Teams with bullpen woes trying to get it right

Teams with bullpen woes trying to get it right

Teams with bullpen woes trying to get it right
It's easy to point to Albert Pujols' sub-.200 average and lone home run as the key contributor to the Angels' early-season woes that have them entering play Monday five games below .500.

Yet, there's something the Angels have in common with some other expected contenders that are struggling. Like Boston, Miami and Detroit, the Angels' problems have revolved around the pitcher's mound and not the batter's box.

All four teams have dealt with inconsistency, or simply poor performances, out of the bullpen at one point or another this season, and if history is any indicator, this is the problem those teams need to focus on fixing before it's too late.

Last year's World Series-winning Cardinals squad was an anomaly when it came to bullpen stats. The 2011 Cardinals finished 17th in bullpen ERA during the regular season, making them the first team since the 2003 Marlins to finish in the bottom half of the league in bullpen ERA and still raise the trophy.

No relief
Rocky starts for four teams that were expected to contend come October have come, in part, due to shaky bullpen work.
Team Bullpen ERA Save Pct.
Angels 4.70 (26th) 45 (T-29th)
Marlins 3.89 (16th) 36 (30th)
Red Sox 3.92 (18th) 64 (18th)
Tigers 4.95 (27th) 55 (25th)

In fact, three of the previous four World Series winners before St. Louis (2010 Giants, 2008 Phillies and 2007 Red Sox) all finished second in their league in bullpen ERA.

Entering play Monday, the Angels, Red Sox, Marlins and Tigers were all in the bottom half of the Majors in that category. Not coincidentally, the American League East-leading Orioles boast the league's best bullpen ERA and the AL West-leading Rangers rank a close second.

The Marlins have seemingly turned a corner following their disastrous 8-14 start in the month of April. They've won 10 of 12 May contests and enter play Monday at a season-best two games above .500.

"We've come together big-time," said Heath Bell, who started the season as the club's closer, temporarily lost the role and has since returned to it. "It's one of those things where we started the year off and didn't play well. Guys weren't playing up to their ability.

"We all started patting each other on the back. We didn't look and go, 'Man, why aren't you doing this?' We kept patting each other on the back, saying, 'Don't worry, you can do it.' It's starting to come around. Our abilities are starting to come out."

Not to diminish the Marlins' hot streak, but there's still cause for concern in South Florida. Manager Ozzie Guillen's relievers blew save opportunities in four of those 10 wins this month, but were bailed out by late rallies.

Given that blown saves are a better indicator than bullpen ERA of recent postseason success, the Marlins' ascension up the National League East standings might not be a given just yet.

Again, excluding last year's Cardinals (20th), the past four World Series winners each finished in the top four in the Majors in converted-saves percentage. The Marlins (36 percent) and Halos (45 percent) currently sit last and second-to-last, respectively, in that category. Detroit is 25th and Boston checks in at 18th.

Boston's closer problems were well-documented early in the season, from Andrew Bailey's preseason thumb surgery to Mark Melancon's meltdowns and subsequent demotion to the Minors to Alfredo Aceves' allowing five runs without recording an out as the Red Sox blew a 9-1 lead to the Yankees.

As for the Angels, manager Mike Scioscia has more recently elected to go with setup man Scott Downs in the closer's role while former closer Jordan Walden tries to find his groove.

The good news is both teams seem to be making progress from the early-season disasters. Since April 21, the day the Red Sox blew that big lead and lost to New York, 15-9, the Boston bullpen has recorded a miniscule 1.40 ERA in 76 2/3 innings, a far cry from the 8.43 mark they had posted up to that date.

It's that suddenly red-hot bullpen that's currently keeping Melancon from a shot at redemption at the big league level. The right-hander has been phenomenal at Triple-A Pawtucket, not allowing a run, striking out 19 and walking none in 11 appearances.

"[I'm] getting great reports, and I think it's just figuring out the mix and how it is to get him back here," manager Bobby Valentine said recently. "It's not like we don't want him here, and it's not like he hasn't done what he was supposed to do down there. It's a roster situation; it's not a talent situation."

As for the Angels, their bullpen sports a 3.37 ERA -- not including starter Jerome Williams' 6 2/3 innings of relief following Saturday's first-inning rain delay in Texas -- since acquiring Ernesto Frieri from the Padres on May 3. That number was a much more respectable 1.61 ERA before Sunday night's 13-6 loss to the Rangers, but it's still an improvement nonetheless from a pre-Frieri 4.89 ERA.

Walden has pitched better, not allowing a run in four appearances since the shakeup. Ultimately, Scioscia would like to see Walden work his way back into the closer's position and allow Downs to return to his duties as the setup man.

"If that evolves, I think we're better off in the long run that way," Scioscia said. "But the thing is, you're not just looking at the last three outs, you're really looking at the last six, seven, eight outs.

"If you can get some depth there to have some options and be able to match up, it gives you stronger looks at times. But we're going to let it go where it goes. I don't think we need to force anything right now."

With other problems swirling for these clubs -- whether it be Pujols' ongoing struggles in Anaheim or the off-field issues in Boston -- they could all certainly use some relief.

"It's all about pitching," Guillen said. "Late in the game, don't be surprised if we're going to win or lose late in the games ... You're going to see a lot of bullpen guys losing and winning games."

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.