Starting pitchers in baseball get much of the attention thrown their way. The average starter is asked to go 6-7 innings, while aces are expected to give 7-8 quality innings. Many games are decided in the last three innings, however, making relief pitchers an extremely important, and often overlooked, element.
Do you recall how bad the San Francisco Giants were in 2013?
The defending champs finished in fourth place in the NL West with a 76-86 record, a small market team that was done….or so some thought. A year later, with a revamped pen and an elite ace in Madison Bumgarner, they cruised to their third World Series title in three years.
The team they beat, Kansas City, didn’t have an elite ace but management had assembled a dynamite and deep relief corps that they rode all the way to the AL Championship. The Boston Red Sox had a train wreck 2012 season under one-and-done manager Bobby Valentine. 2013 was completely different under John Farrell and there's little doubt what has turned the tables: pitching. The Red Sox were a top 8 team in runs scored in 2012 and first last season despite trading away Adrian Gonzalez.
The biggest difference was pitching, going from 27th in team ERA in 2012 to top 10 during their title year. Oh, and in October they won the World Series completing a remarkable worst to first story. The 2013 Red Sox loaded up on relievers in the offseason to upgrade a bad pen and, despite injuries, it paid huge dividends. The Detroit Tigers let one slip away that October against those Red Sox, largely because of bullpen failures.
The use of effective relievers is nothing new. Specialized closers were around in the 1960s, with terrific relievers like Dick Radatz, John Hiller, Luis Arroyo and knuckeballer Hoyt Wilhelm. During the early 1970s, the A’s had a deep bullpen with Fingers, Dave Hamilton and Darold Knowles. That group helped win three straight World Series from 1972-74. Then came the Big Red Machine, and Sparky Anderson had lights-out relievers in Will McEnaney and Rawley Eastwick. That has evolved into a situation where today managers league-wide use a variety of closers, middlemen and lefty/righty specialists.
It's important to examine which teams have solid bullpen depth and which ones don't. The 2012 champion Giants won with the rock solid arms of Lincecum, Cain, Volgelsong, Zito and Bumgarner. That took a load off the bullpen, which was outstanding while being used only sparingly: The 2012 Giants had only two starts made by pitchers beyond those Big 5. That's why starters who can stay healthy and eat innings have value beyond their numbers, as they can have a domino effect on the relief staff.
The Red Sox ALCS MVP was closer Koji Uehara – and he deserved it. It’s hard to believe now that he was kept off the Texas Rangers 2011 World Series roster. Then in the World Series Boston hit just .211, the lowest average for a Series champion in 39 years. Again, pitching led the charge.
Baltimore quietly won the AL East last summer with a deep bullpen, and has fallen off in 2015 because of much weaker pitching depth. Meanwhile the Cubs went out an added John Lester to anchor the staff, but they could use some bullpen depth. The cubs made a big push last offseason to make a run in 2015 and it’s likely they’ll be dealing for some arms before the trade deadline next month. Don't be surprised if you see teams like the Cubs, Yankees, Tigers, Mets and Pirates looking for relief help before the trading deadline. Strong bullpens can help keep scoring down from the sixth inning on. A few years ago, the Angels had a dynamite bullpen which helped fuel a stretch where they won 10 of 15 games, going 13-2 under the total. Over a nine-game stretch, the relievers didn't allow a run in 17 innings.
Teams that go with a lot of untested young arms can experience breakdowns. If the kids can't throw a lot of innings, that can wear down a pen fast, something to keep an eye on. You can't pay too little attention to the pen, which is a huge part of baseball success today, on the field and at the betting window.
Written by Jim Feist for 10StarPicks.com