Is the Blue Jays’ Bullpen Overworked?

The bullpen of the Toronto Blue Jays has underperformed thus far in 2022. Some have suggested that excess usage, especially during the early part of the season, is a significant factor that accounts for the disappointing results. Does workload explain the bullpen’s underperformance?


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As of June 23, 2022, the Blue Jays’ bullpen American League rankings in FIP, xERA, SV% and Saves plus Hold% are 13th, 14th, 8th and 15th, respectively. June has been a rough month for Toronto’s bullpen, evidenced by their 14th WPA ranking (-0.91) and 15th xERA score. Recently, many MLB observers have expressed their opinion on social media that a heavy workload early in the season has significantly contributed to the bullpen’s recent poor performance. Was bullpen usage excessive in April or May? Let’s examine the matter.

 

One of the interesting tidbits from April was that ten of Toronto’s games were one-run contests, of which Toronto had eight victories. Notably, Jordan Romano saved ten games in as many opportunities and generated a 0.86 WPA, third-best among American League relievers. Of those ten saves, six occurred in one-run games. However, I think because Romano was so visible in April (12 appearances), some MLB observers are under the impression that Toronto’s bullpen, particularly Romano,  was used excessively in the early part of the 2022 campaign.

 

Table 1 is a summary of starter and reliever workloads. In April and May, the Blue Jays’ starting rotation logged the fifth and sixth-most innings in the American League. Concerning total batters faced (“TBF”) per start, Toronto was second-highest in April and spot on the median in May. The bullpen recorded the eleventh-most innings in April and May; the TBF per game ranked eleventh and tenth in April and May, respectively. The bullpen’s relative workload jumped in June, evidenced by the fourth-most innings per game. However, at the team level, the data does not support the view that the bullpen was overworked before June.

 

 

Even so, there are no doubt calls from the stands that “Charlie Montoyo should let his starters go longer into an outing.” Perhaps, but Table 2 demonstrates that each starter’s average innings per outing aligns with their ERA performance. Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman were outstanding in April, and their second and third-most innings per start are consistent with the view that their excellence was rewarded with extended outings. The lower IP/GS for Hyun Jin Ryu, Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi lines up with their ERA ranking; longer outings were not warranted. The one outlier is Ross Stripling’s lower-ranked IP/GS. His apparent under usage was because he is a swingman and is not expected to face batters more than twice through the order.

 

The months of May and June tell a similar story. Montoyo generally has allowed the starters to pitch longer into games when they are pitching well. Indeed, the starters have not pitched as well in June as they had in April and May. In eight of the first twenty-one games in June, Toronto’s starters did not pitch at least five innings; in those games, the starters produced a 10.00 ERA in twenty-seven innings. That put a lot of strain on the Blue Jays bullpen.

 

Enough starter talk. Time to drill down to the reliever level. Table 3 shows the days-of-rest data for the key Blue Jay relievers, and Table 4 concerns details of their appearances. Table 5 is a summary of the monthly performance of those pitchers. Let’s look at some notable Blue Jay relievers.

In April, Romano made the most appearances of the Blue Jays bullpen arms with twelve. Of those outings, two were with one day’s rest, and eight were with two days’ rest. In May, Romano had no outings on two days’ rest but four with a one-day hiatus and six with three or more days of rest. So far in June, Romano has had a relatively light workload. I included the tally sheet for the Yankees’ closer Clay Homes for comparison purposes. In April, Holmes had fewer outings on two days’ rest, but he had one more appearance on one day’s break and two games in which he pitched more than one inning. After April, I would argue that Holmes has had a more demanding workload than Romano and better performance. Romano’s xwOBA has hovered at or below MLB’s median each month. In contrast, Holmes has excelled each month with a similar or heavier workload than Romano.  In my view, Romano has not been overworked thus far this season.

 

Yimi Garcia, who was recently placed on the Injured List with back issues, and David Phelps pitched very well in April and May. Garcia continued to pitch well thus far in June, but Phelps has slipped to below-median in terms of xwOBA. Garcia’s performance to date does not suggest that fatigue has negatively affected his production. In the case of Phelps, I think his June underperformance is partially linked to the fact that four of his nine June appearances called upon him to pitch more than one inning.

 

Tim Mayza missed twenty-eight games after his May 14 appearance with left forearm inflammation. Perhaps his injury was tied to the number of multiple-inning outings (two) in April, perhaps not.

 

Table 6 shows the 2022 and 2021 workload data for Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards. For comparison purposes, I used the last three months of the 2021 campaign because that period covers the two reliever’s tenure with the Blue Jays.

Cimber’s 2022 workload is similar to his 2021 tenure with the Blue Jays. I don’t think one can definitively state that Cimber’s steady rise in xwOBA indicates fatigue resulting from excessive workload. It may just be the variance inherent in the performance of most relievers, not to mention small sample sizes.

 

Richards’s usage in April and May of this season is very similar to that of July and August of 2021. In 2021, September was the month that Richards’s xwOBA was below-median. However, note that Richards’s wOBA and xwOBA have lagged the median every month of the 2022 season. The argument that Richards’s underperformance in 2022 is strongly connected to excessive workload may be overstated, given that he has performed at a below-median level all season.

 

Conclusion

I think Toronto’s bullpen was not used excessively in April or May. The Blue Jays starters had outings of sufficient length such that Toronto’s bullpen had the fifth-fewest innings pitched during the April-May period. Furthermore, an examination of the usage at the reliever level indicates that use was not excessive. June is turning out to be a different story. Because many starters, particularly Kikuchi, have had numerous short outings in June, the workload placed upon Toronto’s bullpen has increased and likely affected performance.

 

However, it is essential to acknowledge that the Blue Jays’ bullpen has not performed well so far during the 2022 season. Table 7 compares Toronto’s bullpen to New York’s and Houston’s, two of the better American League reliever corps. I have broken the respective bullpens into two segments: the relievers who have faced the six-most batters and the remaining bullpen arms.

The data reveals two essential facts. First, Toronto’s six-most frequently used relievers have produced an xwOBA mark that is median, which is better than Houston’s but trails the Yankees. Second, the remaining arms in the Blue Jays’ bullpen have been fourth quartile in both wOBA and xwOBA. Contrast that with the remaining arms in the bullpens of the Yankees and the Astros: better than median-level performance in wOBA and xwOBA.

 

The data from Table 7, and the recent spate of short outings from the starters, lead to the same conclusion. Toronto needs to improve the quality and depth of the bullpen. This is not news to any MLB observers. The bullpen’s performance may improve through better pitching from the incumbents, but additions from within or from another organization are required. The sooner, the better.

 

The Last Word

Until June, Toronto’s bullpen has not been tasked with too heavy a workload at the team or player level. Therefore, excess usage does not explain why the bullpen has produced at a below-median level. Some of the poor performance may be due to the ebbs and flows of an MLB season and the inherent variability of reliever performance. Hence, regression may contribute to better performance in the future. However, I think management should also address the bullpen’s quality and depth issues by adding new members to the reliever corps. Concerning the reliever trade market, Joe Cocker said it best. It’s High Time We Went.

 

 

 

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