For example, B-ref currently lists team splits going back to 1954. Meanwhile, Retrosheet has all that – plus 1952-53, 1945-48, and 1920-39 for all teams (plus the AL for 1940-41). Not bad, eh? There’s also the 1911 NL and some National Association info as well.
For me, this is a lot of fun, because I can update and expand my Tendencies Database, which was something I created for my new book: Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008 (which recently won rave reviews from Baseball America and Yahoo’s Big League Stew blog).
Lately, I’ve added all the splits available from 1920-onward (there’s too much fragmentary stuff in 1911, and I don’t care about the NA): info on 1,810 teams in all. Right now I just want to share some of the most interesting things I’ve discovered about the bullpen stats I have on hand. So here it goes:
1. Best bullpen EVER: 2003 Dodgers
While I dumped in bullpen split stats, I also added in park factors, and league ERA, allowing me to determine (by my own rough mathematical approximation) the squads with the best bullpens ever, as rated by ERA+. They are:
Year Team ERA+ 2003 LAD 164 1981 NYY 159 1990 OAK 158 2002 ATL 158 1995 STL 156 1926 A's 155
(I put the sixth team on because I love the fact that such an old bullpen holds up so well).
Admittedly, there are problems with using ERA+ to gauge bullpen quality. Most notably it overlooks inherited runners. But check out that gap!
This team is most famous for Eric Gagne in full bloom. He converted all 55 save opportunities given to him while compiling a 1.20 ERA. He fanned 137 batters in 82.1 innings and allowed only 37 hits and 20 walks. Yeah, he was good.
He was good, but his middle relievers were almost as good. Paul Quantrill and Guillermo Mota both had ERAs under 2.00 while combining to throw more than 180 innings. Paul Shuey and Tom Martin also pitched well, though nothing as superhuman as the bullpen core.
The entire bullpen had the best strikeout rate and walk rate of the season, en route to a 2.46 ERA overall. Even without adjusting for park and era, that’s the 15th best bullpen ERA on record.
If anyone’s curious, the best unadjusted bullpen ERA is a tie between the 1967 White Sox and 1968 Dodgers at 2.14. The next lowest is the 1972 Pirates at 2.25.
2. Worst bullpens ever
Every yin must have its yang, so let’s look at the opposite end. What are the worst bullpens ever? Without looking, my guess would be the 1930 Phillies. Their bullpen ERA was 8.15, the only one on retrosheet that’s higher than 8.00. In fact, it’s the only one higher than 7.00. OK, that’s bad. Added bonus: throw in unearned runs and they allowed more than a run per inning. Yikes.
Still, adjust for park and era (both of which kill the 1930 Phils), and someone else lands on bottom: it’s a tie between the 1920 Cubs and 1938 Pirates, each with an ERA+ of 60.
That Pirate team is a fairly (in)famous squad. They paced their season like they did their ballgames: blowing a seven-game lead in the season’s final month. The flop culminated in Gabby Hartnett‘s famous “Homer in the Gloamin’” which the Hall of Famer wrapped up a comeback win for the Cubs with a walk-off homer in the ninth.
Naturally, Hartnett’s homer was off a reliever. It was a game-winning homer because the Pirates pen allowed a pair of runs the previous inning. Yeah, those relievers weren’t very good.
Still, it’s not entirely fair to call those teams the worst bullpens ever. The 1920 Cubs relievers tossed only 202 innings and the 1938 Pirates were well under 300. The worst bullpen with more than 400 innings was the 1953 Tigers (66 ERA+ in 402.1 IP).
Working upward, the 1967 Astros had an ERA+ of 70 in 427.1 innings. The 1955 A’s threw 482 reliever innings, with an ERA+ of 72. That was their first season in Kansas City – a helluva way to get started. The 2007 Devil Rays had a 75 ERA+ in 497 innings. That’s the worst bullpen of recent times.
Depending on how you weigh innings with ineptitude, one of the above is the worst ever.
