Much has been made of late of the resurgent Angel bullpen. The acquisition of Ernesto Frieri has turned what was once considered the Achilles heel of the Halo roster into a real strength.
Obviously, that is a good thing for the Angels. Less obviously, this is a phenomenal turn of events for the Angels as the bullpen has been a harbinger of either doom or glory for the franchise throughout the Mike Scioscia Era. Just check out the yearly fWAR of the Halo relievers against the actual win totals of the team each season.
As you can see, Scioscia inherited a mediocre bullpen but turned it into an elite bullpen right along the same schedule as he turned this once anonymous franchise into a perennial contender. And lo and behold, as the relief corps started to fall apart in recent years, so did the Angels’ ability to compete.
That is hardly a groundbreaking revelation, I know. Good teams usually have good bullpens. Teams can get away with poor relievers in a given year, but to achieve prolonged success like the Angels did, that’s just not doable without at least solid bullpen production. So what makes the Angels so special?
The answer is Scioscia and his philosophies. In the same way that Scioscia’s Angel squads have usually had strong bullpens, they have also usually had, how can I put this, less than stellar offenses. More to the point though is that Scioscia has been more than happy to play small ball with his lineup, often playing to score one run rather than attempting to go for the big inning. Those two factors add up to a lot of close games and a lot of high leverage innings for the bullpen to work. That’s why K-Rod had his record-setting 62-save season. Yes, he was great that season, but Scioscia’s managerial tendencies also helped create an abnormal number of save chances for Frankie to close down.
Which brings us to this season, even with Trout, Trumbo and Pujols the Angel offense is hardly a juggernaut, ranking 11th in the American League in runs scored. Fewer runs means closer games means more close leads for the Angel bullpen to protect which naturally means the the more important the relievers are to the Angels. Again, Scioscia’s managerial tendencies come into play in this regard. Historically, Scioscia has been rather predictable in his bullpen usage. He is not one to go out of his way to play platoon match-ups. Heck, the Angels went a few seasons without even having a lefty in the bullpen. Up until this season his reliever usage has been largely predicated on what inning it was. That archaic way of thinking put an increased emphasis on having dominant relievers who could succeed regardless of the situation or match-up.
Mercifully, Scioscia seems to have seen the light this season and has interchanged Ernesto Frieri and Scott Downs in the later innings based on match-up. He’s also continued to show an increased proclivity to mix and match his strikeout pitchers (Walden, Isringhausen) and groundball pitchers (Hawkins, Carpenter) depending on the situation. This more efficient deployment of bullpen assets is just as responsible for the bullpen’s turnaround as the addition of Frieri has been.
Though the current Angel relief corps sits in the middle of the pack in terms of value, they are clearly a group on the rise, just as the Angels are as a whole.