The Bullpen’s Dirty Secret
When the M’s traded for Brandon League to bolster their bullpen, most of us saw a end-game foursome of David Aardsma, League, Mark Lowe, and Shawn Kelley and penciled the relievers in as one of the team’s strengths for 2010. And, I think the perception is still there that the bullpen is one area where the Mariners have an advantage over their opponents. The problem – given how the bullpen has shaken out, it’s not really true anymore. Two reasons:
1. Mark Lowe, setup man.
Instead of mixing and matching the League/Lowe/Kelley trio based on how often they had pitched and the opposing hitters due up, Wak opted to give Lowe the 8th inning job and relegate League to middle relief. This is despite the fact that League is demonstrably better, and better suited to a “fixed inning” role. As we’ve talked about before, Lowe is something of a glorified right-handed specialist.
His career FIP against RHBs is 2.80, but its 5.62 against LHBs, and he’s shown a huge BABIP platoon split as well (.286 vs RHB, .355 vs LHB), exacerbating the issue even further. His problems with lefties are not subtle – they have hit .298/.382/.514 against him in his career, and this year is no different. His fastball/slider combination is effective against righties, but do nothing to fool left-handed batters, and he’s basically abandoned his change-up at this point in his career, so he doesn’t really have anything to throw opposite handed hitters.
This creates some high leverage problems when he’s called upon to give an innings worth of work, which usually requires him to get a lefty or two out. We saw this in the 11th inning on Sunday. He gave up a single to left-handed hitting Julio Borbon to start the rally, and then once Elvis Andrus reached on a bunt, he was able to get right-handed hitting Michael Young to strikeout, but then had to face back-to-back lefties in David Murphy and Josh Hamilton. A deep sac fly and a single later and the game was basically over, as Lowe’s inability to get LHBs out (combined with Rob Johnson’s inability to catch) gave the Rangers a couple of runs.
Lowe has his uses, but he’s not good enough to be handed a strict role and allowed to pitch no matter who is due up. He needs to be selectively used to face mostly right-handed hitters, and the team can’t rely on him to get tough lefties out in critical situations. And yet, as the anointed setup man, that’s what they’re going to ask him to do.
2. Shawn Kelley is no longer on the team.
Because the team decided to go with a seven man bullpen, Kelley hadn’t gotten regular work (a sign that the team didn’t need seven relievers in the first place), and since he had an option left, the Mariners shipped him to Tacoma when Lee returned. The problem, though, is that Kelley is the team’s third best relief pitcher, behind Aardsma and League. His ability to get both lefties and righties out, while pounding the strike zone, make him more valuable than Lowe, even if the stuff isn’t as visually impressive.
On a team without a left-handed reliever, Kelley is a pivotal guy, because he’s the only guy in that bullpen besides Brandon League and David Aardsma who has a demonstrated ability to get good left-handed hitters out. Wak’s obviously not going to bring Aardsma in to get a lefty out in a high leverage situation in the 7th or 8th, so if League has already pitched or is not available, the M’s don’t have any other good options, so they are stuck with Lowe or Sean White. Those guys are below replacement level against left-handed hitters. That’s a bad situation for the M’s.
Right now, with the Mariner bullpen being structured as it is, it’s not a strength anymore. The closer is good, not great, with obvious strengths and weaknesses. They have one really good setup guy, but he’s being used in middle relief. There’s a good right-handed specialist in the 8th inning role, a three guys who are basically replacement level in White/Texeira/Colome, and then a starter-turned-mopup guy in Ian Snell.
It’s getting overlooked because of the offensive problems the team has experienced, but this isn’t a great bullpen, and the Mariners are going to play too many close games to give away wins by keeping it like it is. The team needs to bring Shawn Kelley back, let him and Lowe share the 7th inning duties (depending on handedness of opposing hitters), and make League the setup guy to Aardsma. At that point, they’d have a good bullpen again.
This current group – it’s not so hot.