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May 15: 3.55
Season: 3.61
NL Average: 3.73
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Cubs Season Record 22-15 (--)

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Final Score: 7-5

Final Score: 4-2

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Dodgers Win 2-1

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Final Score: 4-0

Final Score: 7-3

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08/01/2003 - 09/01/2003
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Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Dusty and the 'Pen

For the second off-season in a row, the Cubs have spent a hefty portion of their energy and money on improvements to the bullpen. Last year’s efforts raised the relief corps from the very worst in the majors, to a passable group worthy of the term mediocre. This year, additions (LaTroy Hawkins, Kent Mercker), and addition by subtraction (Antonio Alfonseca) have combined to create a bullpen that should be in the upper third in the league, and has a chance to be even better.

There are obvious positives, here. Improving your bullpen makes you better at preventing runs, and any time you get better at preventing runs, you improve your team’s chances of winning.

Readers: Thanks, Derek, wasn’t aware of that.
Derek: No problem, I’m here to help.

There’s something else, though. Another reason to upgrade the bullpen, and it’s a particularly important one for a team like the Cubs.

There is a school of thought that says if one portion of your team’s pitching staff is significantly weaker than the other, that the manager will rely on the stronger part like a one-legged man on his cane. This looked to be the case with the usage pattern exhibited by manager Dusty Baker, the starting staff being so much stronger than the bullpen that they were used (or overused) in a way that caused many people, myself included, to fear for the short and long term health of the team’s core of young starters.

Implicit in this theory is the idea that, not only will a manager be more likely to use the stronger part of his staff for longer periods as the gulf between them widens, but that an increased balance of quality between the two will result in an increased balance in the distribution of the usage pattern. Given the significant strain endured by most of the Cub’s young staff last year, and the improvement in the relief corps this off-season, Cub fans hope this is the case. After all, we’d like to see Wood, Prior and Zambrano’s arms remain attached to their bodies, even if some of them don’t seem to care. But does this theory bode well for the future health of the Cub’s starting staff?

There’s no better place to look for an answer than the career of the man making the in-game decisions, Dusty Baker. To do this, I got some numbers from the always useful, if well hidden, statistics page at the Baseball Prospectus site. I wanted to see if the relative quality of the two groups of pitchers affected the percentage of innings each unit threw over the course of a season. Needing two run prevention rate stats that compared well with each other, I chose to use Adjusted Runs Average (AdjRA) for the starters (similar to ERA, except that it also uses unearned runs and adjusts for park effects), and Runs Responsible Average (RRA) for the relievers (the full definition is linked here, but I’m using it because it’s a good comp for AdjRA in the relief world). If the theory holds, we should see the use of the bullpen increase when they are as good or better than the starters, and decrease as they get worse. Here’s what happened on Dusty’s teams from 1998-2003, the years these stats are available on BP.

YearBullpen IP %RRA/AdjRA

Some quick explanation. The Bullpen IP % is the percentage of team innings thrown in relief, and the RRA/AdjRA is the percent difference between the run prevention of the relievers and starters, with a positive number indicating the rate at which the bullpen was superior, and a negative number indicating the rate at which the starters were superior. According to our theory, a higher positive RRA/AdjRA should indicate a higher Bullpen IP %, and vice versa.

Except, it kinda doesn’t. There seems to be a trend from 1998-2000. As the bullpen gets worse relative to the starting staff, their usage decreases. But, then, the trend reverses itself over the next two years. The bullpen gets significantly worse relative to the starters in 2001, but they get considerably more innings, and then when they get better in 2002, their workload decreases again. I don’t think this dog hunts, but there might be another way of approaching the problem.

YearBullpen IP %RRA/MLB AdjRA

That didn’t help. This time we’re looking at the bullpen’s performance (RRA) relative to the league’s AdjRA. If the quality of the bullpen in general made a difference in how often Dusty used them, we should have seen something indicative of that in the comparison above, but this is all over the map, with no real observable trend.

So, Dusty doesn’t use his bullpen based on how they compare to his starters, and he doesn’t use them based on how they compare to the league. Is there anything that governs his usage patterns?

YearBullpen IP %AdjRA/MLB AdjRA

Looks like. Now instead of looking at the quality of the bullpen, we’re looking at the quality of the starters relative to the league (negative percentages are the rate at which the starters were worse than the league, positive percentages the rate at which they were better). I’m no mathematician, so you won’t be seeing any regression analysis on this, but I can spot a nominal trend, and I think we have one here. If one ignores 1998, an increase in the efficacy of Dusty Baker’s starters was the trigger for less mound time for the bullpen, and the reverse was true as well.

This is not what I wanted to see, but I can’t change what the numbers imply. It appears that the more Dusty has confidence in his starters, they more they remain his first option, quality alternatives be damned. The Cubs are left in a position where their blessings double as curses. A fantastic core of young starters is the team’s strength, but they are so good that the very real possibility exists that their manager may, to paraphrase a favorite children’s book, eat them up he loves them so.

Keep your fingers crossed, Cub fans. We’re not out of the woods yet.

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Posted by Derek @ 12:25 PM