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Bullpen Banter

   by ASA - 05/20/2009

Struggling – Atlanta Braves

Let’s rewind back to last Saturday night. I was on the “underâ€쳌 in the Arizona – Atlanta game. The total was 8.5 at some places and 9 at others. I had a very nice cushion with Arizona leading 3-0 entering the 7th inning. At that point the Atlanta bullpen pulled a complete collapse allowing nine earned runs, six hits and eight walks in just three innings. Included in the debacle was a six run 9th inning by Arizona pushing the number over the total with a final score of 12-0. Thus, this decision to make the Braves my struggling bullpen this week might have partly been made out of spite. However the numbers back me up here so just allow me to vent a bit.

This team actually has a pretty solid starting rotation. With Jurrjens, Lowe and Vazquez leading the way. Those three starters alone have a combined ERA of less than 3.20. Of the 38 games this team has played so far this season, 21 of those have been quality outings by the starting pitcher. That, along with the fact that the three top of the rotation guys are performing lights out, would lead you to expect this team has a solid record. That’s not the case so far as the Braves are currently at just .500 as of this writing. There are many reasons for that including the Atlanta bats which have been underwhelming for much of the season. However one of the main reasons for the sub par record is their bullpen struggles.

The Braves set up man, Rafael Soriano, has been fantastic. Opponents are hitting just .172 against him and his ERA is 1.50. After that however, the numbers drop off considerably for this bullpen. Their overall ERA is 4.49 which ranks them in the middle of the pack. Their closer, Mike Gonzalez, has blown three of his nine save opportunities and opponents are hitting nearly .300 against him. He has allowed the opponent to score at least one run in six of his 20 appearances. Not very good for a closer who usually comes in for an inning at a time. What makes those numbers even worse is the fact that Gonzalez has averaged LESS than an inning per appearance. He has pitched just 17.1 innings in his 20 jaunts to the mound. That being said, I believe Gonzalez is serviceable as a closer. His past numbers suggest he has the ability to turn this around. He had actually picked up a save in 43 of his 45 attempts the previous four years combined. The real problem has been in the innings leading up to Soriano and Gonzalez.

That’s right, the middle relief has been the sore spot for this bullpen. Three of their main “inning eatersâ€쳌 in middle relief have struggled with their control. Buddy Carlyle, Jeff Bennett and Peter Moylan have allowed a whopping 31 walks and 4 hit by pitches in just 47 innings. Their combined strike out total sits at just 35. A strikeout to walk (or HBP) ratio of basically 1 to 1 won’t get it done from the middle relievers. Those three have combined to allow a terrible 29 earned runs already this season in just 47 appearances. Eric O’Flaherty (2.45 ERA) has held up his end of the bargain in middle relief, but he needs some more out of his other mound mates that are supposed to be helping him out in the middle innings.

The overall numbers of this bullpen aren’t terrible, however they are really susceptible in the 5th, 6th and 7th innings. Thus, if a starter struggles before they can hand the game off to Soriano later in the game, this team doesn’t have enough reliable options right now.

Thriving – Tampa Bay Devil Rays

The Devil Rays were a big time disappointment early in the year as they began the season with a record of 8-14. That was following a World Series appearance in 2008 so the expectations were high. They seemed to have turned the corner for now getting back to .500 and their resurgent bullpen has had a lot to do with that rebound.

A year ago the Tampa bullpen was one of the key, if not the key reason they made it to the World Series before falling to Philadelphia. They simply had a phenomenal season with an ERA of just 3.45 (2nd lowest in baseball) and an opponent batting average of just .218 (led the Majors). After a shaky start, their numbers are starting to head in the right direction in 2009. As of this writing, the bullpen has gone five consecutive games and 16 innings without allowing an earned run. They have allowed only seven total hits during that five game stretch. Opposing hitters have sputtered to just a .112 batting average in that span. The Tampa Bay relievers are definitely clicking on all cylinders right now.

Their recent stretch of solid pitching has dropped the bullpen ERA to 3.95. Opponent’s batting average has also dipped to a respectable .251 on the year. They are getting solid results from all areas of their bullpen right now from long relievers to closer. Troy Percival has been great for the Rays closing 34 of his 38 opportunities since joining this team at the beginning of last year. That includes a perfect 6 for 6 effort so far in 2009. Brian Shouse came over from Milwaukee and provides a solid left handed reliever. Lance Cormier has been a fantastic addition in long relief having already pitched 29 innings with an ERA of 2.17. J.P. Howell allowed only 62 hits in 89.1 innings for Tampa last year and he has picked up right where he left off with an ERA of just 2.33 this season.

The pieces to the puzzle are definitely in place for the Devil Ray bullpen. Many of those pieces struggled early but are now really starting to come around. The relievers as a whole are a fairly fresh unit as Tampa is the only team in the American League to have used only five starters to far this season. That means they haven’t had to dip into the pen for a spot starter. All of this makes me believe this current hot streak by the relievers could and should continue.


Pittsburgh Pirates – I picked Pittsburgh as my struggling bullpen a few weeks ago and things have not improved for the Bucs. Closer Matt Capps has been terrible as of late allowing 11 earned runs in his last 11 innings. During that span he has racked up three losses and two blown saves.

Houston Astros – The late inning situation for the Astros has gotten worse over the last week or so. Closer Jose Valverde, who hasn’t pitched since late April, is on the D.L. His replacement, LaTroy Hawkins, injured his hip over the weekend and hasn’t thrown since. He is feeling better and might be ready to pitch already on Wednesday. However, if he can’t, that leaves Chris Sampson as the only “closerâ€쳌. Sampson has only had three career save opportunities converting on one of them.

Texas Rangers – Closer Frank Francisco has been lights out not allowing an earned run in 14.2 innings. He has closed out all 9 of his save opportunities. He hasn’t pitched since May 6th and was recently placed on the D.L. retroactive to that date. Thus, he could be back and closing for the Rangers as early as this weekend.

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