MLB Bullpens Best Crafted for Deep Playoff Runs

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2014

MLB Bullpens Best Crafted for Deep Playoff Runs

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    We've heard the saying "pitching and defense wins championships" for so long that it's become ingrained in our minds as a fact, not a theory. It certainly helps that it's true, of course, but when we talk of pitching in the playoffs, we're typically talking about a team's starting rotation.

    That's a mistake, for a team's bullpen can have as big an impact—if not a bigger one—on how a team fares in a short series. Some teams reach the playoffs without having a well-crafted bullpen, and it's why we've seen some notable starters—Randy Johnson, for example—trot out of the bullpen late in a game.

    It's true that playoff bullpens are often bolstered by the addition of a back-of-the-rotation starter that doesn't figure into the team's playoff rotation. But the best teams head into the postseason with a bullpen that is designed to provide optimal performance throughout October.

    What makes a bullpen a well-crafted machine capable of delivering a team deep into the playoffs?

    • Depth: Every bullpen has its go-to guys, but when a manager can pick anyone from his bullpen and have faith that he'll get the job done, that typically doesn't bode well for the opposition.
    • Experience: At least a few key members of the group (especially the closer) will have toed the rubber in a playoff game before.
    • Ability to frustrate the opposition: Does the group leave the other team scratching their heads, wondering what just happened? A high strikeout rate is ideal, but bullpens that are able to keep the opposition's OPS consistently low during the regular season are likely to repeat that success in the playoffs.

    That's not the end-all, be-all of what it takes to form a well-crafted bullpen, but it's a solid blueprint for success, and three things that we'll focus on in comprising this list of the five bullpens best suited to help their respective teams make a deep playoff run.

    Remember, this isn't necessarily about the teams that have the best bullpens—it's about the bullpens that are best suited to carry their teams deep into the playoffs. While both those things apply to most good bullpens, it's not always the case.

    Which teams made the cut? Let's take a look.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs and are current through games of July 20.

Honorable Mention

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    Having a tremendous bullpen isn't restricted to teams that find themselves in the thick of a playoff race, so there are a handful of non-contenders that are worthy of mention here. Additionally, in limiting ourselves to only five bullpens, some very capable units are going to be left off for a number of reasons.

     

    Non-Contenders

    Boston Red Sox

    Few teams have the kind of experience that Boston's bullpen has, but the defending world champions are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

     

    Minnesota Twins

    Minnesota has boasted one of the game's best bullpens for a number of years, but the team's shoddy starting rotation and inconsistent offense keep it out of the playoff race for another year.

     

    San Diego Padres

    Even after trading closer Huston Street to the Los Angeles Angels, the Padres still have a formidable bullpen, anchored by former Detroit closer Joaquin Benoit. But they don't make the cut for two reasons: They're not contenders, and other pieces of the bullpen—including Benoit—could be traded away.

     

    Contenders

    Atlanta Braves

    Like Minnesota, Atlanta has had one of baseball's best bullpens for a number of years, anchored by Craig Kimbrel, arguably the best closer in the game. But injuries and free-agent defections have left the Braves with little in the way of experience, which is enough of a concern to keep them from cracking our top five.

     

    Kansas City Royals

    The Royals just miss the cut despite having one of the best all-around bullpens in the game, specifically due to a lack of playoff experience. Setup man Wade Davis is the only member of the group with any playoff experience to speak of.

     

    Los Angeles Dodgers

    Few teams have as much experience in their bullpen as the Dodgers do, with a trio of former All-Star closers (Brandon League, Chris Perez and Brian Wilson) supporting current closer Kenley Jansen, but neither Perez nor Wilson has been overly effective or confidence-inspiring thus far.

     

    San Francisco Giants

    The recent removal of closer Sergio Romo in favor of setup man Santiago Casilla is both a blessing and a curse for the Giants. While the move solidifies the ninth inning (at least temporarily), it weakens the rest of the bullpen, as nobody's quite sure what to expect from Romo whenever he steps on the mound.

     

    Seattle Mariners

    It's difficult to leave the bullpen that leads baseball in multiple statistical categories including ERA (2.41) and opponents' OPS (.601) off this list, but after Fernando Rodney, the playoff experience isn't there (Joe Beimel's 1.1 innings of playoff work barely registers).

Los Angeles Angels

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    What a difference a month makes.

    In mid-June, the Angels bullpen wouldn't have been worthy as an honorable mention, much less been one of the five featured bullpens on this list. But give credit where credit is due. General manager Jerry DiPoto saw a problem and fixed it to the best of his ability.

    Adding former All-Star closer Jason Grilli, veteran left-handed specialist Joe Thatcher and, most recently, current All-Star closer Huston Street (pictured) over the past few weeks has completely transformed the team's bullpen from one of baseball's least intimidating into a group that the opposition doesn't want to see.

    Few teams can contend with the team's late-inning combination of Grilli (1.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP in an Angels uniform), veteran Kevin Jepsen (1.98 ERA, 0.98 WHIP) and Street, enjoying the best season of his 10-year career.

