The Angels’ bullpen seems to have made a collective decision to ruin the team’s chances at the post-season and Tony Reagins only seems to be enabling them by refusing to make a trade. We fans now have no option to sit back and watch the tragedy unfold before us as we wallow in the reliever-induced misery.
But before we designate this year’s relief corps as the worst of the worst, let’s at least do them the dignity of seeing if they are as bad statistically as they are in all of our minds. We already know that the Halos lead the American League with 22 blown saves, but I don’t think that tells the whole story, so let’s take a look at some more advanced metrics that could reveal the real truth.
One of my favorite advanced metrics is meltdowns, which is sort of a more intelligent blown save based on win probability that ignores the whole stupid normal save rules. In this category, the Angels have picked up 57 meltdowns, which is fourth most in the AL, trailing the Orioles, Twins and Royals who lead at 67. I suspect it is no coincidence that the three teams below them all suck.
On the flip side, there are shutdowns, which is the win probability version of a save. Here the Angels are tied for seventh at 97. Not good, but not bad either. It is worth noting that Walden and Downs account for 53 of the shutdowns. They also account for 15 of the meltdowns. That leaves 44 shutdowns and 32 meltdowns for the rest of the blowpen to cover, which pretty much confirms all of our suspicions that the middle relief is the true culprit in the bullpen problems.
Meltdowns and shutdowns doesn’t necessarily translate to wins and losses though, so we have to dig a little deeper. The overall win probability added by the Angels relievers is 0.45, the ninth best mark in the American League. That’s better than I expected, but we once again find that number to be a bit top heavy as Walden and Downs carry a combined 3.19 WPA, meaning everyone else combined for a -2.74 WPA. The only other Angel reliever even on the positive side of the number line is Bobby Cassevah. In other words, Walden, Downs and Cassevah are the only relievers actually making a positive overall contribution to the Angels’ record. Remember that little fun fact the next time someone tries to impart on you the virtues of the respectable ERAs that Hisanori Takahashi (who leads the Angels with 11 meltdowns) and Fernando Rodney (who has the worst WPA, -1.85, on the team) have posted this season.
If there is one mitigating, but also slightly damning, stat for the Angels it is that they lead all of baseball in Average Leverage Index. That is a fancy way of saying that their bullpen pitches in high pressure situations more than any other team. Having so many more high leverage situations (aka close games) the Halo relievers are predisposed to meltdowns. And since the relievers have also thrown the fourth fewest innings in baseball, it probably seems like they blow more games than they really do just because we see them so infrequently. So, Mike Scioscia seems to be doing his best to avoid using the bullpen, but when he does, it tends to be in close game situations, which sort of defeats the purpose. Then again, it wouldn’t be a problem if the team could just score runs to give the bullpen some margin for error.
It is that lack of a margin for error that seems to be the bigger problem here. Believe it or not, the Angels bullpen has done one very important thing well: keeping inherited runners from scoring. The Angel relievers have permitted just 26% of inherited runners to score, the fifth-best rate in the AL. That’s a great skill for a bullpen to have and certainly suggests they aren’t all that bad. You know what else suggests the bullpen isn’t horrendous? Their 3.58 ERA, which is the sixth-BEST in the American League. It may feel like it sometimes, but the Halo relievers just aren’t giving up runs in droves. Again, they still aren’t good, but they aren’t as wretched as the fan rhetoric might suggest. The problem, as we learned from the Average Leverage Index, is that they just always seem to be pitching in high leverage situations, so anytime they do give up a run, it really burns them.
If this comes as a shock to you, you are not alone. I’m looking these stats up as I write this and am almost a little upset that the narrative of this story suddenly seems to be defending this maligned group. But having considered all the facts now, I still believe the bullpen is a weakness, a weakness that is exacerbated by the Angels’ offensive woes constantly putting the pen in position to protect small leads. You’d think that would have prompted Tony Reagins to swing a deal to make the bullpen better, but I have a hunch that Scioscia using the bullpen so sparingly created a fallacious belief in the front office that adding more bullpen arms wasn’t as necessary.
What’s done is done at this point and there is little they can do now to improve the bullpen’s fortunes this season. I just hope they finally get around to bolstering this bad, but not terrible, bullpen in the off-season.