Hong-Chi Kuo, George Sherrill, a healthy Shawn Kelley and a full year of Tom Wilhelmsen could mean more than you originally think for the Seattle Mariners in 2012. Sprinkle in some Steve Delabar and Chance Ruffin and this Mariners bullpen could buck a trend that has hindered the big league club for several years.
Since the start of '08, Mariners relievers rank dead last in SO/9 (6.75) and SO% (17.4%) and are near the bottom in each of the last four seasons in swinging strike % as well (8.8% combined). In 2011, the club employed three of the bottom 28 qualifying (134 total) relief pitchers in all of baseball in terms of strikeout rate and strikeout percentage in Aaron Laffey (5.06/9, 5th lowest and 12.2%, 2nd lowest), David Pauley (5.35, 10th and 14.6%, 15th) and Jamey Wright (6.32 and 16.8%, both 28th). Those three pitchers performed amazingly during the early part of the season and two of the three eventually ended 2011 elsewhere, but while they were Mariners they combined to pitch 165 1/3 mainly high-leverage (at least for the Mariners, where they were 2nd-4th on the club, behind only Brandon League) innings.
Perhaps not surprisingly, no relief pitchers did more to damage the club's chances at winning in high pressure situations than Laffey (-0.34 WPA, which would rank him as the 31st worst in the league), and Wright (-0.54, 25th worst). David Pauley became one of the worst pitchers in the American League in WPA after his trade to Detroit, but in Seattle he actually helped the club with a 0.23 mark.
In stark contrast to that trio, the 2012 Mariners will likely trot out some combination of Kuo, Sherrill, Wilhelmsen and Kelley in many of those situations. It certainly is reasonable to expect that this foursome will eat up the 165 1/3 innings thrown by Laffey, Pauley and Wright and then some. Kuo has a 10.95 SO/9 rate and a SO% of 29.2% out of the pen in his career; both marks land him in the top ten among the 172 relievers with 200+ IP since that time. The left-hander also ranked 7th among all relievers in baseball with 3.84 WPA in 2010 and was 10th in the stat from 2008-2010. George Sherrill ranks in the top 1/3 among qualifiers in both strikeout categories since becoming a fixture in the big leagues in 2006, too, and he posted a crazy high 2.9 WPA in 2009. Shawn Kelley has figures of 8.28 SO/9 and 22.0% strikeout percentage in his big league career and Tom Wilhelmsen was at 8.27SO/9 and 22.1% strikeout percentage for the 2011 season. Wilhelmsen's 2nd half numbers were even more impressive at 8.61 and 25%, respectively.
Delabar and Ruffin are each strikeout arms as well, and while newly acquired Shawn Camp is a groundball pitcher by definition (55% GB for his career) and had the worst SO/9 (4.34) of all relievers in 2011, his career total mark of 6.17 is certainly serviceable. Add to that the fact that he has posted a 2.70 WPA over the last three seasons out of the Blue Jays bullpen and it isn't out of the question that every single potential member of this year's club could be more effective than the 2011 member whose innings they will be replacing.
Even though the 2012 rotation doesn't appear as though it will be as strong a suit for the club as it was last season, it may not matter in the end. In short, the 2012 bullpen should be much more of a strikeout staff and in turn be much better equipped to handle any high-pressure situations that they inherit from the rotation than Mariners bullpens of recent history.