Blueprint to Assembling the Perfect Major League Bullpen

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Blueprint to Assembling the Perfect Major League Bullpen

If a bullpen is like a band, consider this the audition.

Every member of the ensemble has a role: The lead singer who gets the publicity, the backup vocalist who brings the harmony, the guitarists who supply the oomph, the keyboardist for a little flair, the bass for something heavy, the drummer in the background and the guy who specializes in the tambourine and triangle.

If you're not sure which member corresponds to the proper spot in a bullpen, don't worry. Just grab your headphones and plug in as we play a jam session about the ideal approach and criteria needed to form the perfect relief corps, spelled out below in bullet form.

Once the parts are clearly defined and the song is ready to record, the next step is to suggest the major league teams that closely fit the formula.

We recently did the same for the perfect lineup and perfect rotation, in case you want to review.

 

The Perfect Rotation

The Closer

  • Two plus pitches, ideally an elite mid-to-high-90s fastball and a slider
  • Above-average control and command
  • A right-hander who is equally dominant against lefty or righty hitters (who make up the majority of batters)
  • Prior experience in the ninth inning, if possible
  • Able to get more than three outs when necessary

Rob Carr/Getty Images
With a 2.82 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 10.5 K/9, Tyler Clippard has been one of the best setup men in baseball since 2009.

The Setup Man

  • Two plus pitches, one of which is a mid-90s fastball
  • Above-average control and command
  • Reliable, consistent and durable enough to pitch more than one inning if needed
  • Preferably a right-hander who has no major splits versus righty or lefty hitters
  • Capable of handling the ninth inning if the closer is hurt or overworked

The Seventh-Inning Man (1)

  • Ideally, a right-hander who is tougher on righty hitters but can get lefties out
  • Plus command and control
  • Heavy low-to-mid-90s fastball with sinking action, used more for grounders than strikeouts
  • Knows how to exploit a hitter's weakness and induce weak contact
  • Capable of handling eighth inning if either closer or setup man is hurt or overworked

The Seventh-Inning Man (2)

  • Ideally, a left-hander who is tougher on lefty hitters but can get righties out
  • Possesses a plus fastball and an above-average breaking ball
  • Average control and command
  • A high-strikeout pitcher

The epitome of a lefty specialist, Javier Lopez holds left-handed hitters to a .220/.304/.313 line.

The Lefty Specialist

  • Dominates lefty hitters due to deceptive delivery, arm angle and breaking pitches
  • Average fastball combined with a plus breaking ball that changes the hitter's eye level and is a chase pitch that is difficult to pick up and/or lay off
  • Above-average control and command
  • Knows how limit damage, if forced to face a righty hitter

The Extra Arm

  • One above-average pitch and one average pitch
  • Average control and command
  • Brings value by filling in what the rest of the bullpen lacks, like a funky delivery or a specific pitch
  • Primary purpose is to provide innings and a bridge to arms ahead of him when called upon 

The Long Man (or Swing Man)

  • A repertoire of at least three average pitches
  • Above-average control and average command
  • A former or converted starter who is capable of making spot starts if needed
  • Able to keep his team in the game if the starter gets hurt or knocked out early

Al Bello/Getty Images
A failed starter, Tommy Hunter has revitalized his career since moving to a relief role for the Orioles last year.

You might notice that there are seven relievers listed above. While some clubs have eight (or more) relievers, a well-deployed seven-pitcher bullpen allows a team to carry an extra bench hitter, which can be an advantage.

It's possible to include, say, another sixth- or seventh-inning man, and some teams have more than just one lefty specialist. But if the relievers on the roster are good and durable—and in this scenario, they are—there's not as much of a need for that extra arm.

Before we figure out which teams most closely fit the mold of the perfect bullpen, keep in mind that: One, because the last spot or two in a bullpen is often constantly in flux, we're going to focus solely on relievers who are legitimate contributors; and two, injuries will be factored in for certain situations.

 

Take Your Pick

Cincinnati Reds

Aroldis Chapman (LHP), Jonathan Broxton (RHP), Sean Marshall (LHP), J.J. Hoover (RHP), SamLeCure (RHP), Alfredo Simon (RHP), Logan Ondrusek (RHP)

Chapman is a freak, especially considering he throws as hard as he does from the left side, which is why he's one of only two southpaw closers in the sport (Glen Perkins of the Twins is the other). Broxton and Marshall may be the top righty-lefty setup duo in the game, and there's no real weak spot to speak of.

 

Atlanta Braves

Craig Kimbrel (RHP), Jordan Walden (RHP), Jonny Venters (LHP), Eric O'Flaherty (LHP), Luis Avilan (LHP), Cory Gearrin (RHP), Anthony Varvaro (RHP)/Christhian Martinez (RHP)

Even with Ventersinjury issues, this group is deep and offers all sorts of different looks, including incredibly hard-throwers (Walden), tough lefties (O'Flaherty, Avilan) and sidearmers (Gearrin)—all topped off by the guy who's been baseball's best closer the past two seasons.

As this video—and his 15.7 K/9—indicates, Craig Kimbrel has the swing-and-miss stuff of a perfect closer.

