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MLB: Bullpen Strength and Versatility

   by Scott Spreitzer - 06/07/2011

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, 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 9th, 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 or five teams in baseball are the Phillies and Yankees. Both are making a strong argument for a potential World Series clash. The Yankees have taken their "hits" from the media, but the fact is, they still lead the AL East, (battling it out with the Red Sox), and the Yankees own MLB's top run-differential at +71 runs at the time of this writing. The Yankees own the league's 3rd best bullpen, while the Phillies are ranked 4th.

But there's more to it than Mariano Rivera and Ryan Madson. The Yankees current have four middle-relievers and set-up men, who have pitched in at least seven games, and own ERA's of 2.83 or smaller. Joba Chamberlain is back in his environment as a reliever. He can bring the heat whenever he wants. As a starter, Chamberlain had to "save" his arm in an attempt to eat some innings. Chamberlain owns a 1.05 WHIP and a 7.52 Ks/9 IP mark. Luis Ayala has been tremendous in 13 relief appearances, and David Robertson has 38 "punchouts" in 23 1/3 innings of work!

Unless you're serious about your baseball wagering, or live in a baseball-crazed locale, would you know that the Phillies currently have three of the best relievers in baseball...before they get to Madson? Antonio Bastardo has been nothing short of outstanding this season. Making less than $419,000.00 this season, Bastardo may be a co-MVP on this team. He's sporting a 1.17 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 25 appearances. In fact, the southpaw owns an 11.34 Ks/9 IP mark with 29 strikeouts in 23 IP.
Bastardo has help with Jose Contreras and Michael Stutes also posting serious numbers.

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.

Okay - so those teams are the chalk of the league. But what teams may surprise? The Milwaukee Brewers started extremely slowly this season. But after struggling in relief (among other key positions) early in the season, Milwaukee now owns MLB's 6th best bullpen. The Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins have a few issues to work on, like run scoring, for instance. But there's nothing wrong with either team's relief staff. The Braves and Marlins pen's rank 2nd and 5th in MLB, respectively. Both of these clubs could be in it, pushing Philly to the brink all season long.

Two hot teams that are going to need to do some dealing down the road are the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. Boston is 31-16 since their 2-10 start, while the Tigers are right on the heals of the Indians in the AL Central. But both teams have poor performing pens. Boston's is 24th in MLB, while Detroit's ranks 29th. While Boston relievers are not struggling with the "free pass" and aren't in as bad of shape, three of Detroit's top four or five relievers are walking way too many batters. Something to keep an eye on as they challenge the Indians at the top of the division.

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.

Understanding the importance of relief pitching and the relationship between winning and losing is at least half the battle of winning wagering, as far as I'm concerned. "Bullpens make teams," said one major league GM recently. "But they can break them, as well."

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