Bullpen Woes? And the Danger of Small Sample Size

At the beginning of the season there were question marks for the Padres. Were they too right handed heavy? Could they play defense? Could their starting pitching stay healthy? For now, it’s far too early to say what the answer to any of these questions were.

But then there were the things no one questioned. The rock solid foundation upon which Preller’s grand experiment would be built. Amongst those unquestionable facts about the Padres was that the bullpen was top notch. A strength of the team before they added Kimbrel which, financial obligation aside, was viewed as the rich getting richer in that particular area.

Through 17 games however, the bullpen, while not necessarily a liability, has been far from the strength many believed it would be. Which isn’t to say it won’t be. So let’s pause here and give the disclaimer that should precede any article or post about statistical trends on April 23.

Small. Sample. Size.

Should these stats be ignored? Of course not. That’s absurd. Equally absurd, however, is assuming we can draw any long term conclusions from them at this point. At this stage, any statistical trend is more of a “hmm…interesting” and should be filed in the “let’s keep an eye that” file.

Ok, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk bullpen. Somewhat well known is the 2014 Padres record when leading after 6 innings. Remarkably, they were 60-1 last year in that scenario. The lowest bullpen ERA and second lowest bullpen BAA have a lot to do with that. The addition of Kimbrel would certainly suggest that 2015 is more of the same.

In 2015 the Padres have lost 2 games when leading after 6 innings. It’s April 24th. The bullpen, to this stage, has been far more average than expected, ranking 9th in bullpen ERA and 9th in BAA in the NL.

The first of those games was Opening Day vs the Dodgers. The culprits: Nick Vincent in the 7th, Shawn Kelley in the 8th.

The second of those games was on Wednesday night in Coors Field. The culprits: Benoit (who gave up the HR to tie the game in the 8th), Shawn Kelley in the 9th.

The common denominator in both situations is of course Shawn Kelley who, based on the reaction on Twitter on Wednesday night, has worn out his welcome in San Diego already. And certainly there’s good reason for people to wonder how Kelley continues to keep Quakenbush’s roster spot. Of the 19 earned runs the Padres bullpen has allowed, 6 of those earned runs are off of Kelley. A closer look shows that Kelley is, frankly, just not fooling anyone right now. Compared to his numbers a year ago in New York (where he posted a more than respectable 3.02 FIP), Kelley is walking more (16.7% vs 9%), has more players making contact (72.1% vs 67.3%) and when they make contact, are hitting the ball on a line (LD% 42% vs 27%). If you put guys on via walk then give up line drives, well, you’re not going to be long for a professional bullpen.

It doesn’t appear to be a leverage situation, as Kelley made 29 of his 59 appearances with the Yankees in high leverage situations. And his career numbers certainly imply that the month of April is a blip on the map vs a harbinger of doom. That said, I don’t see how the Padres can put Kelley into another high leverage situation until whatever is causing those contact numbers is fixed. Whether that means he works on it in El Paso or in San Diego remains to be seen. Someone is leaving the Padres soon with Ian Kennedy’s return and certainly Kelley seems the most likely culprit (if it hasn’t already happen by time this post).

The rest of the bullpen has been good but far from other worldly. Perhaps my expectations were too astronomically high. In 7 IP, Kimbrel has already given up 1 HR (he gave up 2 all of last year) and 2 ER (on pace for 17 ER in the season vs 11 last year) and while his FIP and ERA are higher than his career averages they are also based on 7 IP, and thus, basically pointless to mention.

One caveat to all of this is to look at the competition. The Padres have faced a relatively difficult schedule to start the season and will end up having only 1 day off in 29 days in April. That many games in a row makes juggling a bullpen difficult. You can’t just throw Benoit and Kimbrel out there every day with no off day in sight. Moreover, the Padres have faced 4 of the top 6 run scoring teams in the NL (LA, CHC, AZ, COL). This is a bit of a chicken/egg argument as you could say that these teams are near the top in runs scored BECAUSE they played the Padres (the Padres are 9th in the NL in runs allowed). Then again, the Dodgers, who scored 16 runs against SD in the Opening series, also scored 17 runs against Seattle and 20 runs against Colorado, both in Los Angeles. The Diamondbacks, as another example, have only scored 11 of their 69 runs this season against SD (AZ’s punching bags have been SFG and LA primarily).

Thus is the danger in trying to figure any of this out before Memorial Day. There simply isn’t enough information to form any long lasting opinions. What do we know? The bullpen hasn’t been as good as we anticipated. But right now the play of one player could dramatically effect the numbers of the entire group. Or maybe the Padres have just been playing really good offenses to start the season and once they play more games against the Giants, Brewers and Phillies of the world this will all even out.

For now, I’ll simply say “hmm…interesting” and keep in eye on this moving forward.

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Bullpen troubles or simply small sample size? Comment below or Tweet at me @LeftCoastBias. As always, I attempt, but often fail, to post every Friday.

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