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Do not try to replicate the Royals bullpen

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Good relievers come from the unlikeliest places.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

When Aroldis Chapman was traded to the Yankees from the Reds (for mere pennies if you ask me) there was a lot of talk (including on this very site) about how the new Yankees bullpen stacked up against the dominant Royals bullpen of the past few years. In my view, the new Yankees bullpen projects to be better than the Royals bullpen was in either 2014 or 2015..

From 2014-2015

Wade Davis has been better than Andrew Miller, but Chapman has been at least as good as Davis, while Betances has been better than them all. When you account in the difference between the Yankees third best reliever (Miller) and the Royals second best reliever, you're talking about a 1+ win difference. Oh, and the second-best Royals pitcher on that list just had Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire season.

2016 Steamer projections:

As for the 2016 season, all three of the Yankees relievers project to be better than Wade Davis and of course better than Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria. Now you can quibble about Steamer being a bit low in Davis, an argument I would perhaps agree with, but I think at best you can say that he's as good as the Yankees "trihedra". The Yankees essentially have three Wade Davises.

The Yankees acquisition is a microcosm of the new macro trend that has been bandied about ever since the Royals won back-to-back AL championships and the 2015 World Series - overwhelm opponents with a dominant bullpen. This makes sense, regardless of the Royals success. You want every aspect of your team to be good. However, the Royals success brought this idea to the zeitgeist.

One thing though that stuck out to me when I saw teams trying to build a bullpen like the Royals - the Royals did not design to build such a dominant bullpen.

The Royals don't have a long history of having a dominant bullpen. When you remove 2014 and 2015 and look at the best bullpens (by fWAR) from 2004-2013 (prior 10 seasons) the Royals appear just twice.

Dayton Moore may or may not have made the bullpen a point of emphasis when he first arrived to Kansas City, but he had not succeeded in that plan until very recently. Considering that among Dayton's early acquisitions were guys like Yasuhika Yabuta, John Bale, and Juan Cruz, with guys like Blake Wood, Robinson Tejada, and Dusty Hughes throwing 60+ innings in a year, it is clear the Royals early pens under Moore were a far cry from H-D-H.

The Royals may have even backed into their dominant bullpen. Wade Davis was a former top 20 prospect with the Rays who failed as a starter. Then he was turned into a good reliever, but turned back into a failed starter (by Dayton Moore) before taking a reliever role again and becoming one of the most dominant relief arms in the game. Kelvin Herrera  got a small signing bonus out of the Dominican, but was a failed starter turned good reliever.

Greg Holland was a tenth round pick who wasn't on Baseball America's top 200 pre-draft list and never made a top 100 list. He was really not very good in the minors and the Royals even tried giving him some starts in Wilmington his first season. Holland played SS/3B in high school and was a walk on to his college team. It was hard for anyone to predict he'd become a two-time All-Star closer. Ryan Madson had Tommy John surgery then literally didn't throw a big league pitcher for three and a half years before his rebound with the Royals. Luke Hochevar went from first overall pick to poor starter to solid reliever.

There's no way that Dayton Moore knew that all of this would come together. The only common theme among the above guys is really one thing - failed starter.

Let's look at the top 30 relievers in 2015 by fWAR and where they came from:

I thought it was going to be a little more one-sided, but almost 70% of the top 30 relievers in 2015 were once starters. Whether they are recent converts or only lasted a year or so in the minors, the majority of them were once seen as starting pitchers by their clubs.

When the Astros traded away Vince Velasquez, Mark Appel, and other in exchange for the Phillies young relief stud Ken Giles I wondered if the Astros would have just been better off converting Velasquez to a reliever and keeping all the prospects. Of course, Giles is a really good reliever but Velasquez is a decent starter. He's likely a better starter than Wade Davis or Luke Hochevar ever was. Steamer projects Velasquez to be a reliever for 2016 and gives him a 3.24/3.39 ERA/FIP. That would roughly put him in the top 70 or so relievers in baseball, and I owould gladly take the over to beat that ERA/FIP projection.

This isn't new information of course. Starters normally do better once they are banished to the bullpen.

