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A Call to the Pen

   by Jim Feist - 05/28/2009

Starting pitchers in baseball get much of the attention (and money) 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.
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 Oakland Athletics had a deep bullpen with Rollie 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 from a betting perspective to examine which teams have solid bullpen depth and which ones don't. Cleveland had a deep bullpen in 2007 that helped get them to the seventh game of the ALCS, but the pen has completely fallen apart the last two seasons. The Rockies had a lot of effective relievers that same season, which was a huge key in their shocking late 21-1 run that led to the NL pennant. This season and last has been a completely different story, with the bullpen struggling badly, just like the old days.
In 2007 the eventual champion Red Sox had outstanding starting pitching, with Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield going 6-7 innings almost every night. That took a load off the bullpen, which was outstanding while being used only sparingly. 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. This season, a deep Red Sox pen has made up for a surprisingly shaky starting staff.
The opposite has taken place the last three years with the Yankees, who've gotten little quality starting pitching and the bullpen has been overused. They have righted the ship of late, largely by getting some innings out of C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Remember that a year ago at this time, after Chien-Ming Wang's 7 innings per start, Andy Pettitte was averaging under 6 innings, Mike Mussina was averaging under 5, while Ian Kennedy (4), Phil Hughes (3.5) and Kei Igawa (3) were shelled early and often. The team underachieved and failed to make the postseason.
The teams with the most saves? The Brewers and Mets (NY upgraded the bullpen with an expensive offseason). The Red Sox, Dodgers and surprising Rangers are also in the Top 10 list, a key to their early success. One of the teams with the most blown saves is the Angels, who clearly miss Francisco Rodriguez. The team with the most blown saves? The Washington Nationals (why does that not surprise anyone?).
Strong bullpens can help keep scoring down from the sixth innings on. A year 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. It's been a different story in 2009, starting 14-7-1 over the total with a shaky pen.
The first-place Cardinals have been a great story and the key to their success has been a tough pitching staff, with the top ERA in baseball. Relievers Ryan Franklin, Kyle McClellan, Chris Perez and Trever Miller have been impressive. 36-year old closer Franklin had only 17 saves last season and allowed more hits than innings pitched, so he's not your classic overpowering young stopper.
On the flip side is a team like Baltimore, making all kinds of moves bringing up newcomers into the starting rotation. Orioles right-hander Koji Uehara is on the disabled list with a hamstring strain and they demoted former starter Adam Eaton. Right-hander David Hernandez came up from Triple-A last week. He was the second of three rookies to debut, joining right-hander Jason Berken and top prospect Matt Wieters.
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.

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