F-Rod blowing smoke down someone's pipe
Part Eleven: The Bullpen
Of the major areas of a baseball team—lineup, starting rotation, and bullpen—it is the latter which has, historically at least, warranted the least attention. Certain records will likely never be broken simply because the nature of the game has changed so much: In the 19th century a team often only had two starting pitchers—the all-time record for games started is 75, shared by both Pud Galvin (1883) and Wil White (1879). Certainly, if you look at the single-season leaders for games started, you have to get to the 122nd pitcher on the list, Jack Chesbro, before you get to the 20th century (in 1904 he started 51 games). An interesting exception to this is Wilbur Wood, who in 1972 and ’73 started 49 and 48 games respectively; everyone else around him on the list is either from the 19th century or the early decades of the 20th.
It wasn’t until 1911 that a pitcher have more than 10 saves--Mordecai Brown with 13 for the Cubs; in 1926, Firpo Marberry had 22 saves for the Washington Senators. By the 1940s and 50s, the league leaders were regularly (but not always) in the 20s; it wasn’t until 1965 that a pitcher saved more than 30 games—Ted Abernathy with 31 for the Reds. Throughout the 1970s, the league leaders were in the upper 20s and into the 30s; the last league leader below 30 was Lee Smith in 1983, who saved 29 games for the Cubs, the same year that Dan Quisenberry became the first pitcher to save more than 40 games (45 for the Royals). By the late 1980s the five-man rotation was firmly established; complete games and total innings pitched dropped precipitously so that now 33-35 games started and 200 or so inning pitched is the norm for a front-end starter.
From the mid-80s onward the closer has been one of the most important players on the team. Bobby Thigpen still holds the major league record with 57 saves in 1990 for the White Sox; eight pitchers have saved 50+ in a season, Mariano Rivera and Eric Gagne each twice.
The Angels franchise has always existed in a context in which relief played at least a moderate role. For this piece I will focus mainly on recent decades, during which relievers have been more important. But as an overview, some of the prominent relievers of the first couple decades include Tom Morgan, Art Fowler, Bob Lee, Minnie Rojas, Ken Tatum, Hoyt Wilhelm (at age 46), Eddie Fisher, and Dave LaRoche. During the 80s, Angels relievers included Mark Clear, Andy Hassler, Don Aase, Doug Corbett, Luis Sanchez, and of course the tragic Donnie Moore.
In 1987, a 24-year old ex-softball pitcher named Bryan Harvey made his debut in three games. For the next three years he was a strong closer; in 1991 he had what is perhaps the best relief season by an Angels pitcher ever, with 46 saves, a 1.60 ERA, 101 strikeouts and only 17 walks in 78.7 innings. The following year he was injured and only pitched in 25 games and then was taken by the Florida Marlins in the expansion draft for whom he had a second stellar season before fading away due to injury.
The top relievers of the 90s, in addition to Harvey, were March Eichhorn, Lee Smith, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, and the man who has to this point probably the greatest Angels career as a reliever: Troy Percival, who complied 316 saves with a 2.99 ERA in 10 years as an Angel. Percival learned the trade as the set-up man for Lee Smith in 1995 and took over as the closer in ’96, posting one of the best relief seasons of the year. For the next four years he was consistent but unspectacular, with ERAs between 3.46 and 4.50. In 2001 and 2002 he regained his form of ’96-’97, although dropped off again to merely good in his last two years as an Angel. All told, Percival has four excellent seasons and six merely solid to good ones, yet enough to be considered the best Angels reliever of all time…until a certain 20-year old joined the team at the end of 2002. But more on that in a minute.
Percival’s reign lasted until 2004, headlining General Manger Bill Stoneman’s revamp of the bullpen of the last decade, which included standout middle relievers Brendan Donnelly—who was nearly unhittable in his first two years as an Angel (’02 and ’03)—and Scot Shields, who has arguably been as valuable to the Angels as any pitcher over the last six years. Stoneman has filled in the rotation with a revolving door of solid contributors, including Ben Weber, Kevin Gregg, and Justin Speier.
At the end of the 2002 season a 20-year old named Francisco Rodriguez faced 21 batters, fanning 13 of them, and allowing only six of them to reach base but none to score (In other words, of his first 15 outs, only two of them were not strikeouts). Despite his late season debut, the Angels managed to finesse him into the playoffs, where his dominance continued—in 18.7 innings he gave up 4 runs, while striking out 28—and he was a major reason the Angels won the championship.
