Why Teams with the Best Relievers Will Make the Most Noise in the Playoffs
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The "Year of the Pitcher" is alive and well. Just as it was in 2010 and 2011, pitching is all the rage in Major League Baseball in 2012.
As per usual, starting pitchers are the ones getting all the credit. It's kinda hard not to give them credit for the work they've done this year, mind you, as the 2012 season has already seen five no-hitters—including three perfect games—spun by starting pitchers. In addition, there have been nine one-hitters pitched this year by starters.
If you want to know the truth, however, the league's starting pitchers were actually better in 2011 than they are this year. Starters combined to post a 4.08 ERA in 2011. So far this season, they've combined to post a slightly worse 4.25 ERA.
Here's the interesting part: Despite the fact that starters had a better ERA in 2011 than they do in 2012, the ERA of the league's pitchers as a whole has only climbed six points from 3.96 to 4.02.
This is thanks to the fact that relief pitchers have been a little better in 2012 than they were in 2011. Relievers posted a 3.69 ERA last season, and this year they have an ERA of 3.65. The men in the pen are enjoying their own little renaissance in 2012.
This renaissance won't be restricted to the regular season. "The Year of the Reliever"—Boom! Coined!—will play itself out in October as well.
A precedent for what we're going to see this October emerged last October when the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series. Whereas the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010 thanks mainly to the strength of their starting rotation, the Cardinals won the World Series last year on the back of its bullpen.
One look at the numbers will tell you pretty much the whole story. The Giants' starting rotation posted an 8-3 record and 2.23 ERA during the 2010 postseason, numbers that ultimately allowed them to win their first championship in over 50 years with relative ease.
The Cardinals' starting rotation wasn't quite so good in the postseason last year, going 5-5 with a mediocre 4.60 ERA. They were rescued by their bullpen, which went 6-2 with a 3.31 ERA. St. Louis' relievers covered 68 innings, almost twice as many innings as San Francisco's relievers had to cover in the 2010 postseason.
It's true that St. Louis' bullpen wasn't perfect in the World Series. Jason Motte, Fernando Salas and Lance Lynn all posted ERAs over 6.00, and Cardinals relievers were ultimately responsible for two of the three losses that the team suffered against the Texas Rangers. When Tony La Russa went to his bullpen, it was not a given that the results were going to be pretty.
As rocky as St. Louis' bullpen was in the World Series, however, it does deserve credit for picking up two of the team's four wins. And indeed, the 2011 World Series would not have gone the distance if the Cardinals' bullpen wasn't able to outlast the Rangers' bullpen in Game 6.
In essence, the Cardinals' recipe for success in 2011 was the exact opposite of the Giants' recipe for success in 2010. Whereas the Giants showed that a great starting rotation can lead to a World Series victory, the Cardinals proved that a great bullpen can get the job done just as well.
Now, a precedent like this isn't worth all that much without context. The reason we're talking about what a team can do if it continually wins bullpen battles in October is because the stage is set for us to see a lot of bullpen battles this October.
The 3.65 ERA posted by relievers this season looks great in and of itself, but it doesn't quite tell the whole story. It obscures the fact that there are more elite bullpens in baseball this year than there were in 2011.
Per FanGraphs, not a single bullpen in either league posted an ERA under 3.00 last season. The San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves all came very close, but none made it under the 3.00 threshold. For that matter, only eight bullpens in MLB posted ERAs lower than 3.50.
This year, there are four bullpens with ERAs under 3.00. They belong to the Atlanta Braves, the Oakland A's, the Tampa Bay Rays and Cincinnati Reds, all four of whom are contending for spots in the postseason.
Furthermore, there are 14 bullpens around MLB with ERAs under 3.50 this season. If you count the Arizona Diamondbacks and Pittsburgh Pirates as legitimate contenders, then 11 of the 14 bullpens with ERAs under 3.50 belong to contending teams.
Part of the reason bullpens are doing so well this year is because they've been more efficient. Only four bullpens posted K/9s of better than 8.50 in 2011. There are currently 13 bullpens with K/9s over 8.50 this season. There are also 11 bullpens out there that boast ground-ball percentages of 46 percent or higher, and 10 of them belong to contenders. Only eight bullpens posted ground-ball percentages of 46 percent or higher in 2011.
You'd think that the rise in strikeouts and ground balls this season might come paired with an increase in walks, but that's actually not the case. Only five bullpens had BB/9s of better than 3.25 in 2011, and there are nine bullpens with BB/9s of 3.25 or better this season. The Cardinals' bullpen is just barely on the outside looking in with a BB/9 of 3.27.
With strikeouts and ground balls up and walks down, you won't be surprised to hear that relievers are stranding more men on base this season. Only four bullpens had left-on-base percentages of better than 77 percent last season. There are nine bullpens with LOB percentages over 77 this season, and six of them belong to contenders.
As such, this year's bullpens can do things that good bullpens should be able to do when the pressure is on in the late innings. There are a lot of relievers out there who can strike guys out, get ground balls, avoid issuing free passes and keep runners stranded.
There would be no postseason storyline to speak of if most of the league's best relievers happened to play for bad teams, but most of the league's best relievers play for good ones. Even if some teams with quality bullpens are left on the outside looking in, there are enough of them out there this year to ensure that the 2012 postseason will feature some of the best bullpens in the business.
That's a cool enough storyline in and of itself, but what's really intriguing is how the abundance of quality relievers in MLB this year will surely change all the postseason narratives that we all take for granted.
There will still be a great emphasis placed on which team has the edge in a given game's starting pitching matchup, to be sure, but the teams with the really good bullpens won't necessarily be looking for dominant performances from their starters in the postseason. For teams like the A's, Orioles, Reds and Braves, the idea will be to simply have a lead after six innings that they can hand over to their bullpens. At the very least, they'll be hoping to hand a close game over to their bullpens and hope to keep it close while the offense goes to work.
In this sense, the teams with great bullpens will be looking to do what the Cardinals did in 2011. The difference this year is that there are more teams equipped to walk the trail blazed by the Cardinals.
In the end, it wouldn't be a shock if the team that wins the World Series gets more wins from its bullpen than its starting rotation, a trick that the Cardinals managed to pull off last season. Though they ultimately fell short, the Rangers also pulled off that same trick, getting four wins from their starters and six from their relievers.
By that same token, we're also likely to see more losses from relievers in this year's postseason than we're used to seeing. One team is going to live by its bullpen, and most of the others are going to die by their bullpens.
This, my friends, is something to look forward to. When games are being won or lost by relievers, that means there's lots of high drama in the air.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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