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Bullpen woes continue to haunt Diamondbacks

Jesse Friedman Avatar
September 7, 2022

It was the bottom of the ninth on a cool Tuesday evening at Petco Park. The Padres had runners at first and second with two outs, as nervous excitement stirred in the stands. The Diamondbacks led, 5-4, and were an out away from sealing their fourth consecutive series win against a playoff contender. That out never came.

With a walk to Jose Azocar — Ian Kennedy’s second walk of the inning — the Diamondbacks’ righty had loaded the bases for Jorge Alfaro. Alfaro smacked the first pitch he saw up the middle. Two runs scored. Despite leading 5-0 halfway through the game, the D-backs lost, 6-5.

It was like a movie Diamondbacks fans had seen too many times over — the type of movie you would love were it not for that damn ending that always leaves you unsatisfied.

With Kenendy’s loss, Diamondbacks relievers have now taken a league-leading 33 losses this season. As a result, fans can’t help but wonder how good the 65-70 Diamondbacks would be if they had a decent bullpen.

Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, understandably, has staved off those what-if questions.

“When you’re sitting in my seat, that could be crazy-making,” Lovullo said. “I try to keep it real steady.

“We’ve got nothing else we could do. We’ve got to turn to the guys that we have, and we’re going to go after it with those guys.”

Despite having one of the 10 lightest workloads in the league, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen ranks 25th with a 4.48 ERA and 23rd with a 1.37 WHIP. The starting rotation, by comparison, has a 3.99 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, both of which rank near the middle of the pack.

In other aspects of the game, the 2022 Diamondbacks hold their own. They have a near league-average offense, above-average defense and elite baserunning. What fans perceive to be the team’s biggest weakness is no misconception. The bullpen, by a considerable margin, is the Diamondbacks’ greatest deficiency.

That fact has come into focus over the last few weeks, as the other elements of the Diamondbacks’ performance have clicked and the team has won three consecutive series against contending teams. In the few games that have gotten away, the bullpen has generally played a significant role. In fact, with the exception of an 18-2 rout at the hands of the Phillies on Aug. 31, all four Diamondbacks losses dating back to Aug. 21 can be traced to a bullpen meltdown.

Prior to Tuesday’s lapse in San Diego, the most recent one came against the Brewers on Saturday. The D-backs led 6-4 heading to the eighth inning. Kennedy also blew that save, and Joe Mantiply allowed a two-run homer in the 10th inning, ultimately leading to an 8-6 loss.

On Aug. 24 in Kansas City, the D-backs led 1-0 heading to the seventh, when Noé Ramirez and Mantiply gave up a combined five runs. The D-backs lost, 5-3.

In similar fashion, the D-backs held a 4-3 lead against the Cardinals going to the seventh on Aug. 21. Ramirez and Mantiply gave up a combined three runs, leading to a 6-4 loss. 

There is no getting around it: the Diamondbacks’ bullpen has been a major hindrance in 2022. Despite succeeding in the role last year with their previous teams, neither Kennedy nor Mark Melancon have proven worthy of the closing role. Outside of Mantiply — who has struggled mightily of late — there have been few bright spots.

Unfortunately, bullpen issues are nothing new for the franchise. After assembling decent bullpens in his first two seasons, general manager Mike Hazen has been unable to do so for the past four years. Hazen’s predecessors haven’t had much luck, either.

Since the team’s inception in 1998, Diamondbacks relievers rank dead last in baseball with a total of 42.8 fWAR over a span of nearly 25 seasons. That works out to an average of 1.7 fWAR per year. For reference, the Dodgers’ bullpen has produced 6.3 fWAR in 2022 alone.

Granted, the 2022 Diamondbacks are more than a decent bullpen away from being a contender. Any claim that says otherwise is wishful thinking. Yes, D-backs relievers have exceeded their allotment of late-game collapses, but every bullpen blows a game every now and then.

Based on win probability added, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen has cost roughly five or six wins compared to a league-average bullpen. While there are too many variables to settle on a firm conclusion, those metrics suggest that the 2022 D-backs would be around 70-65 or 71-64 with an average relief corps — still on the outskirts of the playoff picture. We’re not talking about a 90-win team here.

Regardless, the Diamondbacks have a shot at becoming a playoff contender in 2023, and they’re going to need a significantly better bullpen performance to get there. Expect a reliever overhaul to be at the forefront of the team’s to-do list this offseason, as the Diamondbacks try — yet again — to fix what has become a defining flaw of the franchise.

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Top photo: Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports

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