Since April, bullpen shows mound of improvement
ANAHEIM -- After nearly four months and a handful of other candidates, Joe Smith and Kevin Jepsen have finally found each other. The two Angels relievers are throwing partners now, bonded by the commonality of being two of only three bullpen members -- along with Fernando Salas -- remaining from the Opening Day roster.
Jepsen went through three other throwing partners, Smith had four of his own, and the Angels' front office created a revolving door in the bullpen, using 29 different pitchers through the first 16 weeks and making three critical acquisitions in less than a month.
No one is complaining, though.
With Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher and Huston Street added to the mix, the Angels' 'pen has been one of the best in baseball this month. Since the start of July, their relief corps ranks second in the Majors in ERA (1.55) and third in WHIP (0.97), while sporting the sixth-best walk rate (1.84) and converting eight of nine save chances heading into Tuesday's game. Since the end of June, the group's ERA has gone from 4.28 to 3.69.
"It's night and day, man," Smith said. "It's definitely a weird feeling. When you see how our bullpen was designed coming out of Spring Training and you see it now, it's nowhere near what we thought it was. It's definitely gotten better."
Jepsen, the longest-tenured Angels reliever, called it "extensively better" and believes it's "the best bullpen I've been a part of," though the 2009 group also got a lot better in the second half.
On June 27, the Angels and Pirates swapped struggling closers, with Ernesto Frieri and his 6.39 ERA going to Pittsburgh for Grilli, who has an ERA and WHIP under 1.00 in his first 11 appearances in Anaheim.
On July 5, the Angels sent a couple of prospects -- outfielder Zach Borenstein and reliever Joey Krehbiel -- to the D-backs for lefty specialist Thatcher, who has given up four hits in 10 at-bats against lefties but had a 2.63 ERA in his first 37 games this season.
And on Friday, four other prospects were sent to the Padres -- shortstop Jose Rondon, second baseman Taylor Lindsey, starter Elliot Morris and reliever R.J. Alvarez -- for Street, who has a 1.06 ERA and is 24 for 25 in saves.
Those three, with Smith, Jepsen, Salas, Mike Morin and Cory Rasmus, have shortened games for Angels manager Mike Scioscia and given the offense plentiful opportunities to come back -- something they've done better than any other team in the Majors.
"We just have so many good arms that have all pitched in the back end of the 'pen," Jepsen said. "Everybody knows what they're doing."
Smith and Jepsen pointed out something else, which often goes overlooked or brushed aside: Thatcher, Grilli and Street are all great teammates, with easygoing personalities that have allowed them to fit in quickly.
On a bullpen, that's important.
"The bullpen, I feel, it's more important with the chemistry of the guys down there because it's just us," Jepsen said. "It's just us."
"We got fortunate," Smith added. "We revamped our whole 'pen with a bunch of good dudes who are pretty darn good. Our bullpen just keeps getting better and better with the additions of guys. It'd be nice to kind of stop that revolving door. I don't think you can have a good bullpen when you've got people coming in and out."