3. The 1964 Kansas City A’s bomb squad
Actually, the reference to the 1955 A’s bullpen brings up the strangest finding I came across.
If I were a betting man, I would’ve wagered a pretty penny that the relief unit that allowed the most homers came from recent times. After all, modern baseball has seen an increase in bullpen usage and a massive surge in power.
Good thing for me I’m not a betting man, then, because the most homer-prone relief unit of them all came during the height of Beatlemania – and it’s not even close. Here’s the “leader” board:
Year Team HR 1964 KCA 92 1996 DET 88 2006 BAL 86 2004 CIN 85 2000 KCR 83
Until 1995, they had a 18-home run lead over second place (the 1982 Twins, at 74). Prior to 1964, the known record by a bullpen was 65 – by the 1955 Kansas City A’s.
Improbably, the 1964 A’s do not have the worst HR/IP. (That’s the 2001 Rockies.) The old KC gang is tied for 10th worst at 1.41HR/9IP. That brings up their second memorable feature: They threw an insanely large number of innings for their era.
In fact, based on the info in my database, the following teams set the record for most IP by a bullpen, from 1920-onward. (I’ll include managers because I care about that stuff):
Year Team IP Manager 1920 STL 365.1 Rickey 1921 STL 382.2 Rickey 1924 PHI 394.2 Fletcher 1928 PHI 418.2 Shotton 1931 CWS 443.0 Bush 1935 STB 487.1 Hornsby 1956 WAS 505.0 Dressen 1957 NYG 508.2 Rigney 1962 LAA 528.1 Rigney 1964 KCA 588.1 McGaha 1977 SEA 599.1 Johnson, Drl 2003 TEX 601.1 Showalter
You know how modern bullpens always throw so many more innings than older ones? Well, the 1964 A’s are still sixth highest on the all-time bullpen IP board. They were third highest until 2003.
4. Bullpen IP going backward
Let’s flip around the chart from above: Looking backward, what’s the fewest innings thrown by any bullpen in history? We’re going to flip history on its head here, as if 2009 was the beginning and 1920 was the end, and act as though MLB history has been the story of ever-declining relievers. Again I’ll include managers, to see who has the least bullpen interest here, compared to his peers:
Year Team IP Manager 2009 STL 437 LaRussa 2008 TOR 425 Gaston 2007 CHW 424.2 Guillen 2006 CHW 407 Guillen 2005 STL 397.2 LaRussa 2003 NYY 396 Torre 2002 ARI 387.1 Brenly 1998 ATL 364 Cox 1988 TEX 331.1 Valentine 1980 OAK 210.1 Martin 1946 DET 184.1 O'Neill 1941 CHW 167 Dykes 1923 NYY 160.1 Huggins 1922 NYY 159.1 Huggins 1920 CHW 159 Gleason
The above only looks at full seasons. That Billy Martin sure was something, wasn’t he? There’s a gap in the record, but that only affects three years between the 1980 A’s and 1946 Tigers.
5. Dick Radatz: an appreciation
Here’s another, similar list: best bullpen K/IP rate, by decade. (Look at it by decade because K-rates have gone up over the years.) Keep in mind that this info is fragmentary for the 1950s and especially 1940s:
Decade Year Team K/9IP 1920s 1927 WAS 4.26 1930s 1931 WAS 5.23 1940s 1947 NYY 5.16 1950s 1959 NYY 6.78 1960s 1964 BOX 8.32 1970s 1976 PHI 7.75 1980s 1986 TOR 8.09 1990s 1999 NYM 9.40 2000s 2001 CHC 9.83
One thing leaps out at me in this list: the 1964 Red Sox. In previous decades, no team even topped seven, and they topped eight. While, admittedly, Ks increased in the 1960s, they were still the only team over 8K/9IP until 1986. No team topped their 8.32 mark until the 1990 Reds (which themselves had a widely heralded “Nasty Boys” bullpen featuring Rob Dibble, Randy Myers, and Norm Charlton).
