How much does momentum matter on a baseball field? Can a team that enters the playoffs at its lowest point top one that’s been riding a hot streak for more than a month now? How much stock do you put into the notion that the team with the most talent eventually wins out? Does being a two-time defending champion with all the benefits of big game experience matter? Or can a team that’s seemingly been playing above its head continue to their magical ways? These are just a sampling of some of the storylines floating around a compelling winner-take-all contest between Texas and Baltimore to kick of the American League playoffs.
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.
With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.
Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.
If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.
The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:
40% division title/80% playoff spot
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome.
Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.
The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:
0% division title/5% playoff spot
The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball. The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.
Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.
The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:
30% division title/75% playoff spot
The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.
The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:
15% division title/35% playoff spot
After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.
So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:
15% division title/30% playoff spot