One of the ongoing arguments I have had this year with folks — particularly on Twitter — has to do with the quality of the Texas Rangers bullpen. A frequently complaint that you’ll see is that the Rangers bullpen has been bad, they’ve been blowing games, and the pen has been dragging the team down. I have responded by saying that the bullpen has actually been a strength of the team this year, and the Rangers would be much worse if the bullpen was as bad as people claim.
What I point to, when I’m making this argument, is ERA. The Rangers, as a team, have a 3.99 ERA — tied with the Chicago White Sox for 20th in the majors. The Rangers’ starting pitchers have a 4.23 ERA on the season — 20th in the majors. The team’s bullpen ERA, on the other hand, is 3.69 — 12th in the majors. Ergo, the Rangers’ bullpen, by definition, is not bad.
That said...it does sort of feel like the Rangers’ bullpen has been problematic this year. And while my inclination is to dismiss that as “the van is always parked at the corner” syndrome — the tendency to remember certain things that stick out, while not remembering the times they don’t happen — I figured it was worth taking a deeper look.
Fangraphs has, among many, many other things, data for teams and individual players relating to win probability. Included in that data is a stat they simply call “Clutch,” which, as they explain, measures “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” You can click on the link and look under the hood to see how it is calculated, and how the inputs that it uses are calculated, but at the end of the day, the idea is see the deviation between performance overall and performance in high leverage situations.
Now, this isn’t something we generally talk about or look at all that much, since, generally speaking, clutch performance isn’t a skill. It is descriptive, but not predictive. As Fangraphs notes:
Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future. Simply because one player was clutch at one point does not mean they will continue to perform well in high-leverage situations (and vice versa). Very few players have the ability to be consistently clutch over the course of their careers, and choking in one season does not beget the same in the future.
Performance that is identical in high leverage situations as overall would have a zero Clutch score. A positive Clutch score means better performance, compared to what would be expected from that player (or team), in higher leverage situations, while a negative Clutch score means underperforming in higher leverage situations.
The Rangers starters have a Clutch score of 0.84 — better than would be expected, and 12th in the majors.
The Rangers relievers have a Clutch score of -3.60 — much, much worse than would be expected, and 28th in the majors, ahead of only Arizona (-3.89) and Detroit (-4.52).
So all those people who have told me that the bullpen has been bad? Well, I don’t know that I can say, based on this, that they are wrong — or, at least, entirely wrong. The overall performance of the bullpen, in terms of allowing runs, has been fine. But the bullpen has had, according to Clutch, a knack for allowing runs at the worst possible times — resulting in the blown leads and meltdowns that stick in our heads.
My initial inclination is to attribute the Rangers’ poor record in one run games — 9-26 as I type this — and underperformance compared to their expected won-loss record based on run differential (57-67 actual versus 64-60 expected) to the bullpen’s lack of clutchiness. However, Detroit is .500 in one run games, and is actually slightly overperforming their expected won-loss record, while Arizona has a 15-22 record in one run games and is only underperforming their expected record by two games.
We probably need more than an N=3 sample size to make any real conclusions about this, but I don’t feel like doing that this morning. Maybe another day.
In terms of individual pitchers, the worst performers for the Rangers are names you would likely expect — Brett Martin (-1.23), John King (-0.89), Garrett Richards (-0.80), and Dennis Santana (-0.62). The top performers are Matt Moore (0.66), Greg Holland (0.44), and Jonathan Hernandez (0.38).
Again, I wouldn’t put much, if any, weight on this in terms of expectations going forward. Brett Martin, for example, was more or less breakeven in terms of his Clutch score prior to this season. The Rangers relievers. were middle of the pack last year. And the most Clutch bullpen in 2021, per the Fangraphs metric, was...the Detroit Tigers bullpen, at 5.57. The same Tigers who are dead last in 2022.