Seattle bullpen followed a great 2014 with a miserable 2015, and with new personnel, it’s too early to gauge any kind of potential success in 2016
PEORIA, Ariz. — In this group, there is no Cy Young Award winner with a blond goatee and regal nickname. There isn’t a 44-homer hitter or $240 million man, either.
No, the guys in this group are an assortment of anonymity who make up the Mariners’ bullpen.
But you can call them the key to this upcoming season.
There is little question that the plunge in relief pitching was the active ingredient in Seattle’s disheartening 2015. The Mariners had the best bullpen ERA in baseball when they won 87 games two seasons ago, and the sixth-worst when they won 76 last year.
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Yes, from baserunning, to lineup holes, to a slow start from a star slugger, there were other factors that contributed to the disappointment. But those blown leads and late-game lapses? That’s what rendered any playoff hopes hopeless.
You could try pointing to personnel changes as the reason for the slide, except that the personnel wasn’t all that different. It’s just that Fernando Rodney’s ERA jumped from 2.85 in 2014 to 5.68 last year, Tom Wilhelmsen’s leapt from 2.27 to 3.19, Danny Farquhar’s shot from 2.66 to 5.12, and Joe Beimel’s went from 2.20 to 3.99.
It would be one thing if one or two guys were having down years, as is natural in these small-sample-sized roles. But in this case, the entire pen went from being lights-out to getting lit up.
“I think sometimes pitchers get in situations where they try to do too much, and it takes away from the execution of the pitch,” said Charlie Furbush, one of the few remaining relievers from last season. “And if we don’t execute the pitch, we’re going to be in trouble.”
In other words — bullpen struggles are as contagious as malaria. Not because of anything magical or mystical, but because pitchers put an excess amount of pressure on themselves to end the collective woes. New Mariners setup man Joaquin Benoit, who spent the past two seasons in San Diego, echoed Furbush’s thoughts. Probably because he saw the same thing happen with the Padres, who had the second-best bullpen in 2014 and the eighth-worst last year despite adding four-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel.
As is true with most things, these swings aren’t always as simple as they seem. Last year’s Mariners manager, Lloyd McClendon, pointed out that when relievers repeatedly come in early due to a lack of quality starts, it can disrupt the bullpen’s rhythm and overwork arms.
Still, last year’s contributions from the pen were too dreadful to ignore, and new general manager Jerry Dipoto had to make an overhaul. So what should fans expect?
Oh, who knows.
How can you make a prediction when closer Steve Cishek had the highest ERA of his career last year (3.58), but was fantastic for the last four months of the season? How can you make a guess when Benoit had the third-best ERA (2.34) and WHIP (0.903) of his 15-year career last season, but will be 39 in July?
Furbush started 2015 strong before tearing his rotator cuff, Tony Zych has pitched 181/3 MLB innings, Evan Scribner ended last season with a torn lat muscle, and Justin De Fratus watched his ERA jump from 2.39 to 5.51 in the past two years.
Trying to forecast how the Mariners’ bullpen will perform this year is like trying to pick the 2034 World Series winner. Sorry, but there is just no way to tell.
What we do know, however, is that relief pitchers matter in today’s game more than ever. The teams with the top three bullpen ERAs last year were Pittsburgh, Kansas City and St. Louis — the first of which won 98 games, the second of which won the World Series, and the third of which had the best record in MLB. In 2014, Seattle had its best season since 2009, while Oakland, Washington and San Francisco (third, fourth and fifth in bullpen ERA) each made the playoffs, with the Giants winning it all. And one year earlier, three of the top four bullpens came from teams that won at least 91 games.
There’s a correlation here, folks. And it’s post-spinach-Popeye strong.
Asked what the biggest question in regards to the bullpen was this year, Mariners manager Scott Servais replied, “Having everybody settled in and hopefully having a defined role by the end of (spring training).” Translation: From a relief-pitching standpoint, March could be every bit as important as September.
In the meantime, all we can do is wait and see how it plays out. Regardless of how it does, though, the relievers’ success (or lack thereof) should be in step with Seattle’s.
These guys might not be the starters, but when it comes to the Mariners rebounding from last year, it all starts with them.