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Give Me Some Relief

   by Jim Feist - 06/23/2009

Last week Cubs closer Kevin Gregg served up a two-run, walk-off home run to pinch-hitter Ryan Raburn in a 5-4 loss to Detroit. Lou Piniella's answers were brief: "Look, one-run leads on the road," he said. "Not the easiest thing in the world." The Cubs started 3-10 in one-run games on the road. Unreliable relief pitching can prevent hot streaks and sap a team's confidence. In addition, if a bullpen has to be used more it could potentially tax others in the pen for the next game or two. That is a problem the Washington Nationals have had, with a league-high in blown saves.
Bullpens are an important part of baseball wagering these days. Expansion over the last 16 years has diluted the pool of quality starters. Many teams look for a fourth or fifth starter just to go five innings and hope for as little damage as possible. All of which makes the guys coming in from the pen for the final four innings of those games even more important.
Cub starting pitchers have had a sizzling 2.69 ERA in June, far and away the best in the National League, but have a .500 record. Their team ERA was one of the best in baseball, tops in quality starters, but one of the worst in saves in the NL. The Cleveland Indians have had a frustrating 2009 season, bogged down by what has been an awful relief staff.
Relief pitching has become an intricate, often overlooked, part of baseball. Starting pitchers are often pampered, making relievers ever more important. In 1970, there were eight pitchers who topped 290 innings for the season. Four of them topped 300 innings, with Gaylord Perry leading the way with 329. In 1980, Steve Carlton threw 303 innings, and as recently as 1988, pitchers Dave Stewart and Orel Hershiser each topped 300 innings in the regular and postseasons combined.
It is a very different ballgame today. Three years ago, only three starters topped 240 innings, with Livan Hernandez (246), Chris Carpenter (241) and Roy Oswalt (241) leading the way. Only two did it last season, with C.C. Sabathia (253) and Roy Halladay (246). Relief pitchers used to be considered less-significant specialists or guys who didn’t have the strength to be starters. Now general managers build teams with the idea of having several middle relievers, one or two lefty specialists, and a reliable closer. For most starting pitchers, logging 200 innings, not 300, is the new watermark.
Money is part of the reason. Many pitchers are coddled in the minor leagues because teams don’t want to blow out the arm of a promising young pitcher. Expansion has made pitching the rarest of commodities and organizations would rather have a young arm go seven innings instead of nine to save wear and tear. Few pitchers complain about the lighter workload, as their livelihoods are at stake.
The case of the 1980 Oakland A’s starting staff has been well chronicled. Oakland had a talented young rotation of Mike Norris (age 25), Rick Langford (28), Matt Keough (24), Steve McCatty (26) and Brian Kingman (25). All pitched over 200 innings, with Norris throwing 24 complete games, Keough completing 20 and Langford leading the majors with 28 complete games. To put that in perspective, Halladay had 9 complete games last season.
Old school manager Billy Martin thought pitchers developed arm strength by throwing a lot. That rotation developed more than strength: All five suffered arm trouble and flamed out fast as effective starters, prompting the rest of the baseball world to take note. The concept of the pitch count and coddling young arms was born, which is widely practiced today.
The bullpen is now a vital asset. No longer do teams put their worst pitchers in the pen and the Hall of Fame is slowly building a wall of talented stoppers. The 1990 Reds stunned the baseball world by upsetting the Pirates in the NLCS and the mighty A's in the World Series. Cincinnati stormed through the postseason with brilliant relief pitching in Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. Dibble and Myers were co-MVPs of the NLCS and when the Reds swept the Athletics in the World Series, managers around the league recognized how valuable a deep pen can be.
The Angels utilized a similar formula in winning the title seven years ago. Anaheim had a great offense, average starting pitching and a brilliant pen, anchored by Brandon Donnelly, Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Scott Shields and Ben Weber. In 2005, the White Sox had great starting pitching AND a deep, hard throwing young bullpen. The pen is mightier than the sword, but is it mightier than good starting pitching? Not if that pen can't get anyone out. Bullpen strength is a key component that can't be ignored - by baseball teams and baseball bettors.

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