Ever since the Twins decided to stop playing in a stadium that had the aesthetic of a bowling alley, it has felt like the Twins have needed to improve their bullpen. Now, I’m not saying there is a correlation here, but maybe the threat of a screaming foul ball taking care of someone’s shin made the relievers pitch just a little better in the Metrodome. Personally, I don’t think I have trusted a Twins bullpen since 2010 when they had Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and, *gulp*, Matt Capps sitting out there in left-center ready to contain the lead. And my oddly specific intuition is mostly correct, since that year, the Twins have been ranked the 29th, 25th, 4th, 23rd, 23rd, 21st, 19th, and 18th best bullpen respectively by fWAR each year from 2011 to now. That comes out to an average of ~20th each year that is propped up massively by the one year it was actually good. Meaning that the bullpen has been near the top of the to-do list during the offseason for quite some time now.
This offseason was no different, while the bullpen was technically the best it had been since 2013, it was obvious that they needed to upgrade with some reliever additions if they wanted a chance to build a stable pen. And so we waited and waited this offseason as cheap, reliable veteran relievers were signed and so far the bullpen addition has been… Blake Parker. I’m being a bit unfair here because Parker had an incredible 2017 with the Angels and was still pretty good last year and there appears to be internal help as Fernando Romero has also been moved to the pen along with possibly Martin Perez or Adalberto Mejia. Also internally, Trevor Hildenberger and Addison Reed present themselves as interesting bounce-back candidates but I really only trust the server of sliders to actually do so (imaginary sliders, not real ones, it does annoy me slightly that Hildy’s best pitch is actually the changeup but that’s neither here nor there).
One interesting thing from the numbers I presented earlier was that 2013 bullpen, going from 25th the year before to 4th is quite the drastic jump. While I won’t be looking at that bullpen specifically as the target of this article, I will be looking at another similar bullpen example in the Padres. San Diego’s bullpen in 2017 was ranked 24th in ERA, 29th in FIP, and 29th in fWAR. In 2018, their bullpen was ranked 6th in ERA, 2nd in FIP, and 2nd in fWAR. These are all major improvements from only a one year difference. How did they do it? Well hop on in and I’ll break down how their personnel changed and what the major factors for these drastic turnarounds were.
Let’s start with the Padres in 2017, here are the 8 relievers who logged the most innings for the Padres out of the bullpen in 2017 ranked by total innings:
These players made up the majority of the 2nd worst bullpen that year, and here’s how they lined up in 2018 with asterisks on the returning players:
A few things here, this is now the second straight article I have made that references Robbie Erlin, I don’t know how to feel about that. Also, the Padres really blurred the line between starter and reliever so many of these guys logged innings in both roles which forced me to check how they got their innings for this article to be accurate which was a pain in the butt. Also, Jordan Lyles has a negative career rWAR, stop giving him jobs. And finally, who was the leader in rWAR for the Padres last year? That’s right, Hunter Renfroe apparently was, what an odd team.
Anyways, let’s ignore my semi-coherent rambling thoughts and talk about the topic at hand, the 2018 Padres only saw 4 guys remain from the previous year along with 4 fresh faces who made major impacts on the 2018 team. Where did all of these guys come from? Well, let’s break that down also:
Free Agency-Craig Stammen, Jordan Lyles
Trade-Matt Strahm, Robbie Erlin
Developed-Adam Cimber, Phil Maton
Waiver claim-Brad Hand, Kirby Yates
An awfully balanced way to build a pen, almost suspiciously balanced. Why is it suspicious? I don’t know, it just is.
Even those free agent additions weren’t big name tickets, as mentioned before, Lyles holds a negative career rWAR and Stammen was consistent for years with the Nationals but had missed two whole years of major league time before latching on with the Padres in 2017. Strahm was a talented lefty with the Royals who came over when the Royals were actually buyers in 2017 (if you can believe that) while Erlin was in the Mike Adams trade many moons ago (y’all remember Mike Adams)? Maton and Cimber were never highly rated prospects in the consistently great Padres system but worked themselves up through the ranks before getting their major league chances in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Hand and Yates are interesting cases. Hand was a struggling starter for years with the Marlins before San Diego claimed him, made him a reliever, and turned him into Andrew Miller Lite. Yates bounced around a few teams and had decent peripherals in some small samples but when even the Rays don’t want an extra look at you, that’s usually a bad sign. But he added a splitter when he joined the Padres and then became death, the destroyer of worlds.
All in all, this is an awfully long-winded way of saying that a team doesn’t need to make a big splash to have an elite bullpen. The Padres used wood, glue, and duct tape and had one of the best bullpens in the game thanks to their pitching coach Darren Balsley and a front office that has an eye for talent and the patience to let that talent develop. The Twins will look to somewhat follow suit as they advance in 2019 hoping that players like Matt Magill, Fernando Romero, and possibly an NRI or two can improve under the eyes of Wes Johnson and stick in the Twins pen to give them a similar boost that the Padres saw in 2018. Talent takes many shapes, sometimes it's hard to see how a player can become great, but oftentimes they’re just a few adjustments away from letting their skill shine. Along with improving internally, the Padres were also forward thinking on how they could get the most from their pitching staff as they utilized them more as “out-getters” rather than designating them specifically as “starters” or “relievers”.
On the outside, it doesn't appear as if the Padres made any major moves to go from one of the worst bullpens in baseball to one of the best. And even after they traded Hand and Cimber to the Indians, they went on to have the highest bullpen fWAR in all of baseball in the 2nd half! All they did was improve everyone by just a little bit and the effects were enormous, having a system of internal improvement will yield results that ripple throughout the entire team more than any single signing can. So, if Wes and the boys prove to be the difference makers they all seem to be, the Twins could easily follow in the footsteps of the Padres and have a great bullpen in 2019.
Oh, and last year the Padres paid less for all of those 8 guys than what Addison Reed alone made.