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Baseball's Overlooked Edge: The Bullpen

   by Bryan Leonard - 05/02/2007

Relievers in baseball don’t get much of the glory in baseball. Nor do they get much attention, except when they blow saves or walk in the winning run in the 10th. Still, for sports bettors, examining bullpens is a very important handicapping tool. Understand that starting pitchers generally go 6-7 innings, even very good starters. That still leaves, on average, a third of the game up to the relievers. And when you calculate that starting pitchers account for roughly 90% of the betting line before the game, relief pitching strengths and weaknesses are very important to look at.

Last week the Twins finished up a tough 4-game home stand by batting .148 with runners in scoring position. Despite scoring 10 runs in the four games, they managed to squeeze out a win in the finale, a 1-0 victory in a 3-hour, 42-minute game! How? Great relief pitching. Starter Boof Bonser went 5 innings allowing two hits and no runs, but the relief staff topped him by going 6 shutout innings for the win in 11 innings.

Contrast that with the Reds, who got off to a hot start but have fallen fast because of some horrendous relief pitching. They got great starts in back-to-back home games against the Astros by ace pitchers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, only to watch the bullpen collapse each team and blow the game.

Reds relievers have a 4.93 ERA. It's 6.55 since the bullpen opened the season with 141/3 scoreless innings. Todd Coffey and Kirk Saarloos have gotten turns in the role, but Coffey's ERA is 6.57 and Saarloos' is 5.59. Both have been involved in bullpen meltdowns lately. Saarloos took the loss Wednesday night. He committed the cardinal sin of relief pitching: walking Chris Duncan in front of Albert Pujols. "We've hurt ourselves with hit-by-pitches and bases on balls as much as anything," manager Jerry Narron said. "It's been a disappointment."

It can deflate a whole team. Relievers are important to examine from a betting perspective. Ideally, a team should have one or two reliable set up men, preferably at least one a lefty or one who can get out lefty batters, and a reliable closer.

Manager Narron pointed out another problem wit the Reds: "The one thing about our bullpen is, especially our right-handers, it's all basically the same kind of stuff. There's not a power guy down there - someone who is going to throw in the mid-90s." If you have three or four relievers who all throw the same kind of pitches, that helps batters. The art of pitching is about changing speeds and deception, not just overpowering batters.

A starting pitcher may leave the game in the seventh with a 3-1 lead, but what good is that if the bullpen is not reliable? We see this all the time with ace pitchers, who are often laying a big price. They can give the team a strong 7 innings, but in order to collect on a betting ticket, the team has to have that lead when the game is officially over.

A big part of the Yankees April struggles has been starting and relief pitching. In getting swept by the Red Sox and Devil Rays, an overtaxed bullpen played a significant part. Going into the bottom of the eighth at Boston, the Yankees led, 6-2, before David Ortiz smashed a leadoff double against reliever Mike Myers and Manny Ramirez walked against Luis Vizcaino. After Mike Lowell's RBI single with one out, Mariano Rivera entered, a surprise perhaps, considering Joe Torre had vowed in spring training that his closer's appearances this season would be limited to one inning.

Rivera allowed three straight hits that gave the Red Sox a 7-6 lead. Examining starting pitchers and everyday line-ups are essential in betting baseball, but don’t overlook whether the team has reliable set-up men and rested relievers, either. We are living in the age of specialization in baseball, so brush up on your pens!

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