I think there are really two strategies to build a bullpen:

1. Trade/sign the established elite relievers

Relievers are highly fungible. However the elite relievers - Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Wade Davis - usually remain elite relievers for several years. For example, let's take five elite level relievers: Wade Davis, Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland, Craig Kimbrel, and Kenley Jansen. If you average out their FIP- and ERA- you get:

Year FIP- ERA-
2013 55 41
2014 41 47
2015 50 58

Remember that FIP- and ERA- league average is always 100. So even at their worst by FIP they were still 45% better than league average. By ERA at worst they were 42% better than league average. Elite relievers aren't immune to poor years and fallouts, but they usually stick longer than the non-elite (much like their position player counterparts). This is the strategy the Yankees employed.

2. Get lucky

Okay...maybe get lucky is too generous of a description, but essentially there's a great deal of unplanned fortune in building a great bullpen.

Here are the top five bullpens by fWAR from 2013 to 2015 (excluding the Royals) and their top three guys. Also how they came to the organization:

1. 2013 Texas Rangers (6.5 fWAR)

Joe Nathan (2.3 fWAR): Former starter. 2/$14M free agent deal
Neal Cotts (1.7 fWAR) Former starter. Signed to a minor league deal by Texas.
Robbie Ross (0.9 fWAR): Former starter. Drafted in 2nd round. Eventually traded away for Anthony Ranaudo

2. 2015 Baltimore Orioles (6.4 fWAR)

Zach Britton (2.1 fWAR): Former Starter. Drafted in the 3rd round
Darren O'Day (1.8 fWAR): Always a reliever. Selected off waivers from Texas after being left off playoff roster
Brad Brach (0.9 fWAR): Always a reliever. Traded for minor leaguer Devin Jones from San Diego

3. 2014 New York Yankees (5.5 fWAR)

Dellin Betances (3.1 fWAR): Former starter. 8th round pick
David Robertson (1.6 fWAR): Always a reliever. 17th round pick
Adam Warren (1.4 fWAR): Former starter. 4th round pick

4. 2014 Washington Nationals (5.4 fWAR)

Tyler Clippard (1.5 fWAR): Former starter. 9th round pick traded from NYY for Jonathan Albaladejo
Drew Storen (1.0 fWAR): Always a reliever. 1st round pick (10th overall) but went much earlier than expected as the Nationals got Stephen Strasburg at 1.1
Jerry Blevins: Always a reliever. Traded to the Nationals from Oakland for Billy Burns

5. 2015 Houston Astros (5.3 fWAR)

Josh Fields (1.3 fWAR): Always a reliever. Rule 5 selection from Boston Red Sox
Luke Gregerson (1.2 fWAR): Always a reliever. 28th round selection by St. Louis that was traded as PTBNL
Tony Sipp (1.0 fWAR): Former starter. 45th round pick. Waived by San Diego then signed a minor league deal with Houston

Not a lot of those guys were big names when those teams acquired them. Nathan was a legit signing by the Rangers after years of dominating with the Twins. But almost everybody else was a draft pick beyond the first few rounds or was one team's trash another's treasure in the form of waivers, Rule 5 pick, etc...





It's a bit closer than the earlier results, but former starters still make up the slight majority. Again, this isn't new information in regards to failed starter usually end up as average or better relievers. However, the lesson may be that an elite bullpen is hard to plan for.

There are only so many elite relievers currently in baseball, and all of them are solidly on their current team. Chapman and Davis are free agents soon, but Miller, Betances, Giles, Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Trevor Rosenthal, etc... are on contending teams who need them. It's likely improbable that your random 40th round pick is going to end up as an elite reliever, but a lot of the next level guys come from random places like the 40th round, a Rule 5 draft, waiver claims, or a trade for a random minor leaguer. Luke Gregerson has been one of the most consistent relievers the past few years and was a PTBNL in a trade for Khalil Greene... He was then signed by the Astros for 3/$18M last offseason.

It may not be fool's gold to try to build a dominant bullpen, but to build a great pen, it is worth looking under every rock you have in your organization.