Bullpen Narratives

Bullpen Narratives

Narrative is a powerful part of the human experience. We are bombarded with more information than it is possible to understand fully, and so we construct narratives to make sense of disparate information. Narratives are a simplification of reality by their very function, and it has become a shorthand used by many to discredit ideas. I have used it in my debates very much the way that Bleacher Nation did today

This “James Russell is 0 for 5 in save opportunities” narrative is getting on my nerves. You see it everywhere after he had a rough outing on Friday. The point of saying it is to imply that, despite his obvious success this year, he has blown every single save opportunity he’s received. Stop for a moment. Think about that. Has Russell even been giving five traditional save opportunities? Was Friday’s? No, and no. The blown save stat is complete garbage for non-closers, because, when they enter a game in the later innings (not the 9th) with a lead, they do not have the opportunity to record a save. They have the opportunity to record a “hold,” a stat that virtually no one discusses (and its utility is questionable, as is the “save,” frankly). So, in terms of “save” versus “blown save,” every time Russell enters a game in the 7th or 8th with the lead, he can *only* record a “blown save.” It’s just a silly point to keep making over and over. Russell has a 2.53 ERA, a 1.188 WHIP, and a 3.00 K/BB ratio. Those are the stats that matter.

Brett Taylor is correct to point out that James Russell’s overall numbers have been very good this season, and that judging a setup man or middle reliever based on blown saves is hardly fair. But I think he is falling into another narrative that has been constructed, and that is the idea of James Russell as a high leverage reliever and replacement for Sean Marshall. It is a narrative that I have subscribed to as well looking at his promising numbers as a reliever. His numbers this year as a reliever are stellar, but his career numbers are very similar with a 3.29 ERA, a 1.237 WHIP and a 3.02 K/BB ratio. Those are the type of numbers out of a guy I want to give the ball to in the eighth or ninth inning.

MRubio was the first person to alert me to James Russell being “sneaky bad.” Russell has been used in 21 games with 50 PAs in what Baseball-Reference terms high leverage situations. Opponents are hitting .349/.429/.581 in those situations and Russell has a 1.00 K/BB ratio. In low leverage, Russell has pitched in 22 games and had 54 PAs. Opponents are hitting .170/.185/.208 and Russell has an 11.00 K/BB ratio. Now there is obvious sample size issues given the small numbers we are talking about here, and perhaps some luck explains the difference in performance to a degree. Russell does have a difference of a .175 points in BABIP in the two situations.

However, when we look at career numbers in similar situations, a comparable picture comes into focus. Russell has pitched in 91 games with a high leverage situation and had 192 PAs. Opponents are batting .291/.346/.473 with a 2.53 K/BB ratio. Russell has pitched in 159 games with low leverage situations in a 159 games and had 537 PAs. Opponents are batting .257/.301/.455 and Russell’s K/BB ratio jumps back up to 3.10.
If Russell isn’t a setup man, then what is he? He is your typical, true lefty one out guy (LOOGY). His career and season platoon splits still show Russell have a huge advantage when working against lefty hitters. In his career Russell has a nearly two point difference in OPS and a nearly 5 difference in K/BB when facing left handed hitters versus right hand hitters. The point is not that James Russell is a bad reliever or that he is having a bad year. James Russell is very good at what he does and that is facing left handers particularly in low leverage situations. The method which people tried to make the point that Russell isn’t a closer or high leverage reliever might have been faulty, but there is clear empirical evidence to suggest that Russell is miscast as a true setup man.

The Russell narrative is only one pervasive narrative surrounding the Cubs bullpen. The other one probably is best summarized as the it’s all Carlos Marmol‘s fault theory or this tweet:

This line of thinking reminds me a lot of the Ted McGinley character in Major League: Back to the Minors saying that he was just a short reliever away from turning the team around.

Now while you revel that I made a reference to a terrible movie about baseball, consider the absurdity of how just one player would make a 10+ win difference in less than 80 games of a baseball season. People have and will point to the 16 blown saves, but that hardly means that a closer is the difference between 10 wins. That becomes very clear when you examine it with any detail.

The Cubs have actually only had 13 games with a blown save, and their record is 4-9 in those games. That represents a mere 5 game swing in terms of the record. Even if the entire bullpen was perfect in save situations for the Cubs at best it would be a 9 game swing, and that is a ridiculous standard to have for a bullpen. The Yankees, with the greatest closer of all time, still have 3 blown saves this year. Another comparison is the Baltimore Orioles with a historic run in 1 run games, extra inning games, and overachieving win production had 18 blown saves last year. The bullpen led by Cy Young winning Eric Gagne in 2003 had 8 blown saves. Bullpens are never perfect.

Going beyond that fact is the Cubs record since the closer position has been stablized with Kevin Gregg. Gregg notched his first save on April 27th and the Cubs have never lost a game he has pitched in a save opportunity this year. The Cubs record during that stretch was 26-31. The record is certainly better, but it is hardly .500 or above.

The Cubs bullpen does have a large share of the blame for the Cubs 2013 record. The bullpen is bad. The Cubs bullpen ranks 13th in the NL in terms of ERA and 12th in terms of WHIP. They have been particularly bad in high leverage situations with the worst K/BB ratio in the NL and 13th in opponent OPS. In save situations it is even worse with the Cubs the worst in both K/BB ratio and opponent OPS by a wide margin. The bullpen is certainly one of the culprits in the 11 game under .500 record the Cubs have right now.

It is a nice narrative to say that the difference between the Cubs being a winning and losing team this year is the bullpen, but it hardly stands up to any scrunity. Force trading Carlos Marmol for Mariano Rivera at the beginning of the year would have certainly made the 2013 Cubs better. It would not have made the good enough to be mildly competitive though.


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