 

New York Yankees

Mariano Rivera (RHP), David Robertson (RHP), Joba Chamberlain (RHP), Boone Logan (LHP), Shawn Kelley (RHP), David Phelps (RHP)/Adam Warren (RHP)

Rivera gives this corps the cherry on top, of course, but Robertson is an elite setup man, Chamberlain (on his way back from a DL stint) is still useful and Logan is more than simply a lefty specialist. When Phelps and Warren are both in the pen instead of spot starting, there's more than enough depth.

 

San Francisco Giants

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Sergio Romo has gone from elite setup man to elite closer for the Giants.

Sergio Romo (RHP), Santiago Casilla (RHP), Jeremy Affeldt (LHP), George Kontos (RHP), Javier Lopez (LHP), Chad Gaudin (RHP), Jose Mijares (LHP)

There's not much name recognition here, but if anything, that just makes these relievers underrated. Plus, many of them have two rings, so who's to argue with the results? Romo has turned himself into a great closer, Casilla can fill in, and Affeldt, Lopez and Mijares may be the best trio of lefties today.

 

Oh-So-Close

Kansas City Royals

Greg Holland (RHP), Kelvin Herrera (RHP), Tim Collins (LHP), Aaron Crow (RHP), Luke Hochevar (RHP), Bruce Chen (LHP)

If you like young flamethrowers, the Royals are the bullpen for you. Holland has the closer job, but Herrera, Crow or even Collins could do it if needed. Meanwhile, both Hochevar, who has been a revelation as a reliever (1.17 ERA, 0.85 WHIP), and Chen have years of experience as starters.

 

Baltimore Orioles

Jim Johnson (RHP), Pedro Strop (RHP), Darren O'Day (RHP), Brian Matusz (LHP), Troy Patton (LHP), Tommy Hunter (RHP), T.J. McFarland (LHP)

Johnson broke out last year and has been even better this season, and while Strop isn't quite an elite eight-inning guy based on experience, he has the arm for it. O'Day may be the best sidearmer there is, and each of Matusz, Patton, Hunter and McFarland are former starters so they have deep repertoires.

Elsa/Getty Images
The Orioles' Darren O'Day, who has a 2.26 ERA and 0.98 WHIP since 2009, is one of baseball's best sidewinders.

 

Oakland Athletics

Grant Balfour (RHP), Ryan Cook (RHP), Sean Doolittle (LHP), Pat Neshek (RHP), Jerry Blevins (LHP), Chris Resop (RHP)

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Sean Doolittle: Dominant left-hander.

Cook is a closer-in-waiting while the 35-year-old Balfour holds it down for now. Doolittle, a former first-rounder as a first baseman, is one of the best converted-reliever success stories around, and he's a hard-throwing lefty who gets out everybody. Neshek and Blevins, meanwhile, are quality specialists. 

 

Washington Nationals

Rafael Soriano (RHP), Tyler Clippard (RHP), Drew Storen (RHP), Zack Duke (LHP), Craig Stammen (RHP), Ryan Mattheus (RHP), Henry Rodriguez (RHP)

Deep in experienced closer-types (Soriano, Clippard, Storen) but lacking in a legitimate lefty, which is a definite weakness.

 

Honorable Mentions

Seattle Mariners

Tom Wilhelmsen (RHP), Stephen Pryor (RHP), Carter Capps (RHP), Charlie Furbush (LHP), Oliver Perez (LHP)

When they get Pryor back from injury, the M's pen will have three of the hardest throwers at the back end, capped off by the best closer you've never heard of in Wilhelmsen. Furbush and Perez (yes, this guy) are a dynamite lefty duo of former starters-turned-relievers.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
After losing it as a starter with the Mets, Oliver Perez is now a successful reliever for the Mariners.

 

Cleveland Indians

Chris Perez (RHP), Vinnie Pestano (RHP), Cody Allen (RHP), Joe Smith (RHP), Bryan Shaw (RHP), Rich Hill (LHP), Nick Hagadone (LHP)

Upon Pestano's return from elbow soreness, there may not be a better—and deeper—group of righty relievers. Allen could be a future closer, Smith is the rare sidewinder who doesn't struggle with lefty hitters and Shaw was a great "throw-in" of the Shin-Soo Choo trade. If either Hill or Hagadone could pick up slack on the other side, this melange would rank higher.

 

Chicago White Sox

Addison Reed (RHP), Nate Jones (RHP), Matt Thornton (LHP), Jesse Crain (RHP), Matt Lindstrom (RHP)

A good mix of youth and veteran, with Reed and Jones bringing pure heat at the back end. Thornton, though, has been declining after being one of the best lefty setup men for years.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

Jason Grilli (RHP), Mark Melancon (RHP), Tony Watson (LHP), Justin Wilson (LHP), Bryan Morris (RHP)

It's not the deepest or most experienced bunch of bullpen arms, but Grilli has made himself into a fantastic closer, Melancon is proving 2012 was the outlier and Watson is a legit lefty. The key here will be rookies Morris and Wilson, a converted starter who has allowed just nine hits in 23.1 innings.


Disagree with the picks for baseball's closest-to-perfect rotations? Sound off in the comments or let me know on Twitter: @JayCat11

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