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The Miami Bullpen Experiment

Or: What the hell are the Marlins doing?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

If the past three World Series proved anything, it’s this: While a great bullpen is neither sufficient nor strictly necessary for a team to compete for a title, it’s nice to be able to call on Andrew Miller and Cody Allen — or Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and either Ryan Madson or Greg Holland — to close the game out after six innings.

So it’s easy to understand why the San Francisco Giants gave Mark Melancon a four-year, $62 million contract, at the time the largest contract ever given to a relief pitcher. And it’s easy to understand why both Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman both got even bigger contracts in the weeks that followed.

It’s less easy to understand why the Marlins were reportedly in on both Jansen and Chapman until the very end, why they signed former Red Sox relievers Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler to two-year contracts worth a combined $28 million. Closers don’t pitch many innings, but they pitch valuable innings. If that one shutdown inning comes in Game 161 of a 78–84 season, who gives a shit? But if that one shutdown inning closes out a playoff game, well, that’s why Mariano Rivera’s going to the Hall of Fame.

So why are the Marlins, who need a lot more than a closer to make a run at the playoffs, so eager to fill out their bullpen? Here are four possible explanations.

Relief pitchers are where the value is in this free-agent class.

We’ve been over this, but it bears repeating: While this free-agent class is terrible on the whole, it’s chock-full of quality relievers. At least, it was, until Melancon, Jansen, and Chapman all signed with teams not named Miami. Still, there’s something to be said for just spending resources on good players and figuring it out later. And finding playing time is less of a concern for bullpen arms than, say, catchers or second basemen, of which you need only one. MLB teams are to relief pitchers what college students are to slices of pizza — you’re going to go through a lot of them no matter what, but if you come across a good one, you’ll make it fit regardless of whether or not people around you think you’ve already had enough.

Brad Ziegler, a 37-year-old submariner, has quietly been near that level, with an ERA+ of 168 for his career and 200 or better in each of the past two seasons, even though he’s spent most of his career outside the traditional closer role. The 30-year-old Tazawa, however, isn’t quite on the Chapman level, or even the Ziegler level. He posted a 1.43 ERA in his first full season in 2012, but had an ERA north of 4.00 in 2015 and 2016. Last year, he posted a K/9 of 9.8 and an ERA+ of 110, which isn’t bad, but you can get that kind of production without giving a veteran a multiyear contract. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and if Jansen and Chapman valued things like “playing in front of a crowd” or “not living in Florida” enough to turn down a competitive offer from the Marlins, Tazawa might not be the best place to invest those leftover resources, but better the Marlins grab a decent reliever than put that money back in ownership’s pocket.

Consider also the unique predicament the Marlins find themselves in — they’re a middle-of-the-road team that’s either been unable or unwilling to spend money to develop a competitive core for more than a year or two, a tradition that goes back 23 years and three owners. They’re also not waiting on much immediate help from a farm system that’s among the worst in baseball. For context, their competition for that title is the Los Angeles Angels, who might have the worst farm system constructed in the 30-odd years since we started measuring such things. So not only can the Marlins not call up an Andrew Benintendi to bolster the lineup, they can’t trade a Yoan Moncada for an established star. Given their limited resources, tinkering around the edges might be the best option.

The Marlins think they’re close enough to competitiveness that a good bullpen is going to make a difference.

It’s been very easy to talk oneself into believing in the Marlins as a playoff sleeper for the past few seasons, and 2017 is no exception. The Marlins went 79–82 last year, but they were in the playoff hunt until the trade deadline. They’ll be better if The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton is healthy all season, and if Dee Gordon doesn’t get suspended again (and hits better than .268/.305/.335 when he’s on the field). Among the rotation, Wei-Yin Chen had the worst season of his career last year, and if nothing else, free-agent addition Edinson Vólquez is better than Andrew Cashner.

All in all, the Marlins bring back most of their major contributors from last season. Even though it feels callous to talk about José Fernandez like he was traded or left in free agency, his death means — among many other, more important things — that the Marlins won’t have their best player back this year. Yet, a healthy Stanton and bounce-back seasons from Chen and Gordon could offset that loss and take Miami back up to around .500. It’s not hard to squint at an 81-win team and see an 85-win team, and an 85-win team on true talent can wind up with 90 wins and a playoff berth with a few breaks.

One easy way to get breaks — as we saw when the Rangers outperformed their run differential by 13 games last season, the Orioles beat theirs by 11 games in 2012, and the Royals defied their PECOTA projections to win the pennant in 2014 and 2015 — is to have a very good, very deep bullpen. It’s harder to start effectively than pitch out of the bullpen; MLB relief pitchers were better than starters by 0.41 of a run of ERA last year. For a team that doesn’t have good starters — and the Marlins don’t have a starter on staff with a career ERA+ better than 104 — it might be easier to cobble together seven good relief pitchers and go to them early.

