To many, relief pitchers are to baseball what special teams players are to football: failed starters. Even the best relievers of all time, like Mariano Rivera and Goose Gossage, are viewed through this prism, and certain baseball analysts will tell you that these late-inning specialists provide even less value than average starting pitchers.
While there’s a lot of truth to that, relievers certainly aren’t useless. For some teams, the bullpen is the difference between having an excellent season or a mediocre one, and anyone who’s been to PK Park this season can attest to this.
The Oregon Ducks have relied on their relievers to carry a large workload this season. The average number of innings the bullpen has pitched per game has been over 3, which include games like their March 26 victory over Portland when eight relievers combined to pitch 8 innings.
This high volume of work hasn’t caused a drop in performance, though, which is a testament to coach George Horton’s utilization of his relievers.
Closer Jimmie Sherfy — with his flowing blonde locks and nasty slider – is the one bullpen arm whose workload might be a concern going forward, due to the fact that he’s pitched at least two days in a row on six separate occasions. But he’s basically pitched only one inning per outing, and Horton might be more worried about overworking his closer than Sherfy’s mom is.
Sherfy reminds me a lot of former San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson. He always seems to put himself in a stressful situation, yet when it’s all said and done, he gets the job done. Sherfy and Wilson must like to see their fans’ collective blood pressure rise.
On the year, Sherfy has a 1.47 earned run average (ERA) while striking out nearly 34% of the batters he’s faced. The walk total (seven) is a little high, but other than that, the right-hander been absolutely dominant.
The other main Oregon relievers — Garrett Cleavinger, Darrell Hunter, and Christian Jones — have an impressive combined ERA of 1.32 (the entire bullpen’s ERA is 2.13).
Neither Cleavinger nor Hunter is as well-rounded as Sherfy, but they have both still been good, posting sub-2.00 ERA’s. Cleavinger’s 10 walks are a concern, but he strikes out a lot of hitters and has held hitters to a stupid .143 batting average (BA) against. Hunter doesn’t have quite as impressive strikeout or opponents’ BA rates as the left-handed Cleavinger, but his walk total is much lower.
Jones (another lefty) has yet to give up a run this season. For a guy who missed the entire 2012 season, I’d say throwing 13 scoreless innings is a pretty good sign that his recovery has gone well.
I also love what Horton’s done with Jeff Gold. Gold has an excellent 2.12 ERA in his three starting appearances this year, but if we look into his relief numbers we find: 11.2 innings pitched, 6 hits allowed, 0 runs allowed, 0 walks, and 14 strikeouts!
Normally, I don’t agree with managers who use starter-quality pitchers in the bullpen because they provide more value starting, but in Gold’s case, keep doing what you’re doing Coach Horton.
The best way to judge a bullpen’s performance is to see how the relievers fare in high-leverage situations (aka: when the score is close). The bullpen’s job, after all, is to preserve leads/ties and keep deficits to a minimum.
I looked at every Ducks’ game this season and tallied up the number of innings pitched and earned runs the bullpen accumulated in situations where the Ducks were either leading by no more than 3 runs or trailing by no more than 3 runs. Essentially, I aimed see how Oregon relievers have performed in high-leverage situations.
The bullpen has pitched 58.2 innings in these situations. Their high-leverage ERA? 1.99.
This is just one way of looking at the Oregon bullpen’s performance, and although it’s not a perfect form of evaluation, even a flawless formula would look favorably upon Duck relievers.
For a team that plays a ton of close games like the Ducks, a good bullpen is an absolute must, and their ‘pen is one of the main reasons why the team is currently ranked #11 in the nation.