Let’s just pretend for one moment that the advent of the modern bullpen never happened. There’s no such thing as a LOOGY, Jerome Holtman never invented the save, and starting pitchers are handed the ball at the start of the game with the expectation that they will work a minimum of 7 innings. Now, I’m fairly sure the Player’s Association and a majority of the big league managers would riot if this kind of thing ever happened, but I know one place where everybody would be happy: the National League Central.
You see, apart from Pittsburgh, none of the NL Central teams have been able to cobble together a solid bullpen.The Cardinals struggles have been well-documented this year and for good reason. St. Louis currently has an ERA north of 6.00 out of the bullpen, which is good for dead last in baseball. Chicago, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee haven’t been much better ranking 20th, 18th, and 15th respectively in ERA.
But when a starting pitcher is on the mound? Look out, because each of these ball clubs has put together a quality rotation and most of them are running at full power right now. But which one of these star-studded starting staffs is the best?
Fact: In 2012, for the first time in a decade, the Cincinnati Reds failed to score at least 700 runs. These kinds of little issues fail to get noticed during a banner season in which a franchise racks up 97 wins while clinching a playoff berth before every other team in baseball, but it’s true. The Reds, an offensive juggernaut in 2010 and 2011, were outscored by 20 other teams this past season. It seems somewhat unfathomable that Cincinnati could score so few runs with All-Stars like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips centered around a decent supporting case, but the numbers don’t lie. The Reds struggled to hit for average. They were abysmal at drawing walks, and they possessed very, very little team speed.
Some of these issues will need to be corrected this offseason, because it’s highly likely that Cincinnati’s pitching staff won’t be able to repeat the good health the had in 2012, which will likely lead to a decline in wins. The Reds also played a little bit over their heads a year ago, winning 6 more games than their run differential would suggest, although that is owed in large part to a stellar bullpen, which is also due for a bit of regression. So, if the Reds are going to repeat their NL Central title in 2013, what should they do to kick-start their offense?
The San Francisco Giants were able to eke out a much-needed win over Cincinnati last night to avoid a sweep, keeping their 2012 World Series chances on life support. San Francisco was able to use a familiar formula to get the win as they bled the Cincinnati offense dry while taking advantage of every opportunity and miscue available to gain a hard-fought 2-1 win in 10 innings. The Giant’s scratch-out-just-enough-to-win formula, known to their fans as “Torture”, has proven to be a highly successful way to win for this franchise in particular, and last nights game must have felt a little like 2010 for Giants fans. Only the Dodgers have won more games while scoring 2 or fewer runs than the Giants have over the past 3 seasons, and while it’s not a viable way to consistently win games, it’s nice to know you can get a win when the offense isn’t performing. Last night was no exception as San Francisco struck out 16 times total and mustered just 3 hits. Some other notes from last nights game:
When Johnny Cueto exited stage left after striking out lead-off hitter Angel Pagan, the prevailing sentiment concerning the Cincinnati Reds was that they were in big trouble. Their staff ace had just left an enormous, tone-setting playoff game with back spasms, which meant that Cincinnati’s excellent bullpen would have to carry a large load, which can be unsettling going forward. You never want to waste bullets when you don’t have to, and the Reds were going to have to use a majority of their bullets. To make matters even worse, opposing Cueto on the bump was Giants’ ace Matt Cain, the owner of a 16-5 record, a 2.79 ERA, and a perfect game. Things couldn’t possibly have appeared any worse for the Reds, that is, until Dusty Baker decided to show the world what he has learned over the past couple of seasons.
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.
For the past couple of seasons, Sports Illustrated’s excellent Tom Verducci has written a pre-season article concerning the “Year-After Effect”, which has since been named the Verducci Effect. This link, contains the 2012 version of Verducci’s list, which was published all the way back in mid-January. This type of thinking is especially important when we consider innings caps for young pitchers, as evidenced by the recent shut downs of Stephen Strasburg, Jeff Samardzija, and others.
Basically Verducci tries to highlight young pitchers who have seen a considerable increase in their workloads from one season to the next. It’s interesting research mostly because it attempts to spotlight at-risk pitchers, ones who may see a substantial increase in ERA at best, and ones who may become injured at worst.
The 2012 season has played out like a magic carpet ride for the Cincinnati Reds this year. They became the first team in baseball to reach the 80-win plateau yesterday after walloping the Arizona Diamondbacks for a 3-game sweep and are currently firing on all cylinders. The starting rotation is putting up one good start after another, the offense is solidly above average in the run scoring department, and the bullpen has been damn near untouchable, pitching their way to the lowest ERA in baseball as a unit. Even Joey Votto’s absence for most of the 2nd half of the season hasn’t been able to slow this team down. A couple weeks ago we talked about the primary reasons behind Cincinnati’s success, from their weak schedule to Johnny Cueto posting Cy Young-caliber numbers, and today I want to focus on just one of the those reasons: Aroldis Chapman, a man who’s in the midst of one of the all-time greatest seasons by a relief pitcher.