Bullpen workhorses

Jeff Gross

Using 70 innings pitched each of the last four years without any starts as our filter, who are the most turned-to bullpen arms?

There are many ways to succeed as a reliever. Be it a funky arm angle or a funky pitch, if it gets hitters out, it will keep you employed. More circus sideshow and big top headliner, the bullpen is full of baseball oddities that sometimes you have to see to believe. It's a great gig if you can get it and many pitchers have over the years. Yet few stick around, flaming out once their heat becomes lukewarm or their sleight of hand gets figured out. Indeed, it is a rare feat to pitch lots of innings over a significant chunk of time as a reliever, even in light of our era of super-specialization and one-batter appearances. To keep with the circus narrative, the Rubber-Armed Men of the game are few and far between.

Rare as they may be, they are out there, the pitchers who can give you lots of outings, year in and year out. Looking at the last four seasons, there have been 45 instances of pitcher who pitched greater than 70 innings pitched (IP) while never starting a game, coming from 20 pitchers total. It's a motley crew—sidearmers, one pitch specialists, or just plain failed starters with lots of tools but mastery of none of them. However, two reign supreme over the lot, having four seasons of 70 IP, zero start seasons: Matt Belisle and Tyler Clippard.

Briefly, here's what those four years have looked for our rubber-armed men:

Season G IP IP/G K/9 BB/9 HR/9 LOB% GB% RE24
Belisle 2010 76 92 1.21 8.9 1.57 0.68 73.8 % 46.3 % 16.36
2011 74 72 0.97 7.25 1.75 0.63 70.5 % 53.2 % 4.39
2012 80 80 1.00 7.76 2.03 0.56 72.4 % 50.6 % 12.4
2013 72 73 1.01 7.64 1.85 0.74 65.4 % 48.6 % 1.68
Clippard 2010 78 91 1.17 11.08 4.05 0.79 78.4 % 27.8 % 8.02
2011 72 88.1 1.22 10.6 2.65 1.12 95.6 % 20.2 % 26.56
2012 74 72.2 0.98 10.4 3.59 0.87 70.9 % 29.7 % 2.81
2013 72 71 0.99 9.25 3.04 1.14 87.8 % 27.9 % 11.36

Quickly comparing the duo, we find that Belisle appears to get things done through an ability to induce ground balls, while Clippard's forte is the strikeout, with some slightly elevated walk and home run rates part and parcel of his outings.

Let's look at their pitch selection:

Season FA% FT% FC% SL% CU% CH%
Belisle 2010 55.50% 10.50% 20.70% 10.50% 1.60%
2011 55.60% 3.90% 32.30% 7.00% 0.30%
2012 50.10% 4.70% 0.60% 28.30% 11.50% 3.10%
2013 53.20% 3.00% 6.40% 25.80% 7.60% 3.20%
Clippard 2010 54.50% 13.30% 8.60% 22.50%
2011 57.80% 7.90% 6.30% 27.30%
2012 51.80% 10.30% 2.30% 35.40%
2013 59.00% 6.30% 7.10% 27.40%

Both hurlers haven't strayed too far from their starters roots, mixing in a handful of pitches, but essentially relying upon a combo of pitches, given the limited times through the order their bullpen roles exposes them to. For Belisle, it's a fastball-slider mix and for Clippard, a fastball-changeup combo that provides the impetus behind their success and longevity. We do see Belisle toying with other pitches over the years a little more than Clippard; however, even Clip is beginning to play with other pitches, including a cut fastball, to keep hitters guessing.

Now, let's look at their pitch type linear weights—I have taken the liberty of only including positive weights for this table:

Season wFA/C wFT/C wFC/C wSL/C wCU/C wCH/C
Belisle 2010 1.71 0.74 0.91
2011 1.00 2.31 4.37
2012 0.7 0.42 0.66 0.21
2013 0.53 0.62 3.29
Clippard 2010 1.47 0.94
2011 1.39 1.15 2.97
2012 0.07 0.4 1.75
2013 1.72 4.17 1.33

Again, we see Clippard's fastball-change combo providing a little more long term success, with Belisle experimenting a little more with other pitches to pair with his fastball, with the acknowledgement of sample sizes and classification errors of his pitches potentially skewing the data.

One last table, outlining hitter's swing tendencies:

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
Belisle 2010 28.70% 63.20% 62.60% 86.20% 57.70%
2011 28.50% 67.30% 72.30% 87.30% 58.90%
2012 32.40% 63.60% 67.70% 87.30% 59.50%
2013 33.50% 65.60% 60.40% 86.40% 56.20%
Clippard 2010 31.10% 64.00% 60.10% 75.30% 48.60%
2011 34.80% 68.60% 56.20% 74.30% 46.40%
2012 28.60% 69.20% 69.40% 80.90% 50.10%
2013 32.20% 74.90% 62.80% 78.00% 49.00%

Again, we see some slight difference in how each of our rubber-arm hurlers take care of business; for Clippard, he generates a fair amount of swings at pitches out of the zone, while Belisle will pound the strike zone a hair more. However, Clippard gets more swing and miss in the zone than Belisle, which is reflected in his strikeout rates.

While their workhorse tendencies will pair Belisle and Clippard as effective bullpen mainstays for their respective teams, the methods they use to notch innings and outs is divergent, despite both hurlers starting their careers as starters. However, they both display a knack for longevity derived from an ability to remain healthy and one step ahead of hitters, which makes them the rarest of all of the sights in the sideshow that is the bullpen.

***

All data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Stuart Wallace is an associate managing editor and writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.

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