The Angel bullpen was once the backbone of the Scioscia era, now that backbone has broken and left the Angels a crippled shell of their old selves. Despite efforts to rebuild the relief corps in recent years, things only seem to be getting worse amidst a vicious cycle of pitcher abuse, decreasing depth and woeful role mismanagement.
Early in his managerial career, Mike Scioscia was lauded for being smart with his bullpen usage. As the years have gone on, that reputation has diminished and possibly even reversed, especially if you look at recent seasons. Judging by his difficulties juggling the current batch of misfits, it seems that Scioscia's early success had less to do with tactical brilliance and more to do with having such a deep and talented crop of relievers that he couldn't mess them up if he tried.
Now though he is saddled with a bullpen so devoid of talent that he may not be able to find success if he tried, and boy is he trying. That wasn't supposed to be the case though. Jerry Dipoto recognized the problems the lack of bullpen depth caused the Halos in 2012, his first year as GM. He signed Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett in the off-season while adding Mark Lowe off waivers before the season began. This should have made things better. Some of it is Scioscia's fault and some of it is Dipoto's.
Where Dipoto erred was in the starting rotation he handed to Scioscia. The starting pitchers he added in the off-season were of a lower quality but the theory was that Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas could eat innings and Tommy Hanson could be more effective not having to force himself to go deep in games. In theory, the new deep bullpen would then offset the drop off in rotation talent by being so good that they could shorten games to six or seven inning affairs. That has been far from the case though and thus where Scioscia's trouble begin.
Those inning eating starters, coupled with the injury to Jered Weaver, have barely been able to choke down their proverbial meal, averaging just 5.7 innings per start this season. That is a contingency that Dipoto sort of planned for with his deep bullpen, he just didn't plan enough because the depth soon ran dry with Madson not yet healthy enough to pitch, Lowe, Burnett and Jepsen landing on the DL and Richards being moved into the rotation to replace the injured Jered Weaver.
You can chalk that up to bad luck, but there is bad planning involved too as Madson, Lowe and Burnett were known health risks entering the season and that is on top of the fact that bullpen arms are historically fragile and volatile. In other words, when you plan on your bullpen doing all the heavy lifting that your rotation can't, you are asking for trouble.
Even with all of that the Angels might have been able to survive had the various machinations of Scioscia not exacerbated the issue. The major issue with the poor starting pitching and the lack of bullpen depth is that it has created an untenable situation for Scioscia. He spend the first few weeks of the season running out his relievers as best he can, with a particular onus on those he trusts the mosts. Or at least he tried to. The starting pitchers were exiting so early he was forced to use the unproven relievers to try and get to the trusted veterans. That didn't really work which forced Scioscia in recent days to resort to what can only be described as abusing his top relievers. Over the last ten days, Dane De La Rosa has made seven appearances, Scott Downs made six and Ernesto Frieri made five. All three of them also had a a stretch in which they pitched on three consecutive days, which is usually a big no-no. But Scioscia hasn't really had any other choice.
That is why Scioscia has no changed tact again. Recognizing that he was riding his best three relievers so hard, Scioscia has been doing everything he can to try and spare them. This has led to him several times in recent days leaving a starting pitcher, like Blanton against Seattle and Roth against Texas, or a reliever, like Roth against Oakland, in for an extra inning only to have it backfire by them allowing baserunners to start the inning and forcing Scioscia to bring a fresh reliever into a high leverage situation.
That has been the case all too often for the Halos whose relievers have inherited a league-high 50 runners and league-high 42 high leverage relief appearances. If they had any talent left amidst all the injuries, that wouldn't be as big of a problem. But they don't, which is why the Halo bullpen has allowed a staggering 46% of those inherited runners to score. The league average is 31%.
Everything Scioscia tries to do only seems to make things worse. If he stretches out the starter, the starter can't handle it and leaves runners on base for a reliever who isn't capable of extricating the Angels from the situation. If he goes to the bullpen early and often, the relievers end up getting overworked. Some of that is on him for giving into obviously incorrect tactical decisions, but at a point you have to cut him some slack because the talent he has to work with has run so thin that he is relying heavily on a soft-tossing southpaw that was drafted in the 9th round of last year's draft and a hard-throwing 30-year old rookie. He's also gone through 19 different pitchers overall and 13 different relievers. Much like his success early in his career, Scioscia is really only as good as the tools he has to work with. Right now he has almost nothing to work with and it is making him do some very stupid things and the moves only get dumber as the talent gets thinner and the talent only gets thinner as he misuses the talent and around and around and around it goes.
This is the part where I'd love to tell you what the fix is but I am afraid there is none. All the Angels can really do is sit back, hope for the best and wait for everyone to get healthy, if that is even possible. Maybe then Scioscia will then no longer feel compelled to run Joe Blanton out fo another inning even though he is already over 100 pitches thrown. Maybe then he'll stop overplaying the platoon advantage. Maybe then the Angels will actually hold onto a lead.
Or maybe this vicious cycle will just continue and ruin yet another Angel season. Yeah, probably that one.