In 2011 we saw the St. Louis Cardinals use a powerful offense while leaning heavily on a revamped bullpen to roll all the way to a World Series title. Having a strong bullpen for the postseason has never been as important as it has during the past couple of seasons, and for good reason. Pitchers throw fewer innings per outing with each passing year, which means a larger part of the 9 inning burden falls on pitchers who throw no more than 70 innings a season normally. Many of these players will be called upon in situations with enormous ramifications, whether it be to match up with a slugger like Joey Votto or to get out of a bases loaded jam. Let’s take a look at which teams’ bullpens are best prepared to enter the war of attrition known as October baseball.
1. Baltimore Orioles
Only Colorado and Minnesota have thrown more innings from the ‘pen this season the the O’s and only a scant handful have been more effective. Baltimore has thrown nearly 50 more innings than the next competitive team’s bullpen (Milwaukee), and the O’s 3.07 team ERA ranks as the 4th best in baseball. Closer Jim Johnson has been lights out, saving 47 games in 50 tries with a 2.64 ERA (159 ERA+). Darren O’Day, Luis Ayala, and Pedro Strop have all thrown more than 60 innings at a sub-2.75 ERA. Troy Patton has been one of the best LOOGYs (left-handed specialist) in baseball, throwing 53 innings with a 2.55 ERA. This team is one of the all-time greatest at winning one-run games, going 27-9 (.750 win %), and extra-inning games, with 16 straight wins. That’s the longest streak in baseball since 1949, when the Cleveland Indians won 17 in a row, and it makes Baltimore impossible to beat if they get a lead.
2. Cincinnati Reds
I’d be more than inclined to listen to anybody who feels that Cincinnati has the best bullpen in baseball, because they have the lowest group ERA and they have THAT many electric arms. As a unit the Reds strikeout 10.1 batters per 9 innings pitched, an insanely good rate that can help any team strand a large portion of inherited runners. Aroldis Chapman and his 15.6 K’s per 9 are the biggest reason for the high K rate, but the rest of the bullpen is lethal as well. Sean Marshall (11.2 K/9) has been crucial as the 8th inning guy this year, and trade deadline pickup Jonathan Broxton (2.37 ERA in 19 innings) did a nice job filling in for Chapman when he gave his shoulder some rest. This bullpen has the talent and strikeout ability to carry the Reds to their first title since the Nasty Boys did just that in 1990.
3. Atlanta Braves
Atlanta sees your Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati, and decides to raise you a Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel is on the verge of completing one of the most dominant seasons as a reliever in baseball history. His 374 ERA+ ranks 14th all-time among players with at least 50 innings pitched and his strikeout rate (16.5 K/9) would rank as the best in baseball history. He shouldn’t win the Cy Young because he hasn’t thrown very many innings, but some bottom of the ballot votes should be in store for the Atlanta closer. Eric O’Flaherty has been nearly as brilliant (1.82 ERA) and Johnny Venters is still a plus reliever as well. 22-year-old Luis Avilan (2.25 ERA in 32 IP) has thrown the ball excellently since his call up, giving the Braves a deep stable of talented, hard-throwing youngsters that know how to protect a lead and win one-run games (24-12).
4. Tampa Bay Rays
If the Rays, who are 3 games out of the dance at writing, fail to make the playoffs it won’t be because of the effort out of the bullpen. Tampa Bay has the lowest bullpen ERA in the AL (2.85) while walking the 2nd fewest batters in baseball. Closer Francisco Rodney adjusted his footing on the rubber in Spring Training and has been throwing cheese ever since. His 0.64 ERA is the lowest in baseball (min. 50 innings pitched) and his 597!! ERA+ is on pace to be the 2nd best of all time. Jake McGee, Burke Badenhop, Wade Davis and JP Howell all have sub-3.10 ERAs in over 50 innings pitched apiece. The only problem is that the Rays have a terrible record in one-runs games (20-26), which definitely speaks more to Tampa’s terrible offense and the natural variance year-to-year in win-loss record in these types of games.
5. Oakland A’s
Perhaps no team in baseball better embodies the bullpen-by-committee approach than Oakland. The A’s have a cavalcade of fairly young and very talented relievers at their disposal. Ryan Cook was the team’s All-Star rep this season, and his 2.26 ERA and 9.6 K’s per 9 are the big reasons why. Jerry Blevins and Jordan Norberto both have sub-2.80 ERAs and, like most of the Oakland relievers, they strike batters out at a solid rate. Grant Balfour is the teams usual choice to close out ball games, and he can still dial it up with the best of ’em.
