Towers bullish on D-backs' loaded bullpen
FEB 13, 2013 3:20p ET
Towers stocked his Diamondbacks bullpen so much this offseason that it could be one of his best, although playing in Chase Field can skew numbers to one side the way pitcher-friendly Petco Park can do to the other. The addition of newcomers Heath Bell, Tony Sipp and Matt Reynolds to a group of quality holdovers appears to make the new cast, at least, the deepest corps of relievers in the 15-year history of the franchise.
Towers is not ready to go there yet, but he believes in the group, which also includes closer J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Brad Ziegler and long man Josh Collmenter.
“People say that I am enamored with ‘pen. Well, I am,” Towers said.
“I like the makeup of this bullpen. I like their personalities. I think they are a little bit quirky, a little bit different. They all throw strikes, and for most of them there is a power component as well. To me, when you get in jams, we have several guys who can come in and have wipeout-type stuff, where they can strike out two or three guys and get out of jam. There is nothing worse than when you don’t have guys with stuff and you’re just hoping they hit the ball at somebody. Hopefully that is not the case here.”
It is safe to that Towers is on the right side of history in identifying the bullpen as a good place to begin construction of a contender. He was probably ahead of the curve with his approach in San Diego.
Bullpen ERA has been a good indicator of a team’s overall success in the last decade or so, beginning with the D-backs’ World Series title run in 2001. Seven teams among the top 10 in bullpen ERA made the playoffs that year, and the D-backs won ranking tenth. They did not need the relief corps quite as much as others might have because of dominance of their 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, co-World Series MVPs Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
Last season, five of the top seven teams in bullpen ERA made the postseason. It was the same in 2010. The Giants won it all in both seasons, and their deep and versatile bullpen has stood as a model for others.
It does not stop there. Philadelphia won the 2008 World Series with a bullpen that ranked second in the majors. Boston won the 2007 World Series with a bullpen that also was No. 2. Chicago’s bullpen was third when the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. The 2002 World Series matched two teams that finished in the top seven, San Francisco and the Angels, a series the Angels won in seven games. Mariano Rivera and the Yankees’ bullpen ranked third when the D-backs beat them in 2001 ... and the D-backs’ winning run was unearned.
The Padres ranked third and sixth in bullpen ERA when the won the NL West in 2005-06.
“I look at the early years where we won in San Diego. We weren’t always the best offensive club. Usually we were in the middle of the pack or near the bottom in offense. We won with pitching, and we won with our ‘pen. We won the games we were supposed to win,” he said.
“We knew if we had a lead after the fifth or sixth inning, it was going to be very difficult for the opponent to come back on us. And no different this year. A little different ballpark in the way it plays, but in 20-plus years being in the NL West, it is always won with pitching. Starting pitching and the ‘pen.
“The Giants had a nice offense last year, but they won with their pitching and their ‘pen. If their ‘pen wouldn’t have performed like it did with their back to the wall late in postseason last year, they might not have ended up with a World Series trophy.”
Change was necessary when Towers arrived, and he has rebuilt incrementally. Putz and Hernandez were his first two acquisitions at the 2010 winter meetings, Ziegler came at the 2011 trading deadline, and Bell, Sipp and Reynolds completed the makeover. The D-backs’ bullpen ERA in 2010 was 5.74, the worst in the major leagues by more than a run.
“What I saw at the very end of 2010 was ‘eeny, meeny, miny, mo, which way do you go.’ That’s tough for your manager. That’s tough for your ball club. You never felt comfortable. You might have a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning, but can you get those six outs?” Towers said.
“We’re still going to blow some, but I don’t think that is the case anymore.”
Hernandez and Bell, expected to be used in the seventh and eighth inning as setup men for Putz, are the “wipeout stuff” guys Towers was referring. Both throw in the low to mid-90 mph range and have a breaking ball they can throw for strikes that can be an out pitch. Submariner Ziegler induced 21 double play grounders last year, by far the highest among major league relievers, and could be summoned with runners on base at any point from the sixth inning on. Sipp and Reynolds offer different looks from the left side. Sipp is likely to start the season primarily as a situational specialist, while Reynolds could be used for a full inning.
“We have a lot of guys with closing experience. Hernandez and Bell are very similar animals in size and what they bring to the table, a mid-90s fastball with plus breaking ball and no fear. Attack. You are going to see some big arms late in the game for us,” Towers said.
Either could close when Putz needs a day off, as he did occasionally last season. It was no-brainer for the D-backs to keep Putz in the closer’s role, despite the fact that Bell had three 40-saves seasons in San Diego from 2009-11. Putz had a 1.42 ERA and 26 saves last season after junking a cut fastball in mid-May.
Bell had a tough year in Miami, but the D-backs saw no drop-off in his stuff when the Marlins played here last August.
“He’s in a good spot. He knows it. He doesn’t want to go through that again,” manager Kirk Gibson said of Bell, 4-5 with 19 saves and a 5.09 ERA in his lone season in Miami.
For their differences, the D-backs’ relievers have in common is an ability to throw strikes, which is perhaps the most important ingredient in Towers’ evaluation process.
“One thing that they all possess is the ability to command the fastball. To me, your good bullpens throw strikes and get ahead in the count. The beauty of our bullpen the last two years, we have been kind of league leaders in not allowing walks,” Towers said.
“Specifically in our ballpark, you can’t walk people. For us, experience is good, stuff is very important, but fastball command is paramount.”