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September 18, 2012 at 9:46 AM

Mariners bullpen has chance to be as good as it was five years ago

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ADDITIONAL NOTE: If you missed this morning’s Talkn’ Baseball segment on Sports Radio KJR, I linked to it below.
When folks point to the most positive aspects of the Mariners, it’s tough to overlook the team’s bullpen. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the bullpen has been the best part of this team going on a decade now.

That bullpen was pressed into service last night when Hector Noesi imploded early on. And in the end, allowing just three runs over more than seven innings of work was about the best anyone could ask.
One of the things I remember about the Mariners when I really started paying attention to them ahead of coming here in late 2006 was how many hard-throwing relief pitchers they could trot out of their bullpen at once. My colleagues and I sat there in amazement watching a bunch of guys walk out there throwing mid-90s heat one after another and wondered why the team we were covering at the time couldn’t do the same.
By 2007, I was covering that bullpen full-time and the results were there to see. The Mariners won 87 games that season and it sure didn’t have a whole lot to do with the starting rotation, which had Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez in it. The offense back then was the last good one the Mariners had, but the season truly ended when the mostly-young bullpen began to run out of steam.
Looking back on that bullpen — which consisted of hard-throwers and crafty situational guys — I think it remains the gold standard by which other Mariners relief corps should be measured. And the one the Mariners are putting together right now has the potential to be as good if certain guys round out the rest of their games.
That 2007 bullpen included:
J.J. Putz
Brandon Morrow
George Sherrill
Eric O’Flaherty
Sean Green
Ryan Rowland-Smith
Sean White
Those were the guys who threw more than 35 innings apiece, anyway. You had your usual assortment of in-season callups and stuff, but those seven were the mainstays.
Photo Credit: AP


Taking a look at those pitchers, four of them boasted strikeout ratios in excess of 9.0 per nine innings. You can’t measure everything by strikeouts — especially if they are accompanied by a lot of walks — but for a reliever, nothing gets a team out of a jam like a good strikeout.
Sherrill — 11.0
Putz — 10.3
Morrow — 9.4
Rowland-Smith — 9.8
Strikeouts aren’t everything, like I said. It helps if your relievers can get ground balls. Green and White didn’t have the strikeout rates of their colleagues, but they sure as heck got grounders when needed back then.
Green — 60.9 percent
White — 52.5 percent
Just as a reference, Felix Hernandez that year ran a groundball rate of 60.8 percent as he finally began blossoming into what the team wanted.
All in all, a pretty darned good bullpen for a winning team.
How does this year’s bullpen stack up? Well, the thing is, some of the guys who began the year — Brandon League and Steve Delabar — are no longer around. We’ll look at the seven guys who could be here next year.
Tom Wilhelmsen
Charlie Furbush
Stephen Pryor
Carter Capps
Lucas Luetge
Shawn Kelley
Oliver Perez/Josh Kinney
As Dave Cameron mentioned at USS Mariner yesterday, there is a good chance one of Perez or Kinney gets going someplace else this off-season.
But as of right now, that bullpen has five guys running a K/9 ratio greater than nine — one more than the 2007 bullpen did.
Pryor — 12.46
Furbush — 10.48
Capps — 10.31
Kinney 10.04
Wilhelmsen — 9.82
You also have Kelley at 8.93, so he’s pretty close.
As far as grounders go, you have Luetge at 48.5 percent as the best of the lot. He is also running a K/9 rate of 8.45, which is still highly impressive.
In other words, this bullpen appears to have the raw tools to be as good as that 2007 bullpen.
The thing we don’t know about yet is how that bullpen will hold up under duress. Fact is, the seven guys I mentioned from 2007 all pitched in 35 innings or more — sometimes far more — in highly-competitive situations where a playoff berth was thought to be at stake.
This current crop of Mariners has not been as battle-tested. This team’s season was over back in June from a playoff perspective and many of the arms we now see in the bullpen weren’t even here until July.
Wilhelmsen, Furbush, Kelley and Luetge have all pitched in greater than 35 innings.
Perez and Kinney have not.
And Pryor and Capps have yet to throw even 20 innings in their careers.
History tells us that pitchers posting absurdly high strikeout rates over low innings totals will eventually see those numbers drop. Sometimes, they drop to a point where they are still averaging a strikeout per inning and that can still be highly effective.
And sometimes, those pitchers drop back to more normal rates.
We saw that with Rowland-Smith, when his 9.8 K/9 ratio from 2007 fell to 7.58 as a reliever in 2008 before he was added to the team’s rotation.
Now, Capps and Pryor clearly have better pure fastball “stuff” than Rowland-Smith did — with both capable of cranking it up to 100 mph — so you would expect their K/9 rates to remain high. But the secondary stuff will be just as important in order for those fastballs to be effective.
Back in 2010, Dan Cortes came up from the minors and ran a 10.93 K/9 rate for 5 1/3 innings of September baseball. Trouble is, he ran a 5.06 walks-per-nine-innings ratio, which is far too high.
If you come up and are wild like that — even effectively wild — hitters will eventually figure you out the second time around and make you throw strikes with secondary stuff.
Looking at Capps and Pryor, they have BB/9 rates of 3.93 and 4.67, respectively, which is still too high. Luetge is running a 5.17, Kinney a 4.85.
As a reference point, Wilhelmsen has been plagued by control issues in the second half and has a BB/9 rate of 4.26 over that span.
So, this isn’t exactly a critical factor yet. But it’s something that bears monitoring. This bullpen has the potential to be as good as the one this team threw out there in 2007 and won 87 games with, largely because of the performance of the relief crew under battle-tested conditions over a full season.
Right now, given the high strikeout rates and the pure stuff demonstrated by the pitchers involved, there is reason to believe that four of these relievers could have a K/9 rate in excess of 9.0 — meaning one strikeout per inning — going forward. With a lefty-righty balance in this bullpen also similar to what the Mariners had in 2007, that’s pretty good news — especially with the threshold for a wild-card being lower now than it was back then.
Win 87 games next year, the M’s could make the playoffs.
So, Seattle has a bulpen capable of being as good as the 2007 version. The M’s have a even better Hernandez and a couple of capable arms after him in the rotation. All they need now is an offense and the 2013 season could be far more interesting than any of the previous five since the 2007 team.

Comments | Topics: Oliver Perez

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