The Red Sox’s secret: Dick Radatz, who was aptly nicknamed “The Monster.” In 1964, he threw 157 innings – all in relief (!) – with 181 strikeouts. Not bad, eh? The year before he whiffed 162 in 132.1 innings.
I’ve seen the numbers before and knew he was great, but this reinforces it. In his prime, Radatz was about as dominating as the Nasty Boys trio put together. Not bad.
6. The bicentennial bullpen of brotherly love
As noted above, strikeout rates over time have changed over the years, so the best way to look at this is to take every bullpen, divide by league K/9IP, and see who has the fanningest of them all.
Doing so would actually aid teams in low-K environments (it’s easier to be well over 5K/9IP than over 7K/9IP, but no answer is perfect). My hunch would be that the 1964 Red Sox would win, but again I’m wrong. They weren’t even tops in 1964: the Reds were at 139, while the Red Sox were at 136. It turns out the AL as a whole fanned an unusually large number of batters in 1964.
This isn’t meant as a knock at Radatz, as his achievement was remarkable. The Reds had a deeper well of fireballing relievers, including Sammy Ellis (125 Ks in 122.1 IP), Billy McCool (87 Ks in 89.1 IP), and an aging Ryne Duren 39 Ks in 43.2 IP). None of whom were The Monster, but when the ‘pen is that deep you can live without him.
The point here is to laud the team with the greatest era-adjusted K-rate: the Bicentennial Phillies. Their relievers fanned 359 batters in 417 innings, a rate of 7.75 in a league that averaged less than 5K/9IP.
The 1976 Phillies bullpen possessed a strikeout rate 57 percent higher than the league average, which is the greatest mark ever. Admittedly, this approach favors older teams (it’s easier to be 57 percent over five than over seven), but that Phillies bullpen was tremendous.
They had three relief aces: Tug McGraw, Ron Reed, and Gene Garber. All posted more than 10 saves that year and each of whom had fine, long careers. Their fourth reliever was Wayne Twitchell, whose 1.75 ERA was best in the bullpen. Their fifth reliever, Ron Schueler, fanned 43 men in 49.2 innings with a 2.90 ERA. Yet he was still just the fifth man in the bullpen.
If anyone’s curious, the worst adjusted strikeout rate ever came from the 1927 White Sox bullpen. Despite pitching in a league that averaged only 2.78K/9IP, the South Siders could manage only 59 percent of the league rate. They fanned 43 batters in 236 innings – 1.64K/9IP. If it’s harder to top the 1976 Phillies in a high-K era, then it should be equally hard for a team in a low-K environment to have the worst adjusted rate. But those 1927 White Sox pulled it out anyway. That’s some sort of an achievement.
The 1927 Sox also are last in unadjusted K-rate, and second-worst (behind the 1930 White Sox) in total batters fanned.
7. Ground ball specialists? The early 1920s Senators
I can do the same thing for homers allowed as I did for strikeouts. In theory, at least. In reality, it doesn’t work because bullpens pitched fewer innings, so some teams happened to have three or four homers in a season, giving them marks three or four times better than the league average. There’s also a far greater park factor, which I can ignore in strikeouts.
Still, the 1920s Senators bullpens are beyond belief. They have the two best league-adjusted homer marks ever: the 1924 Senator relievers had a HR rate one-fourth as low as the league rate, and the 1921 Senators were nearly as impressive.
A lot of that is surely park, but that doesn’t explain it all. In 1921, the Senators allowed 51 homers total: 48 by the starters and three by the relievers. How the hell do you do that? Starters allowed a gopher ball once every 23 innings but their relievers did it less than once in 80 innings. It’s like a bullpen of Greg Mintons. In 1924, the bullpen allowed a homer once ever 104 innings (!?!?) while the starters were at once in 35 innings. It’s just craziness.
If anyone’s curious, the bullpen with the best league adjusted walk-rate was the 1984 Royals. That’s not surprising given that Dan Quisenberry was there. The 1929 Tigers were the worst. They’re also the only bullpen to average more than six walks per nine innings.
