With a couple losses that were largely influenced by some poor bullpen play, fans in some circles are fairly perplexed and frustrated. Fortunately, there’s not so much of that here. But the pen has not been the weak link that many suggest, and when you look closer, it’s not really even a weakness. If there is a weakness, it’s the starting pitching, but let’s dissect the bullpen first.
The pen so far has been ridden pretty hard. The core pen of Dan Winkler, AJ Minter, Arodys Vizcaino, Shane Carle, Sam Freeman, and Peter Moylan are among the leaders in appearances this year. Freeman is 9th, Minter 39th, Winkler 51st, Carle 58th, and Moylan 66th. Vizzy clocked in at 109th, but Biddle is also trending upward in the appearance rankings. Though 5 in the first 66 is troubling, teams in contention are simply going to use their best relievers more. But considering Winkler, Carle, Freeman, Minter, Vizzy, and Biddle are all on pace to meet or easily beat their career high in appearances, you’d have to think that regression is possible if not probable.
Freeman currently stands as the glaring problem. As mentioned, he’s 9th in appearances, and he currently has a 5.13 ERA. With that said, he’s striking out over a batter an inning, and his 3.58 FIP might be more indicative of his actual performance. But he clocked 16 appearances in the first 30 days of the season, and he struggled. He pitched only 11 games in May where he pitched much better, but he’s been a gas can this month where he’s appeared in another 11 games in 25 days. If I’m Snitker, I’m looking at the seemingly clear indication that he struggles when over-used, like most relievers.
But as it sits, the bullpen is 13th in fWAR, so it’s simply not the problem it may appear to be. The real problem lies in the starting pitching, and the strain it’s created on the pen. The starters are currently 4th in baseball in ERA. But they are 14th in fWAR due to being only 15th in baseball in innings pitched. Simply put, the pitchers are not pitching deep enough into games, putting additional strain on the pen, and their shiny ERAs ought not be confused with elite performance.
But they’re not far off from joining the elites. If the starters could get just 1-2 outs per start — a big ask considering the fatigue and situational match-ups that prevent it — it would put them in the top 6-7 in the league in innings pitched. It’s a concentrated pack. But by doing so, it would keep the innings from piling up on the pen, and you’d probably see a big improvement.
Overall, though, the team has assembled a strong group in the rotation and in the pen, but with the injuries to the rotation, they may actually be one starter short to go along with one to two relievers short. If they can fill those internally, they can avoid the costly trades that take a team from where they are right now to where they need to be. And with how deep the farm is, there are probably the reinforcements somewhere in the high minors the team needs. But the pen is not the problem many would lead you to believe.