The Tenth Inning – Week 19 – Bullpens ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic
I like Sunday Night Baseball, partly because I have become a big fan of the broadcast crewâs analysis. The team of Dan Shulman, Orel Hersheiser, and Terry Francona did it again last night as they discussed the importance of a bullpen in building a team and, more specifically, a pitching staff. I happen to agree with Orelâs assessment that most big league teams have at least two or three starters that could be excellent closers â you know, if they werenât such good and important starters. But the bullpen is a crucial element to a teamâs success or failure during the regular season, and the importance becomes even more magnified during the postseason. Donât believe me? Just look at the two teams that played on Sunday Night.
Let’s start with the Mets, who only happen to be the owners of the worst bullpen in baseball. They lost closer Frank Francisco for an extended period of time in June and July, but his return in August didn’t help much â he walked the first two batters he faced with a five-run lead and the bases loaded Sunday night before serving up a 2-run single to Martin Prado and heading to the showers without retiring a batter. Ultimately Jon Rauch came in to record the game ending stikeout of Jason Hayward (who still almost beat out the throw to first base) but the point is clear â the Mets bullpen is the single biggest reason why the team is no longer in contention in the NL wild card race.
Meanwhile the team across the field in the other dugout might sport the exact opposite, posing one of the most formidable bullpens in all of baseball. Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and closer Craig Kimbrel have been given their fair share of accolades over the past two seasons, but rightfully so. In 2011 they virtually kept the listless Braves from falling apart much sooner than they did, and only finally succumbed to the pressure in September after being completely and totally overworked by manager Freddy Gonzalez. This year all three, who placed in the top 10 in appearances in 2011, have seen their workload diminished significantly, leaving each pitcher fresher and better in each appearance. As a result, the Braves once again lead the wild card, but given the extra postseason slot available this year combined with the decrease in innings pitched from the backend of the Atlanta bullpen, it’s hard not to picture this team sustaining their current level of play all the way into October in 2012.
Atlanta’s not the only team that has benefitted from having more than one elite reliever in the bullpen. It would be pure folly to think the Yankees would still be neck and neck with Texas for the AL’s best record without Mariano Rivera, the best closer of all time, unless New York had an insurance plan. Luckily for the them â and unluckily for the rest of the American League â the Yanks have Rafael Soriano, who two seasons ago did nothing except lead the AL in saves as the closer for the Tampa Bay Rays. After a week-long failed experiment that involved David Robertson and the ninth inning in the same sentence, Soriano assumed the closer’s job and hasn’t looked back, bringing his team along for the ride. His 28 saves and 1.75 ERA have joined forces with the Bronx Bombers offense to help the Yanks overcome some below average starting pitching this season. It’s not often a team can call Hiroki Kuroda their top starter and still be just a half game shy of having the best record in their league, but the 2012 Yankees can â in large part to Soriano.
Still need more proof that bullpens can make or break a season? How about the Texas Rangers? Let’s forget the collapse in game six of last year’s World Series â that was mostly Nelson Cruz’s fault for playing a worse right field than half of the teams in the Little League World Series. Instead, let’s focus on what the Rangers’ addition of Joe Nathan this offseason did for their team. Sure former closer Neftali Feliz’s return to the rotation was cut short by injury, but the Rangers instantly became a better, deeper pitching team because they were able to find a steady, reliable closer that allowed Nolan Ryan, Ron Washington, Mike Maddux, and company to move Feliz back to the rotation. The bullpen at the very worst remained at an even level to 2010 and 2011, while the rotation seemingly got better, again with the injury notwithstanding. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that even without Feliz, the Rangers are still atop the AL West thanks to a stellar season from the revitalized Nathan.
The Rangers counterparts in the 2010 World Series have also shuffled their bullpen, but more out of necessity than luxury. Most people watching the San Francisco Giants have been so wrapped up in the struggles of Tim Lincecum that they’ve failed to realize the impact of the loss of closer Brian Wilson on the Giants bullpen this season. Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo have been solid in the closer and set up roles, respectively, but Wilson’s injury has forced to slide up a rung on the ladder. Because each pitcher has accept the challenge presented to them, the Giants still find themselves atop the NL West without their best arm in the bullpen â a similar situation to that in New York with the Yankees. It’s certainly not what manager Bruce Bochy was anticipating during spring training, but because the Giants have young, talented arms in their bullpen, they’ve been able to weather the storm.
There are plenty of examples that support the importance of bullpens. Ozzie Guillen would probably be having parties thrown in his honor if he could figure out a way to straighten out Heath Bell, and the Phillies, despite their tremendous starting pitching, would love to have someone not named Jonathan Papelbon pitch well out of their bullpen on a regular basis. The Angels probably aren’t thrilled with having to use Jason Isringhausen regularly, and I’m not even going to touch the dicey situation in Milwaukee between John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, and the entire Brewers management team. Pittsburgh and Baltimore aren’t in the race without stellar seasons from Joel Hanrahan and Jim Johnson, respectively, and it’s not a coincidence that Detroit and Arizona have both struggled more so this season than last as both of their closers â Jose Valverde and J.J. Putz â have regressed from their incredible 2011 performances. It’s actually a rather simple formula â win the games when you have a lead and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll play postseason baseball.
Now then, about that Frank Franciscoâ¦
Playoff “Dead” List
Three series to watch this weekâ¦
If the season ended today, the playoff teams would beâ¦
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