8. The virtue of consistency
This one isn’t terribly important, but I sure found it interesting when Retrosheet dumped the 1945-48 info up last week. Total relief appearances by the Boston Braves in the mid-1940s:
Year RA 1945 166 1946 167 1947 167 1948 167
They were to relief appearances what Albert Pujols used to be to at-bats in a season.
9. The pride of Anaheim
Here’s another take: as long as I’ve looked at park and league-adjusted bullpen ERA, I can see what teams had extended stretches of quality relief work. Several franchises have had impressive stretches, but the one that I found most striking was the Angels in recent decades (yes, decades):
Year ERA+ 1977 109 1978 125 1979 82 1980 109 1981 112 1982 119 1983 96 1984 104 1985 121 1986 107 1987 119 1988 104 1989 132 1990 108 1991 121 1992 101 1993 102 1994 90 1995 129 1996 102 1997 129 1998 120 1999 121 2000 120 2001 134 2002 146 2003 135 2004 132 2005 119 2006 116 2007 102 2008 121 2009 101
Admittedly, this is comparing apples and oranges. League-wide bullpen ERA is routinely better than starter ERA, so a score of 100 isn’t quite league average. That said, if a bullpen is only slightly over 100, they ain’t off by much. A unit that is only a few/couple points below perfectly average is an about-average bullpen.
This is a long way of saying the Angels haven’t had back-to-back really bad bullpens in over 30 years. And they’ve had a helluva lot of really good bullpens, too. They had 10 straight years over 120. Neat trick. They’ve only had a pair of truly lousy bullpens: 1979 and 1994. They’ve been 96 or higher in the remaining 31 campaigns over the last 33 seasons, with 30 seasons in triple digits.
For perspective, from 1977-2009, there have been 916 bullpens. About seven-tenths (645) are in triple digits. The Angels have impressively continued to produce good to great bullpen performances.
10. The best on the worst and the worst on the best
Last query (well, queries, really): what’s the worst bullpen on a good team or best bullpen on a bad team.
Let’s start with the second part. The 1995 Cardinals had the best bullpen ERA+ by any team with a losing record. In fact, their 156 ERA+ makes the leaderboard at the top of this article for the fifth-best bullpen ERA+ ever.
Then again, they were “only” 62-81. What’s the best bullpen on a truly dreadful team? The best bullpen on a sub-.400 squad was the 1977 A’s: a 129 ERA+ for a 63-98 team. Among 100-game losers, the standout was the 1964 Senators bullpen, which posted a 122 ERA+.
Looking at the other end, the 1923 Indians had a bullpen ERA+ of 71 while going 82-71 on the year. In more recent times, the 1971 Yankees and 1980 A’s barely snuck over .500 despite bullpen ERA+s of 72. Hey – there’s the 1980 A’s! That’s famous as the starting staff Billy Martin beat to death. Halfway across this article we saw that every full-season team since 1980 has had their relievers throw at least 100 innings more than the 1980 A’s. I think we just discovered one reason Martin leaned so hard on his starters: His relievers were horrible.
Among great teams (.600 percentage or better), the worst reliever ERA+ was the 1933 Yanks, at 75. In the last half-century, the worst bullpen on a great team was the 977 Orioles, who had an ERA+ of 83 from their relievers.
That was fun. Schedule permitting, maybe I’ll have something similar for starting rotations next time.
References & Resources
I should note, my ERA+ calculations might be a tad off as I didn’t bother looking up the official calculations. I divided league ERA by team ERA and then adjusted for park factor. One other oddity for recent teams: about a year or two ago, Sean Forman noted on his blog that he had set up recent park factors (1996-on?) a little differently than previous years, but has decided to correct that. I’ve got the old park factors in my database. I could fix it, I guess, but I’m a little iffy on park factors. They’re valuable and useful (so I use them), but I think their precision is a bit overrated. Plus it’s a pain for me to add in the new park factors, there’s that, too.