Tuesday, July 8, 2008

By Jason Pritchett - Angelswin.com Columnist

The Angels’ starting trio of “Smokin’ Aces” has garnered plenty of attention and accolades recently, as Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana were named to the 2008 All-Star team and John Lackey received the Pitcher of the Month award for June. Not to be outdone, the Angels’ bullpen is stocked full of its own aces, led by All-Star Francisco Rodriguez, and continues to play a vital role in the Halos’ success.

Due to the stalwart performance of the Angels’ starting rotation, which ranks 3rd in the American League in ERA and whose members frequently pitch into the 7th inning or later, their bullpen has actually thrown the fewest innings of any team in the A.L. as of July 8, 2008—but given the Angels’ offensive struggles this season, it becomes all the more important to have a consistent and reliable bullpen to finish off close games.

On the surface, the bullpen’s collective 3.97 ERA might not look all that impressive, ranking only 10th out of the 14 A.L. teams. However, the bullpen ERA is inflated by the weak performances by fill-in relievers Jason Bulger, Chris Bootcheck, Rich Thompson, and Dustin Moseley (who has made two relief appearances in addition to his five starts). Those four relievers have combined to allow 33 earned runs in only 27 2/3 innings pitched, accounting for 34% of the earned runs allowed by the Angels bullpen—even though they have pitched only 12% of the bullpen innings.

On the other hand, the Halos’ regular relief corps of Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Jose Arredondo, Darren Oliver, Darren O’Day, and Justin Speier has a combined 3.03 ERA over 194 1/3 innings pitched so far this season, a mark that would put them near the top of the A.L. if sustained over the course of a full season. The health and stability of this six-man bullpen over the remainder of the season will go a long way toward securing a return trip to the postseason for the Angels.

“K-Rod’s” record-setting pace for saves has been well-documented, and has perhaps overshadowed the solid work by the rest of the regular relievers. Justin Speier has struggled with left-handed batters, giving up six homeruns to lefties in only 72 plate appearances, but has limited right-handed batters to a .200 batting average. Rookie Darren O’Day has given up 11 earned runs in 27 1/3 innings so far this year, but 7 of those earned runs came in a mop-up role in two blowout losses to Oakland and Tampa Bay.

Set-up man Scot Shields has returned to form after a rough second half in 2007, which saw him register an uncharacteristically high 7.36 ERA while allowing close to two baserunners per inning. This season, Shields has rebounded to post a stellar 2.57 ERA and is allowing just over one baserunner per inning.

Lefty Darren Oliver has been another key contributor who goes largely unnoticed by fans and the media. After a rocky Angels’ debut in 2007 (13 earned runs in 14 2/3 innings in the first two months of the season), Oliver has been one of the most reliable Angels’ relievers, posting a 2.79 ERA over his last 87 innings pitched. Hardly overpowering (his average fastball is just under 88 MPH, according to Fangraphs.com), he relies on a mix of sliders and curves to keep hitters off-balance.

Oddly, although Oliver is currently the only left-handed pitcher in the Angels’ bullpen, he does not fill the role of “lefty specialist.” In fact, over the past two years, Oliver has been significantly more effective against right-handed batters, while left-handed hitters have given him a good deal of trouble. Since the beginning of 2007, Oliver has held righties to a .223 batting average and a .305 slugging percentage, while lefties have hit him at a .305 clip while slugging close to .500.

A new face, Jose Arredondo, has injected a jolt of energy to the Angels bullpen since his debut on May 14. Arredondo, who was converted to a full-time reliever last season after being a starter in the minors in 2005-2006, has put a somewhat troubled past behind him this season. Arredondo was demoted last season from AA to single A for “disciplinary reasons” stemming from an incident on the mound when he was pulled from a game, leaving some observers to wonder if he had the composure and makeup to be a successful reliever. His strong performance in spring training and at AAA Salt Lake earlier this season erased any doubts, and he has been virtually unhittable thus far in the majors. Mixing a mid-90s fastball with a developing change-up, Arredondo has shown remarkable control, walking only three batters in 20 innings while striking out 19 since his major league call-up.

Looking toward the future of the bullpen, Arredondo has emerged as a potential successor to Rodriguez in the closer role, should Rodriguez leave via free agency at the end of the season. Down on the farm, the next wave of Angel relievers is still developing. Bulger, Stephen Marek, and Kevin Jepsen are probably the closest to being ready to contribute on the major league level. Bulger, a former first round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is now 29, too old to truly be considered a “prospect.” Bulger has struggled in his 22 major league appearances spread out over four seasons, but reports out of Salt Lake tell of increased velocity on his fastball this season and he has thoroughly dominated the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, striking out more than a batter and a half per inning.

After mixed results as a starter at Rancho Cucamonga in 2007, the Angels have converted Marek to the bullpen this season, and so far the experiment has been a success, with Marek striking out well over a batter an inning at AA Arkansas while posting a 2.84 ERA. The Angels also converted Jepsen to relieving after he suffered setbacks as a starter in 2005. While Jepsen is still battling some control issues, he has increased his strikeout rate this season, while reducing his walk and hits-per-inning ratios. Jepsen was recently promoted to Salt Lake and either he or Bulger could provide relief help should the Angels need it later this season.
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