You might have read recently that the Indians are in the running to sign free-agent reliever Joe Nelson. At first glance, Nelson’s stats from last year paint a nice image. An ERA of 2.00, a 1.185 WHIP, and 10 K/9 would look nice in any bullpen. However, looking deeper helps to explain why the Marlins would non-tender such a pitcher (aside from their obvious frugalness). Nelson will be 34 next season, has had issues with his command in the past, has been a member of seven different organizations, and has played only four seasons in the majors, none of which were consecutive (due to both performance and injuries). These caveats are precisely what would make signing Nelson so perfect for the low-budget Indians. Nelson is a pitcher who has a good chance to end up being a steal at a cheap price. Yet, the aforementioned red flags are enough to scare off the big boys (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston). Given the Tribe's relief depth, Nelson is a low-risk play because they can cut him loose if he struggles and have bodies ready to fill the spot. However, if he ends up pitching well, the team could really benefit. While chances are that Nelson will not sign with the Indians, this is indicative of the concerted efforts that Mark Shapiro is making to fix a bullpen that has long been an area of concern for the franchise.
One of the most valid criticisms of Shapiro is his handling of the bullpen. Since he became general manager following the departure of John Hart after the 2001 season, the bullpen has ranked 27th, 9th, 26th, 1st, 25th, 6th, and 29th out of the thirty teams. So basically, every year, the bullpen has alternated between being in the top 10, and ranking 25th or below. Besides meaning that next year will be a great season because it is an odd year, these stats show an unprecedented level of inconsistency. One possible cause for these discrepancies might be the lack of a shutdown reliever that can relied on to come in a get out of jams in the down years. For instance this is the list of the Indians top reliever by ERA (at least 40 games) in those years (Note: ERA+ is a statistic that adjusts a pitcher's ERA according to their league and ballpark, with an average ERA+ being 100):
2002. Mark Wohlers: 4.79 ERA (Bullpen: 27th) – 0 Relievers with ERA+ ≥ 150
2003. David Riske: 2.29 ERA (Bullpen: 9th) – 1 Reliever with ERA+ ≥ 150
2004. Matt Miller: 3.09 ERA (Bullpen: 26th) – 0 Relievers with ERA+ ≥ 150
2005. Arthur Rhodes: 2.08 ERA (Bullpen: 1st) – 4 Relievers with ERA+ ≥ 150
2006. Rafael Betancourt: 3.81 ERA (Bullpen: 25th) – 0 Relievers with ERA+ ≥ 150
2007. Betancourt: 1.47 ERA (Bullpen: 6th) – 3 Relievers with ERA+ ≥ 150
2008. Rafael Perez: 3.54 ERA (Bullpen: 29th) – 0 Relievers with ERA+ ≥ 150
This list shows a clear correlation between team and bullpen success, and the performance of the top relievers. Whether it shows causation is difficult to tell without analysis of specific games, but theoretical examples can be used. For instance, if the Indians were leading by one run in the 8th inning and used their best reliever, the 2008 Indians with Rafael Perez (who allowed runs in 27.4% of appearances) would be 1.5 times as likely to blow the lead than the 2007 Indians with Rafael Betancourt (who allowed runs in 18.8% of appearances). Spreading that over an entire season, if the top reliever is 1.5 times as likely to give up a run in the most critical of situations, that amounts to a vast difference in outcome. This doesn’t even account for the differences in inherited runners. Another interesting aspect of the list is that no closer has led the Indians’ relievers in ERA in the Shapiro era (which in my opinion is a good thing, as I am a proponent of the “relief ace” theory, in which the team’s best reliever comes in when the stakes are the highest, whether that is the 9th inning, or with the bases loaded and one out in the 6th inning). One outlier in the list that shows the correlation between top reliever and record is the 2003 campaign, but one mustn’t forget that the team was led by the killer B’s of Bard, Broussard, Blake, Bradley, and Burks.
From the alternating pattern of years in which the Indians’ bullpen was excellent or awful, one might fault Shapiro for being complacent with the bullpen after a poor year, expecting it to continue its success the following year. However, compare his activity with that of the Indians’ division rival and “sister team,” the Minnesota Twins. The Twins are often cited as one of the best teams and the example of how to build a bullpen, having had bullpen ERA rankings of 9th, 10th, 12th, 4th, 1st, 11th, and 10th starting with 2002. However, reviewing the rosters, in that time period, the Twins have given 20 different relievers the ball at least 30 times in a season. Contrast this to the Indians, who have had 28 different relievers have at least 30 appearances in a season over this time period (including Jack Cressend, Cliff Bartosh, Jason Boyd, and Jose “Worst non-Fausto Closer Ever” Jimenez). As a result, the Indians have actually had more turn-over in their bullpen over the years, indicating some bad luck for the Indians, or good luck for the Twins. It also illustrates how active Shapiro has been at acquiring bullpen arms over the years, as of the relievers who reached 30 appearances for the first time as an Indian after Shapiro took over, only Riske, Baez, Cabrera, Davis, Carmona, Perez, Lewis, Mastny, and Mujica came from our farm system. So if anything, not enough quality relief prospects coming up through the farm system that can aid the team is more at fault for the Indians’ woes than the myth of inactivity. For example, over the same period, Twins products Juan Rincon, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Pat Neshek have anchored their bullpen. The presence of quality young relievers probably is a stabilizing factor for their bullpen.
Now that the Indians are getting quality relief prospects coming up through the system, some which are already helping (Perez and Lewis), and others on the way (Stevens, Adam Miller, and Meloan), they are building the bullpen the right way. Compare it to the 1995 Indians. They have the young Tavarez (Perez and Lewis), the newly acquired lefty-specialist Assenmacher (righty-specialist Smith), Plunk (Betancourt), the new closer Mesa (new closer Wood), and Poole (Nelson?). Masa is Gregg Olson in that his leash is incredibly short. But all in all, it appears that Shapiro has the tools he needs to build a steady bullpen: a core of young guys, specialists, and a relief ace. After all, there are so many quality arms with us that one is likely to emerge as the top reliever. For all we know, Rich Rundles will be that guy.