6. Texas Rangers
There’s a bit of a gap between the top 5 teams and the cluster that composes the middle group of bullpens. Joe Nathan has finally regained his former status as one of the better closers in baseball after losing his entire 2010 season to Tommy John surgery and struggling in 2011. He’s got a 2.64 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 61.1 innings. Youngster Robbie Ross has been a nice find in relief, posting a sub-2.00 ERA and Alexi Ogando is still lurking down there with his 99+ mph heat. Ron Washington will have to prove that this is finally the October that he figures out how to properly use his weapons out of the ‘pen.
7. Washington Nationals
The Nats bullpen has been one of the quieter reasons for Washington’s success this year. Depth is their biggest strength, as 5 of the 6 most used relievers have ERAs under 3.10. Craig Stammen has probably been their best pitcher in relief, throwing 84.1 innings with a 6-1 record and a 2.35 ERA. Tyler Clippard has taken most of the save opportunities with Drew Storen out and has proven to be semi-reliable locking down 32 games with a 3.67 ERA. The Nats are 27-21 in one-run games, which could offset any issues that arise from their lack of playoff experience.
8. New York Yankees
The Yankees grab the 7th spot because of their elite relievers, Rafael Soriano and David Robertson. Soriano has been a godsend in Mariano Rivera’s absence, posting a 2.10 ERA while saving 42 games. Robertson has also been solid, though not quite as good as a year ago (1.08 ERA in 2011), posting a 2.84 ERA. He’s been excellent for most of his career in big spots, which October baseball is full of. The rest of the bullpen is a mixed bag of good and awful that Joe Girardi mixes around depending on the situation and handedness of the hitter. The Yankees have also struggled a bit in one-run games, going 21-23, which could be a problem if they get into a battle of the bullpens.
9. San Francisco Giants
The Giants are a classic example of a franchise taking the closer-by-committee approach and doing it right. Six different players have recorded a save this season and the team’s .604 win % in one-run games is 4th best in baseball. Sergio Romo has been the best out of the Giants’ ‘pen this season, posting a 1.86 ERA while striking out better than 10 batters per 9 innings. The only issue with the bullpen is that they allow hits a little more than you would like (.255 batting average against, 25th in baseball), which could be an issue against some of the better National League offenses.
10. Chicago White Sox
I’m only taking Chicago here because their the most appealing out of a pu-pu platter of options. Manager Robin Ventura has struggled for most of the season to find the proper mix out of his bullpen, although it hasn’t effected the team a whole lot because they still have the 6th best record in one-run games in baseball. Addison Reed is the nominal closer, although he’s probably the least reliable pitcher at Ventura’s disposal due to his 4.73 ERA and his propensity for allowing hits (9.6 per 9, which is sub-standard for a reliever). Jesse Crain, with his excellent K rate, or Nate Jones would probably be better alternatives.
11. Los Angeles Angels
Ernesto Frieri has been carrying this unit for most of the season, posting an astronomical 14 K’s per 9 with a 2.55 ERA. Scott Downs has also been nice in relief, but the rest of the ‘pen represents the kind of volatile mixture that can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The biggest issue? Angels relievers don’t get strikeouts, plain and simple. They rank 24th in baseball in strikeouts and that’s including Frieri’s dominance, which just won’t cut it against the elite offenses around the league.
12. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers’ bullpen has actually been about the same as the 2011 edition, posting a below average ERA while putting too many men on base, but this year it’s hurting Detroit’s record. The Tigers are a measly 17-27 in one-run games, the 5th-worst mark in the league after having the 2nd best record in the same situation in 2011. A year ago Jose Valverde was able to escape any and all sticky situations, as he was a perfect 49-49 on saves. Lady luck hasn’t been so kind this season and as Valverde’s strikeouts have plunged (career-low 6.6 K/9 this year) his ERA has risen above the 4.00 mark. Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit bring a lot of big game experience but not too much else at this point in their careers.
13. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are the only team that appears to be headed to the playoffs with a bullpen carrying an ERA above the 4.00 mark. In fact, you can probably peg the bullpen as the reason the Cards have a win-loss record that is 4 games worse than their run differential. Jason Motte piles up strikeouts but looks imminently hittable due to his lack of a solid secondary pitch. Newcomer Edward Mujica has been very good in his 20+ innings of work (1.13 ERA), but most of the rest of the unit (Victor Marte, Fernando Salas, and Mark Rzepcynski) have all been very, very hittable.