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The Fallibility of Relief Pitching

Carlos Estevez celebrates a win for the Los Angels Angels over the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field.

Recent blowups by top relief pitchers show the dangers of small sample sizes and how everyone is susceptible to bad days.

CP Felix Bautista is having one of the best relief seasons in Major League history. Or he was, until he gave up a grand slam on August 8 to blow a three-run lead. The four-run meltdown ballooned Bautista’s ERA from 0.85 to 1.52. While there had been murmurings about The Mountain making a run at the Cy Young award, that talk went out the window. Now, the Baltimore Orioles closer is having a merely great season instead of a historic one.

Such is the life of an MLB relief pitcher. Even the most dominant ones have off nights.  A first-time All-Star, Bautista has a strikeout rate close to 50% alongside a 100 MPH fastball and a 90 MPH splitter. His success is not a fluke; the recent blowup was. The stuff doesn’t go away after one bad outing, and neither does the player evaluation.

Bautista is not alone among closers. CP Carlos Estevez also played for the AL in Seattle last month. The Los Angeles Angels closer entered August with a 1.88 ERA. Then he proceeded to give up a grand slam on August 3. Estevez pitched a scoreless inning on the 6th, but the following day he gave up five earned in just one third of an inning on three hits, two walks, and a sac bunt. In less than a week, Estevez combined for nine earned runs in 2.1 innings over three appearances. His sparkling ERA jumped up to an ordinary 3.57. The poorly timed blown saves are part of why the Angels are effectively out of the race.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Estevez and Bautista are the lucky ones, though, because their jobs are secure, at least for this season. The same is not true of most relief pitchers, as teams cast them aside faster than any other position. Players pitching in the 8th inning last week might be on the waiver wire this week. While teams are far more cognizant of small sample sizes than fans are, they are also more aware when a pitcher becomes suddenly better or worse.

The Tampa Bay Rays are infamous for their constant bullpen churn. Just as they are turning journeyman SP Zack Littell into a decent starter, last week they DFA’d RP Ryan Thompson. Thompson had a 2.38 ERA in 2021 and a 3.80 ERA in 2022 and strong FIPs to match, but this year he has been the dreaded combination of bad and hurt. With an ERA over six and lots of time on the minor league injured list, the Rays decided to move on.

The Baltimore Orioles bullpen tells a similar story. RP Yennier Cano has been a revelation this season out of nowhere, and the same was true last year for RP Cionel Perez. One of the many successful waiver claims in Baltimore, Perez pitched to a 1.40 ERA in 2022. No one, including me, expected him to pitch that well again, but his FIP was still a strong 2.80. A 2023 ERA in that range seemed like a good bet, but unfortunately Perez has been living on the edge this season. He was precariously close to getting cut in early July but went on the IL instead.

Perez is emblematic of the dozens of talented relief pitchers on the fringes of 40-man rosters. His talent is apparent, as a sinker at 97 MPH and a two-plane slider turned him into an ace last year. But spotty control and hard contact have been making fans and coaches sweat. The margins are so thin for relievers as any incremental improvement or decline can drastically change their standing in the league. Just ask teammates RPs Bryan Baker and RP Joey Krehbiel.

Recent Relief History

The brief prime of relievers is even clearer when looking at who the top arms were in recent years. The following lists will be based on FanGraphs’ version of WAR. Wins Above Replacement is an imperfect measure of relief value since relievers play so little, but the top rankings fit our purposes. In case you are wondering, Bautista has a comfortable lead this season with 2.6 WAR.

2022 leaders: Edwin Diaz, Emmanuel Clase, Devin Williams, Evan Phillips, A.J. Minter

Diaz, of course, has been out for the whole season after a fluke injury during the WBC. Hopefully he comes back strong in 2024. Otherwise, these guys are having strong seasons. Minter’s ERA has gone up over two runs, but his peripherals look much rosier. Unfortunately, of the pitchers ranked 6-10, only CP Andres Munoz is repeating his greatness. Let’s go further back to find more separation at the top.

2021: Liam Hendriks, Josh Hader, Ryan Pressly, Jonathan Loaisiga, Giovanny Gallegos

This group is more of a mixed bag. Hader bafflingly fell off a cliff in the middle of 2022 but has reemerged as an elite closer. Hendriks has heroically defeated cancer but will now miss next season due to Tommy John Surgery. Loaisiga was just okay last year and has been hurt for most of this season. While Pressly is the rare consistent reliever, Gallegos has settled in as merely good instead of great. CP Craig Kimbrel is 7th on this list due to an unreal 0.49 ERA with the Chicago Cubs, but then it rocketed over five as a setup man with the Chicago White Sox.

2020: Hendriks, Williams, Raisel Iglesias, Brad Hand, James Karinchak

Unsurprisingly, the shortened season is all over the place. The top three have been great for years, and Williams was Rookie of the Year at the time. Hand alternates good and bad seasons and was DFA’d in 2021 after a deadline trade. Karinchak is still effective but quite wild, meaning his margins are smaller. Number six is swingman Mike Mayers, who was little more than a one-season wonder. He was decent in 2021 but had a 5.68 ERA in 2022 while getting DFA’d multiple times. He failed as a starter with the Kansas City Royals this season, which is saying something.

2019: Hendriks, Kirby Yates, Hader, Seth Lugo, Brandon Workman

Oof, 2019 looks rough. Yates had a 1.19 ERA that season but pitched all of 15 games from 2020-2022. Fortunately, he’s fully back this season as a setup man for the Atlanta Braves. Lugo has turned into a decent starter this year, but he struggled in that role in 2020. Workman had a 1.88 ERA in 2019 but that figure shot up to the high-five’s in ’20 and ’21 while playing for three teams. He is now out of affiliated baseball. Number six is the cringiest though, as Felipe Vazquez was arrested in September 2019 for sex crimes. Enough said about that.

Closing Up

Relief pitching is a mercurial position in sports. Everyone involved knows they might not last a while, but for many it is also their last chance to succeed in baseball. A select few can rise to the occasion every night like Hendriks and Diaz, but injuries are an ever-present risk. There is a reason only eight relievers are in the Hall of Fame, and voter reluctance is only part of the answer. So few can play long enough to even make a case, let alone pitch at an all-time level for most of their careers. The next time you see a bullpen meltdown–which will probably be today–remember the volatility and randomness inherent in pitching one inning per night.

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