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MLB Bullpen Banter

   by ASA - 05/28/2009

Thriving – St. Louis Cardinals

While one N.L. Central team is struggling in the pen, another is thriving. The Redbirds currently sit atop the division and their relief corps is one of the key cogs in their successful machine. The relievers have been especially important as of late as the bats have been non-existent for the Cards. Despite the fact that this team has hit only .217 over the last 10 games, they are still 6-4 during that stretch mainly because their bullpen has been red hot.

The pitching staff as a whole has been ultra productive allowing only 9 total runs over the last 9 games. As well as the starters have been, the bullpen has actually gotten the better of the regulars allowing only 1 earned run during that span. The Cardinal relief squad has allowed opposing batters to hit only .113 during that nine game stretch. That has been a major reason this team has won seven of their last nine games despite scoring three runs or less in six of those games.

The St. Louis pitching staff as a whole has been fantastic as they lead the Majors in team ERA at 3.61 and team WHIP at 1.28. The bullpen has contributed significantly to those impressive numbers. Currently the Cards’ relievers have an ERA of just 3.71 which is good for third in the National League. Even better yet, this bullpen allows opposing batters to hit just .214 this year which is first in the N.L.

At the back end of games, closer Ryan Franklin has been a big surprise closing 12 of the 13 games he’s attempted. He has allowed the opponent to score in only 2 of his 19 appearances this year. The middle relievers have done a great job of getting the game to Franklin with the lead. Kyle McClellan, Jason Motte and Dennys Reyes have led the way each with 21+ appearances this season. All three have an ERA of 3.50 or less with McClellan heading the group at just 1.96.

Even with a few key injuries, see Ryan Ludwick, and huge offensive struggles as of late, this team has been able to stay at the top of the N.L. Central. Tony LaRussa can thank his bullpen for giving him and his team that opportunity.

Struggling – Chicago Cubs

The Cubs recent free fall has dropped them to 4th place in the N.L. Central. They have lost 8 of their last 10 games as of this writing. Some of their struggles have been due to their ice cold bats as they are hitting just barely over .210 as a team during that stretch. However, don’t discount the affect of their poor bullpen on the rut they are currently stuck in. With Aramis Ramirez out with a dislocated shoulder, Derek Lee slowed by the flu, and Milton Bradley and Geovany Soto hitting near the Mendoza line, manager Lou Piniella has a built in excuse when it comes his offensive woes. There is light at the end of the tunnel for this team offensively. I’m not so sure that is the case when it comes to the bullpen.

Entering Wednesday’s action, the North Siders had the third worst bullpen numbers in the entire National League. The reliever’s combined ERA sits at 5.23 and the Cubs are just 6-7 in games decided by the bullpen. Taking a look at recent results, the Chicago bullpen has allowed 7 earned runs in just their last 12 innings of work spanning 6 games.

A player by player breakdown of the key pitchers in the bullpen reveals the problem is staff wide. Carlos Marmol and Angel Guzman have been the only reliable options in relief this season. Even with that, Marmol’s numbers aren’t nearly as dominant as they have been the last few years. His 3.60 ERA is up from 2.29 his last previous two years combined. Kevin Gregg’s save numbers look fairly solid, 7 saves in 8 attempts, however he has failed in a few tie game situations and his ERA sits at 5.40. He has also allowed 33 base runners in just 19.1 innings. Don’t expect Gregg’s save numbers to stay solid if he continues to allow base runners at an alarming rate. They picked up Aaron Heilman from the Mets in hope that his down year in 2008 was an aberration. That has not been the case as Heilman continues to struggle with an ERA of 5.49. Neal Cotts was a decent left-handed option out of the bullpen last year, however in 2009 he has been terrible allowing 23 base runners in only 11 innings of work. Finally, Jeff Samardzija, he of Notre Dame Fame, was counted on to eat up some innings this year, however his poor start already has him demoted to the Minors.

While the Chicago starting pitchers haven’t been as good as some expected, they have been solid. The Cubs hitting is bound to pick up as they get key players back in the lineup and others break out of their slumps. The bullpen is a long term concern, however. As of now, they are not pitching well enough for the Cubs to be an elite team. We’ll see of that turns around anytime soon.


Tampa Bay Devil Rays – Last week I chose Tampa as my bullpen that was beginning to thrive. They followed that up by blowing a six run, ninth inning lead in Cleveland on Memorial Day. However, don’t read too much into that collapse. Since my article, the Rays had to put closer Troy Percival on the D.L. so he wasn’t available. Not only that, J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler, two of Tampa’s top relievers, were not available after pitching the previous two days. Another option would have been Joe Nelson, however he pitched a perfect inning earlier in the contest. Jason Isringhausen was the only option remaining and he obviously didn’t have it that night.

Philadelphia Phillies – I have commented on Brad Lidge a few times this year and the concerns are still there. Lidge, who was a perfect 41 for 41 in save opportunities last season, has already blown four this year. Last weekend alone he blew two saves and his ERA is nearing 9.00. This isn’t the first time Lidge has had a meltdown after a terrific season. In 2005 he was brilliant saving 42 games with a 2.29 ERA. He followed that up by blowing 14 saves his next two years combined and his ERA climbed to 4.40.

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