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.
- The scalding hot St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis has been red-hot all year and now has the best record in the National League to go along with the best run differential in baseball. New manager Mike Matheny has invigorated the lineup, unleashing the Cardinals on the base paths as well as at the plate. St. Louis is tops in the National League in homeruns, bashing 7 in their last 2 games alone, and is 2nd in the league in steals. Carlos Beltran may be having one the finest seasons of his career, hitting 10 homers and 26 RBI in the first 30 games. Last night he had 2 homers, including a grand slam, to push the Cards to victory. Another recent addition, Rafael Furcal, is also on a tear to begin the season. Furcal has yet to be caught in 6 steal attempts and is hitting .342/.409/.496, scoring 22 runs which is important for a leadoff hitter. Meanwhile the pitching staff hasn’t gotten a single inning out of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright has an ERA over 5.00, but they rank 2nd in the National League in runs allowed. Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse, and Lance Lynn are a combined 14-3. Each pitcher has an ERA under 2.20, with Lohse and Lynn having WHIPs under 1.00. The news keeps getting better in St. Louis because Allen Craig has returned and bashed the ball in his first 6 games, slugging 2 homers and 3 doubles for a .364 batting average. The Cardinals have a lot of depth, both on the mound and in the lineup, and they look to be emerging as the early favorites in a jumbled National League.
- Josh Hamilton’s monster night. Last night in Baltimore Josh Hamilton became the 16th player in history to hit 4 homers in a game, and the first since Carlos Delgado accomplished the feat in 2003. Hamilton’s production also included one double and 8 RBI to cap off a perfect 5-5 night. He totaled up 18 bases for his efforts, 1 shy of Shaun Green’s major league record 19 from a May 2003 game. Hamilton also took over first in baseball in the batting average, slugging %, total bases, and in the home run race after just this one game. And what’s more impressive may be the home runs. Baltimore’s Camden Yards is a hitter neutral park, and 3 of Hamilton’s 4 jacks were to straightaway center, over 400 feet away. The one homer he didn’t hit to centerfield was no cheapie either. Hamilton bombed it to opposite field, for a 380-foot blast. Hamilton is completely locked in at the plate and the rest of the league needs to look out right now.
- Baltimore’s Bullpen. The biggest reason the Orioles are surging right now? Their bullpen has been lights out. When Buck Showalter turns the game over to his bullpen, Baltimore has not let him down. Out of the Orioles 6 most frequently used relievers (all with more than 13 innings pitched), only 1 has allowed more than 3 runs. Closer Jim Johnson and middleman Luis Ayala have yet to allow an earned run over a combined 28 innings. Even the position players are getting in on the act. During Sunday’s 17-inning marathon against the Boston Red Sox, DH Chris Davis was called upon to pitch. He responded by throwing 2 scoreless innings striking out 2, while Adam Jones provided the offensive lift, hitting a 3-run homer. If Baltimore’s firemen continue to pitch this well, the O’s could stay in the race for the long run.
- Milwaukee’s infield situation. On Sunday the Brewers lost the 2nd member of their Opening Day infield, when Alex Gonzalez went down with a torn ACL after Mat Gamel had already gone down with a season-ending knee injury. The Brewers have responded by going uber-defensive, starting Cesar Izturis at short and Travis Ishikawa at 1st. Izturis is one of the worst hitters in the majors with a career 64 OPS+ in 4000 at-bats. Ishikawa is also a very light hitting 1st baseman, with 17 career homers in 643 at-bats. Milwaukee will need to find an upgrade if they want to compete for the playoffs this season, because they can’t afford any more light hitting bats. Nyjer Morgan and Rickie Weeks are off to terrible starts, hitting under .200 apiece, and Aramis Ramirez hasn’t been much better, batting only .216. Milwaukee has already fallen into 5th place in the NL Central, 6 behind St. Louis, and they need to get things turned around quickly.
- Colorado’s Starting Pitching Staff. You know its bad when your best pitcher to date has been 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. The Rockies have gotten almost nothing out of their pitching staff, ranking last in the National League in runs allowed, homeruns allowed, hits allowed, and ERA. The aforementioned Moyer is the only Rockie checking in with an ERA+ above league average, and he’s just barely over at 110. The biggest issues so far have been the inability to strike batters out and locating pitches in the strike zone. We knew Moyer would struggle with this, but who would have thought that Jeremey Guthrie would post a 1.8 Ks/9 rate in his first 24 innings? No one on the staff has a K/BB rate better than the league average of 3. The worst perpatrator has been poor Jhoulys Chacin, who has been bombed so far, giving up 7 homers, 31 hits, and 15 walks in just 24.2 innings of work. It’s a shame too, because the Rockies offense is rolling, ranking 2nd in the National League in homeruns and OPS, as well as 3rd in runs scored behind a resurgent Carlos Gonzalez.
- Daniel Bard’s balky 2nd inning. Last night in Kansas City Daniel Bard had a little bit of a problem with balking. On his 1st balk, Bard had a runner on 1st and 3rd. He attempted the old fake-to-3rd-throw-to-1st, but never made a legitimate move to the 3rd base bag. Bard attempted to argue, but the umpires made the correct call, because Bard’s foot came up but never got close to moving in the direction of 3rd. The move led to the Royals’ 1st run of the game, and moved the runner on 1st down to 2nd. The 2nd balk was also an easy call the umpires got right, and occurred during the same at-bat 2 pitches later. A pitcher is not allowed to make a move toward a base and not throw the ball and when Bard brought his foot down, then turned to 2nd, he was caught red-handed. It ended up costing Bard and the Red Sox another run when Chris Getz singled home Moustakas. Bard appeared to get a little jumpy with the base runners on, which is interesting because the runner both times was Mike Moustakas, the owner of 3 career steals in nearly 500 at-bats. Moustakas is a very nice looking young hitter, but he’s not exactly Ricky Henderson out there.
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