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Bullpen Depth and Versatility
by Scott Spreitzer - 06/14/2010
Relief pitching has been important in baseball for many years now, even though in the history of the game, it's a relatively new concept. With the advent of the five-man rotation, in a sense, there are often two games: One by the starting pitcher, and one by the relief staff. This isn't true so much for ace starters, guys like Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia and Ubaldo Jimenez, who can be counted on for 7, 8 or 9 quality innings each start. But ace starters are also rare commodities. The No. 3, 4 and 5 starters on most teams are generally asked to go 6 innings - and some go less - which begs the question: Who's going to pitch the final four to five innings?
Handicappers need to examine the pitching matchups and the reliability of the relief staff for each game. In addition, the number of quality relievers can often be important. If a team has an ace closer to pitch the ninth, that's good unless it's negated by the fact that there are lousy middle relievers that will be required in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings. Don't underestimate pitching those innings, because that's one third of the game, and remember that betting lines are at least 80% based on the starting pitching.
Two of the top four teams with saves in baseball are the surprising Rangers and Reds. Casual fans might look at the addition of Vlad Guerrero to the Texas offense, but look at the seasons the relief staff is having: Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day and veteran lefty Darren Oliver all have ERAs 3.30 or below providing solid middle relief for closer Naphtali Feliz. What stands out is the strikeout to walk ratio with these guys, with few free passes allowed. That is such a basic element of pitching: Allowing hits and even home runs are OK, but allowing walks is a no-no.
Their success has been even more surprising with the poor pitching of starter Rich Harden, who was replacing Kevin Millwood. Harden has allowed the most walks among AL starters (43) and has the highest average of pitches per inning (19.94). He just went on the DL with a muscle strain, so perhaps that could actually help the Texas pen if his replacement can allow fewer walks and provide a more innings.
While the Reds are terrific in saves behind Francisco Cordero, the middle relief is a concern. GM Walt Jocketty said the club will look at moving left-handers Travis Wood and Matt Maloney to the bullpen in an effort to help the struggling relief corps. A trade is a possibility as well. "We're looking internally and outside," Jocketty said. "We haven't come to any conclusion. But we're trying to determine which way to go soon."
If the Reds want to stay in first place, they are going to have to address the middlemen. Young starter Mike Leake has been outstanding providing quality starts, but the other four starters are having QS only half the time.
The Red Sox had a terrible April mainly because the pitching, supposedly the strength of the team, was awful. However, the resurgent Sox have gotten back into the race as the starting pitching has improved. This has had an effect on the relief staff, as well, with Manny Delcarmen and hard throwing Daniel Bard getting the job done. Now if they can get Hideki Okajima (4.87 ERA) and Ramon Ramirez (5.26 ERA) throwing better, this bullpen could be lights out.
How are the small market Twins staying in first place? They have outstanding balance with offense, defense and pitching depth. If you take a close look at their relief staff it is outstanding. A huge part of their success is control, not allowing any free passes, which for years has been a component of the Minnesota coaching staff. Their three tops relievers (Matt Guerrier, Alex Burnett, Brian Duensing and Jon Rauch) have pitched 109 innings with only 29 walks.
How much did Francisco Rodriguez mean to the Angels in 2002 on their way to winning the World Series? The Angels were actually a team with better relief pitching than starting pitching during that season. How about the 2004 Red Sox? When they came back from a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS, there were back-to-back extra inning games. Their deep bullpen was a huge asset over the Yankees, who had an offense far better than their pitching.
Make sure you understand the importance of relief pitching and the relationship between winning and losing. "Bullpens make teams," said one major league GM recently. "But they can break them, as well."