The Marlins stand to gain more from having a good bullpen than the average team does.

Last season, the Marlins’ bullpen was … well, it was OK. Miami’s relievers were 21st in WPA, 14th in ERA-, 11th in K%, and 13th in preventing inherited runners from scoring. But they bring back a few very good relief pitchers. Closer A.J. Ramos has posted an ERA between 2.00 and 3.00 with a K/9 ratio above 10 in each of the past three seasons. Last year, the Marlins had two of the top 15 relievers in the game (min. 40 IP) in K%, and both return for 2017: David Phelps and Kyle Barraclough. Phelps, a five-year veteran who converted to the bullpen last season and saw his average fastball velocity spike by 3 miles an hour, and his 172 ERA+ led the team. Meanwhile, the hard-throwing Barraclough (pronounced like the breakfast pastry) had the seventh-highest strikeout rate in baseball. Rookies Nick Wittgren and Brian Ellington both posted better-than-average ERAs, albeit with less-gaudy strikeout numbers, and the 2017 bullpen should include 25-year-old Drew Steckenrider, a hard-throwing right-hander who struck out 12.3 batters per nine innings across three minor league levels last year.

Ramos, Ziegler, Barraclough, and Phelps aren’t as good as Miller and Allen, or Chapman and Dellin Betances, but the depth of this bullpen can solve some of the trouble the Marlins got into last year when their big three weren’t pitching.

For much of 2016, Fernando Rodney and his 5.89 ERA were at or near the back end of Miami’s bullpen, which is like passing a bowl of mashed potatoes down the table at Thanksgiving and handing them to a toddler who keeps turning the bowl over on his head. The Marlins, even with Ramos pitching the ninth inning most of the year, had the ninth-worst save conversion rate of any team in baseball. They were also second in the league in meltdowns, a FanGraphs statistic that counts relief outings with a WPA of minus-0.06 or worse.

It’s also worth noting that the Marlins bullpen had the second-highest walk rate in baseball, and, of the 22 pitchers the Marlins used in relief last year, 14 walked at least 10 percent of the batters they faced, including Ramos, Barraclough, Phelps, and Dustin McGowan, who threw 67 innings with a 140 ERA+. Tazawa, for all his other faults, is a strike thrower, with a career BB% of 5.4, so while he won’t solve Miami’s systemic control problems, he’ll help.

Building depth in the bullpen is going to be particularly important for Miami. Last season Marlins relievers had the second-highest average leverage index. They were fourth in high-leverage appearances (LI >1.5, where 1 is average), and faced 84 save opportunities, by far the most in baseball. Marlins relievers threw 559.2 innings last year; the Dodgers were the only team that had a better record and used their relievers more.

Put another way, “Adam Conley might be the best starting pitcher on the team” actually means, “We’re going to work our bullpen half to death.” So it’s important not only for the Marlins to cultivate a killer set of high-leverage guys, but to make sure their low-leverage guys know what they’re doing so they don’t routinely blow five-run leads or turn one-run deficits into seven-run deficits.

Making the playoffs in 2017 isn’t the objective.

In an age when rebuilding is chic and out-and-out tanking is accepted, it’s easy to think of team-building strategy as binary: Either go all in to win now, or strip down the team for parts in an attempt to build a new contender from scratch. The Marlins aren’t doing either one, which might be an attempt to keep the team around .500 for two more years and then try to strike it rich in the gold rush of the 2018–19 free-agent class. It’s easier to pitch a decent team to Bryce Harper than a 90-loss team with a bunch of kids.

Staying around .500 would also be advantageous if owner Jeffrey Loria decided to sell the team. Last week, rumors started floating around about Loria asking $1.7 billion from potential buyers, which doesn’t mean he’d get that much, but it does mean that he’s negotiating. You don’t see the Steinbrenners taking offers on the Yankees — if Loria’s even named a sale price, he’s thought about pulling up stakes. In that case, a .500 team with two young, cost-controlled stars in Christian Yelich and TMGS would look a lot better on Craigslist (or whatever super-rich people use to buy and sell things) than a 100-loss team with a top-10 farm system. It’s a little fantastical and cynical to suspect that movie, but “fantastical and cynical” is Loria’s brand.

The Marlins aren’t playing three-dimensional chess, and their pursuit of Jansen and Chapman was weird and misguided all along.

Given some of the moves the Marlins have made over the past decade, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Brad Ziegler signed with a team other than Miami. The story has been updated to reflect Ziegler’s spot in the Marlins bullpen.