The following year, Rodriguez apprenticed under Troy Percival in much the way Percival had under Lee Smith in ’95. In 2004 he got 12 saves, then took over in 2005, saving 45, 47, and 40 games over the last three years, with ERAs of 2.67, 1.73, and 2.81, for five full seasons that have been the most dominant five-year stretch for an Angels reliever ever, all before the age of 26.
- Francisco Rodriguez (25) – 2.81 ERA, 40 saves, 34-90 bb-k in 67.3 IP.
- Scot Shields (31) – 3.86 ERA, 33-77 bb-k in 77 IP.
- Justin Speier (33) – 2.88 ERA, 12-47 bb-k in 50 IP.
- Darren Oliver (36) – 3.78 ERA, 23-51 bb-k in 64.3 IP.
- Chris Bootcheck (28) – 4.77 ERA, 24-56 bb-k in 77.3 IP.
- Dustin Moseley (25) – 4.40 ERA, 27-50 bb-k in 92 IP (including 8 starts).
The Stoneman years, especially since 2002, have been marked by one of the top bullpens in baseball. Yet the last few years have shown some cracks; after the departure of Donnelly and Gregg, Stoneman seemed to panic, giving a four-year $16 million contract to Justin Speier—a good pitcher, but $4 million is a lot to pay a middle reliever in his mid-30s.
How did the bullpen fare in 2007? It may have been the worst season in years. Rodriguez and Shields imploded in the second half (although Rodriguez righted himself by September). Shields in particular was surprisingly inconsistent; after being virtually unhittable in May (1.69 ERA) and June (0.00 ERA), he was merely average in July (4.09), terrible in August (9.00) and September (6.17). To put it another way, before the All-Star break Shields had an ERA of 1.70, after 7.36.
When he was healthy, Speier was good, and Bootcheck and Oliver were both solid. Dustin Moseley was a very useful pitcher, filling in wherever needed. After posting a 6.57 ERA in 29 games, Hector Carrasco was released (signed by the Nationals a week later). A few other pitchers made brief appearances: Greg Jones, Rich Thompson, Jason Bulger, Marcus Gwyn, and Chris Resop.
Overall the bullpen was still good, just not as unhittable as in past years.
The biggest question is, of course, whether or not Arte Moreno and Tony Reagins will re-sign Francisco Rodriguez. They certainly want to, just not for what F-Rod thinks he is worth (as one of the best closers in the game, at least according to F-Rod).
There is an argument to be made to give F-Rod at least close to what he wants: he is coming off three straight years of 40+ saves and just turned 26 a few days ago (January 7th). Yet there are also concerns: His walk rate—already a bit too—was the highest of his career, and he seems to alternate stellar years with “merely” very good ones, as displaced by his Adjusted ERAs over the last five years: 145, 247, 158, 264, and 162 last year. Who is the real F-Rod? Is he the super-closer of 2004 and 2006? Or merely the very good one of ’03, ’05, and ’07? There are also concerns about his violent delivery—last year’s edition of Baseball Prospectus predicted that his arm would fall off any year now. For Rodriguez, 2008 may determine a lot: whether he can settle in as one of the top closers the game has ever seen, or whether he will be erratic and an injury waiting to happen.
The problem is that there are no clear heirs in the wings. Rich Thompson shows promise, but may not be closer material. This fan has pondered whether Ervin Santana might be a good fit as a closer, but if he can’t handle the pressure of road games, it is doubtful that he has the chutzpah to close.
As for the rest of the bullpen, it will be interesting to see if Reagins emphasizes it to the degree that Stoneman did. Only time will tell. In 2008 we should see a slight return to form (assuming Scot “party boy” Shields matures a bit). What that bullpen is, is still to be determined: Rodriguez, Shields, and Speier are locks, as probably is Moseley. But for the final two spots it depends: probably one of either Saunders or Santana, with Bootcheck and Thompson competing for the final spot.
- Francisco Rodriguez (26) – 2.30 ERA, 44 saves
- Scot Shields (32) – 3.30 ERA
- Justin Speier (34) – 3.00 ERA
- Dustin Moseley (26) – 4.50 ERA
- Chris Bootcheck (29) – 4.50 ERA
- Rich Thompson (23) – 3.50 ERA
The Angels have plenty of solid pieces to work with. As mentioned above, the major concern is two-fold and applies mainly to 2009: How much to offer Rodriguez, and who to replace him with if he signs elsewhere. Obviously Reagins isn’t afraid to spend money, so if Rodriguez isn’t resigned we might see a free agent closer or trade for 2009.
The Angels Past, Present and Future
- Introduction and Catcher
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- Starting Rotation