Veteran reliever woes put damper on D-backs’ bullpen track record

Sep 8, 2022, 8:00 PM
Mark Melancon #34 of the Arizona Diamondbacks walks off the mound after giving up a walk off two ru...
Mark Melancon #34 of the Arizona Diamondbacks walks off the mound after giving up a walk off two run home run to Jack Suwinski #65 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the ninth inning at PNC Park on June 4, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

On the heels of Ian Kennedy’s sixth blown save of the season, the Arizona Diamondbacks snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on Tuesday against the San Diego Padres.

That blown save gave the D-backs 21 on the season, tied for the ninth-most in baseball. Meanwhile, their 29 saves rank tied for sixth-fewest.

No team saves 100% of their chances, and blowing saves isn’t necessarily going to be a team’s death sentence. However, having only 29 saves in 50 chances (58%), for a team now 10 games out of a postseason spot makes it easier to start finger-pointing.

The Diamondbacks have done a great job of playing spoiler in recent weeks, winning series against the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers.

The infusion of youth plus the torrid hitting of Christian Walker and Emmanuel Rivera have been major contributors to the success. However, the woes of veteran relievers have held the team back all season, with 13 of their 21 blown saves coming from relievers age-32 and older.

Deadline non-moves

Entering the Aug. 2 trade deadline, the D-backs were tied for last in the NL West, 24 games behind the Dodgers. While they traded pitcher Luke Weaver and fan-favorite outfielder David Peralta, they held onto relievers Mark Melancon and Kennedy.

Melancon, 37, wasn’t dominant through the deadline, but had a 3.55 FIP and was middle of the pack in hard-hit rate. Regardless, there wasn’t much incentive to keep a 37-year-old reliever when the D-backs were not in postseason contention — even one with at least one more year of team control, like Melancon.

They hung onto him, and he has a 7.56 ERA over 10 outings since the deadline.

The D-backs did the same thing with 37-year-old Kennedy. While his underlying data suggested regression was on the horizon, he had a 3.24 ERA through the trade deadline. Unlike Melancon, the club can decide to make him a free agent at season’s end. Should his option get picked up, he’ll be on the books for $4 million in 2023. However, if his option is declined, the team saves $3.75 million after the buyout.

There’s not much incentive for a 45-57 team to hang onto a potential free-agent reliever, but the D-backs decided there was with Kennedy.

He has a 4.63 ERA and three blown saves in 13 outings since.

Since Aug. 2, the Diamondbacks have the worst bullpen ERA in baseball, at 5.70. They’re also tied for the fourth-most blown saves, with six. They’re 26th in strikeout rate while boasting the fifth-worst strikeout-to-walk rate. To make matters worse, Kennedy and Melancon are two of the bottom three in Arizona’s bullpen for FanGraphs’ WAR.

Roster ideology

Signing veteran relievers isn’t an issue regardless of the organization’s direction. Whether a team is on the precipice of World Series contention or vying for the No. 1 pick, having veterans is a good thing.

However, the Diamondbacks have the tendency of targeting relievers in their mid-to-late-30s, sometimes even in their 40s.

The 2022 season brought back Kennedy and Oliver Perez (40), as well as Melancon. Perez was designated for assignment in April.

The 2021 season included signing Tyler Clippard (36) and Joakim Soria (37). Soria was traded, Clippard was not.

The 2020 season brought Hector Rondon (32) after the worst season of his career, 2019 involved Greg Holland (32) and 2018 brought Fernando Salas (33) and Brad Ziegler (38).

They also signed Fernando Rodney for his age-40 season in 2017, but they made the postseason. However, from 2018 to 2022 — five seasons without postseason play — these nine relievers combined for a 4.67 ERA and 19.7% strikeout rate in 266 innings. The league average during that stretch was a 3.87 ERA and 23.5% strikeout rate.

Of those nine, only Soria was traded, while three were released.

Moving forward

The Diamondbacks could benefit from prioritizing relievers who miss bats, regardless of age.

Since 2018, they’re last in the majors in bullpen strikeout rate and swinging strike rate. They also are tied for the fourth-worst reliever’s opponent batting average.

Pitching coach Brent Strom has earned a reputation for getting the most out of his pitchers and has with Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly in the rotation. However, the bullpen hasn’t seen the same improvement in production — granted this is Strom’s first year.

Taking chances on relievers with good stuff and being less track record-oriented in free agency may go a long way. Teams like the Astros, Yankees, Rays and Dodgers do that regularly and churn out elite pitching staffs consistently. Meanwhile, the D-backs sign pitchers like Melancon, Kennedy, Soria, etc. .

Relievers with good stuff still sign reasonably cheap. Just last offseason, left-hander Brooks Raley left Houston for Tampa Bay at just $5 million average annual value. His 2022 salary is in the same tier as Ian Kennedy, only Raley has a 2.12 ERA and strikeout rate of 30.2%.

He has great stuff and gets strikeouts without an overpowering fastball, plus familiarity with Strom — perhaps something could’ve materialized there last offseason. Pitchers like him emerge every season, often at a reasonable cost.

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