullpen.  That's no surprise - the less a bullpen is worked, the more able it is to use its best pitchers and to match up situations better, and of course the less tired the pitchers are.  I was wondering, though, how many of those performances were flukey and to what extent the numbers show the Jays' bullpen can be expected to fall back a bit in 2009. 

For an example, there's no doubt that Scott Downs, Jesse Carlson, and Brandon League did a fine job in 2008.  However, each pitcher overperformed his FIP (3.39, 3.80, and 4.16 respectively) by over a full run and a half, with League just about 2 runs better (Downs, Carlson, and League finished with 1.78, 2.25, and 2.18 ERAs respectively).  Some of that can be attributed to the Jays' fine defense, particularly with respect to Downs and League who had extremely high groundball rates (4.71 GB/FB for League 2.93; for Downs) but not all of it and Carlson was actually an extreme flyball pitcher.  Taking a look at the runners left on base and you have a better picture - Downs, League, and Carlson each stranded between 85 and 87 percent of runners, and those just aren't numbers you expect to see year-to-year (Doc is historically quite good and stranding runners, since he's quite good in general, and stranded about 75% last season).  The difference between those two can make a big difference in a reliever's ERA and perceived performance, and LOB% is one of those things where you see a lot of fluctuation year to year.  Downs and League also exhibited near-ridiculous home run rates (.38 and .55 HR/9 innings) and that is always tough to keep up.  He didn't have a lot of innings, but Brian Wolfe had a similar performance, with an ERA almost 1.5 runs better than his FIP and 85% of runners left stranded.

In the less extreme camp, B.J. Ryan and Brian Tallet both exceeded their FIP by about 3/4 of a run and stranded about 80% of runners.  Both had good strikeout numbers but middling walk rates (3.51 BB/9 for Tallet, 4.34 for Ryan) and were unusually good at not giving up home runs (though, to be fair, Ryan has always been very good at that).  This season, Tallet and Ryan have already surrendered 3 home runs between them -- last season, they only surrendered 8 between them all season. 

Jason Frasor's ERA wasn't out of line with his FIP, but he had a strange season overall and didn't pitch many high-leverage innings.  Shawn Camp, who, like Frasor, has gotten off to a quick start this season, actually underperformed his FIP last season, though also in generally low-leverage situations. They are two who could actually improve on last season.

Looking at the situation as a whole, I'm definitely not saying that the Jays' relievers aren't excellent pitchers -- they are.  But looking at the situation as a whole, it is a little unreasonable to expect the same performances from those gentlemen as a group, though there are reasons to expect each one to do so (Downs has done his thing for 2 full seasons now, Ryan is the proper 18 months removed from TJ surgery, Tallet has gotten better every season as a Jay, League continues to develop his secondary pitches and has ridiculous groundball rates, etc).  This is especially true if you consider the increased workload they can expect supporting the Jays' young cast of starters.  Complicating the matter is that the Jays bullpen won't remain static all season - Jeremy Accardo is waiting in AAA, as are Dirk Hayhurst and plenty of other arms.  If Casey Janssen joins the rotation, Scott Richmond could become the long reliever -- alternatively, if Janssen has trouble stretching out, he could be the relief arm. 

To sum up, the Jays bullpen can't be expected to dominate like it did last season.  But there is every reason to believe it will continue to be one of the better bullpens in the AL.  Even with its early struggles this season, the Jays' pen has still managed a respectable 1.27 Whip, 16/9 K/BB ratio over 15 innings, and 3.00 ERA.