Avoiding Fake News: MLB Edition

While scrolling through my twitter feed the other day, a tweet about a specific topic caught my attention. The topic, which I will reveal in the following paragraphs, has been a major point of contention for much of the MLB season, and I personally have been adamantly on one side of the debate. Others, such as the author of the tweet, have found ways to talk around negative storylines, becoming apologists for the team(s) that they cover. Whether or not you believe that team reporters should have the backs of the teams they cover is irrelevant; they should still be reporting the truth. In extreme situations such as this, writers will find ways to twist the truth and then follow that up by responding to fans’ comments with a snarky, condescending attitude. Having been on the receiving end of a reporter’s frustrations about being questioned, I am here to set the record straight on a recent topic of debate in the world of the MLB.

Before revealing the tweets, I would like you, the reader, to review the below chart and ask yourself a few questions. Using the bullpen comparisons provided, make a mental note of the following:

  1. Where, roughly, do you think that the bullpen for Team A would rank overall among the 30 major league teams if you had to list them one through 30?
  2. Where do you think that bullpen B would rank? Again, could be top 5, bottom 5, somewhere in the middle, etc.
  3. Which of the following two bullpens would you rather have?
Compare AB
Statistics entering play on 8/23/2017

Overall, it appears that bullpen A has managed top-5 ranks in most categories. Where it seems to falter is in the late innings, where it ranks 15th out of 30 teams in save percentage, as well as 14th and 12th respectively in shutdown and meltdown appearances. Still, the likely consensus is that bullpen A falls in the top-10, possibly even top-5 depending on how much faith you put in fWAR ratings.

Bullpen B, on the other hand, seems to be middle-of-the-road at best. They have accumulated surprisingly positive results in HR/9 as well as in suppressing the number of meltdown appearances. That being said, they are bottom-10 in shutdowns-per-meltdown, so maybe their meltdown numbers have simply benefitted from pitching fewer innings. General consensus though, bullpen B is probably a bottom-10 group.

Given the above, it should go without saying that 99.9% of people would choose bullpen A over bullpen B in this scenario. I like to do this type of blind analysis because it allows people to be objective about what they are looking at. As soon as a team name is put on a stat, opinion takes over. It is also important to include enough different stat categories to encompass every aspect of performance.

Interestingly (or maybe frustratingly to those who truly followed the exercise), these two bullpens both belong to the same team. Bullpen A, however, is the Boston Red Sox with Craig Kimbrel, while Bullpen B belongs to the Boston Red Sox with Kimbrel’s stats removed from the equation.

The point of this exercise: beat writers  and reporters around the MLB, and specifically in Boston, can stop sugar-coating the poor performance of the team’s bullpen. It is clear to the naked eye that the Boston bullpen has largely been an area of weakness outside of Kimbrel. To fans who watch a majority of the team’s games, there is little doubt that the late innings could be the team’s downfall in the playoffs (though many would say that honor belongs to the Manager, but let’s try to keep him out of this until I can really focus on torching him). Now, here are the tweets that I had previously mentioned…

I am providing just one instance, but make no mistake that this isn’t the only writer who seems to be doing all they can to dilute negative perceptions of the team they cover. While fans are obviously going to judge their team more emotionally than the people employed by the team will, they are not as dumb as insiders perceive them to be. There isn’t some sort of evolutionary trait that has provided front office executives, coaching staff members, or writers/reporters with a competitive advantage. Yes there are some more qualified to do these jobs than others, but that does not make the “others” stupid. You learn over time and with observation, and many fans check both of those boxes. Talking down to people is not an effective way to combat criticism, especially when the criticism wasn’t anything more than a question that stemmed from well-founded skepticism.

Focusing back on the topic at hand; the statement “the Sox have had a very effective bullpen” is technically true at a macro level depending on what you consider “very effective.” But simply looking at ERA as is done in the above tweet, that does not tell the full story. I find it hard to argue with the fact that most of its perceived success starts and ends with Kimbrel, as he has accounted for more than half of the groups’ WAR despite having pitched just 53.0 of 384 total relief innings. With 51 appearances over the span of 125 games, the Red Sox are essentially working with a top-tier bullpen in 40.8% of their games, and working with a bottom-half bullpen the other 59.2%. To illustrate my point, here is a modified version of the previous chart:

Compare Kimbrel

Of course, taking away the top reliever from any bullpen would have a negative effect on the groups’ overall ranks; however, because Kimbrel has had such a dominant season, he skews the overall numbers much more significantly than your typical closer. The above chart speaks for itself in regards to the Boston Red Sox. There is a major drop-off in almost every stat category listed once Kimbrel’s numbers are excluded, and I provided a heck of a lot of stats to prevent from painting a false picture. So pick your poison, because no matter which stat you prefer, the results appear to be the same. With Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox bullpen is probably ranked in the top-5, though it is fair to fear how they may perform at times in late innings or in higher leverage situations. On days where Craig Kimbrel is not available (which is almost 60% of the time), then I guess cross your fingers and hope for the best. Ideally the addition of Addison Reed at the trade deadline is enough to close the gap between A and B, but nothing is a guarantee. Ultimately, draw your own conclusions if you would like, but do so using the entirety of the information at hand.

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