    Even the group that comes before that trio—youngster Mike Morin (1.98 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) and veterans Fernando Salas (2.84 ERA, 1.26 WHIP) and Joe Smith (2.22 ERA, 0.90 WHIP)—is a formidable trio, and I've not even mentioned 28-year-old Michael Kohn, who is throwing the ball as well as he ever has (3.04 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) while averaging more than a strikeout per inning.

    Los Angeles' bullpen is talented, deep and experienced—everything you look for in a shutdown relief corps.

New York Yankees

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    Insane as it may sound, the Yankees bullpen is better without the legendary Mariano Rivera than it was with him. I know, it's sacrilege to think that, much less say it, but it's true. It's damn true.

    This little tidbit from Daniel Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal as the All-Star break arrived only bolstered that train of thought:

    They may lack the flashy personalities, but they deserve their own catchy nickname. Because when it comes to pitching, the Yankees' relievers are essentially the Nasty Boys 2.0.

    "They can do everything we did," (former Cincinnati closer Rob) Dibble said.

    Actually, when it comes to strikeouts, they're even better. In fact, the Yankees' relievers make up the best strikeout bullpen in baseball history, with a rate of 10.57 strikeouts per nine innings that tops the 2010 Atlanta Braves' mark of 10.06. If the Yankees manage to overcome their various injuries and numerous slumping hitters and actually make the playoffs, it will be on the back of that bullpen and its strikeout ability.

    That number has diminished slightly after the team's three-game set against, ironically, Cincinnati following the Midsummer Classic, down to a still record-setting 10.56. But when you're being compared to one of the greatest bullpens the game has ever seen in the "Nasty Boys," well, you're doing something right.

    Three key pieces of the bullpen: setup men Dellin Betances and Shawn Kelley, along with closer David Robertson (pictured), are all averaging more than a strikeout per inning, while Adam Warren (8.57 K/9) is nearly there as well.

    Betances (1.54 ERA, 0.72 WHIP), formerly one of the team's top starting pitching prospects before injury and ineffectiveness sidelined his development, has been one of baseball's biggest breakout stars this season and established himself as a dominant force at the back-end of the pen.

    As was the case when Robertson (2.60 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 24-of-26 SV) was setting up Rivera, the Betances/Robertson combination has become one of the most dominant late-inning duos in all of baseball.

    While Robertson and left-handed specialist Matt Thornton are the only key pieces of the pen with any playoff experience, this group has been so good that inexperience becomes less of a factor than it would be elsewhere.

Oakland Athletics

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    Typically speaking, when a team goes out and trades for a closer making $10 million a year—and then watches that closer implode to the point where he's become a fixture on the team's bench—that team's bullpen isn't going to be considered one of the premier units in baseball.

    But nothing about Oakland's success is typical, so we shouldn't be surprised to see a bunch of relative unknowns leading the way for one of baseball's most efficient and successful bullpens. Honestly, before the season, how many members of the team's bullpen could you name besides Jim Johnson, their deposed closer, and setup man Luke Gregerson?

    Not many, that's for sure.

    Take setup man Dan Otero, for example, he of the 2.34 ERA and 1.04 WHIP and MLB-leading seven wins (among relievers). As Oakland catcher/outfielder Stephen Vogt explained to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, his anonymity probably works out to the team's advantage:

    I can't talk enough about Dan Otero. He's one of the most valuable relievers in the game. It's amazing what he's doing, at any moment, in any role, and no one outside this clubhouse is aware of it.

    Other teams are like, 'Otero is in the game, who is he?' We know what he's got. We know how valuable he is.

    A's relievers have pitched to the American League's lowest WHIP (1.10), second-lowest ERA (2.98) and opponent's OPS (.607), doing so with an All-Star closer, Sean Doolittle (pictured), who had gone 3 of 6 on save opportunities before this season. In 2014? He's 14 of 17.

    Just like the team's offense, Oakland's bullpen gets the job done because of its depth and interchangeable parts. Anyone willing to bet against that combination in the playoffs is someone who's willing to lose that bet. 

St. Louis Cardinals

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    A bullpen isn't going to find much on-field success if the pitchers in the group don't trust each other, and there's not another bullpen in baseball that trusts each other as much as the one in St. Louis.

    The Cardinals put that on display for all to see recently, when Shelby Miller, demoted from the rotation, was forced to undergo his indoctrination into the group by going through "The Fall of Trust," as you can see in the video above.

    That trust isn't misplaced either, as the Cardinals return largely the same group that helped carry the club into the World Series against Boston last year. Even Miller, who was rocked in the playoffs when he did take the mound, is better suited to help the club in a relief role than he was in 2013.

    No bullpen throws harder than the Cardinals' does, led by flame-throwing closer Trevor Rosenthal and southpaw Kevin Siegrist, who is working his way back from a forearm strain and figures to return shortly.

    It's a mix of veterans and youth, but most of the bullpen's youngsters were part of last year's club, so they know what it takes to be successful in postseason play. 

    They've gotten a remarkable performance from 33-year-old Pat Neshek (0.68 ERA, 0.60 WHIP), who is having the best season of his 10-year career and is coming off his first All-Star appearance, one of three Cardinals relievers with an ERA below 3.00.

    While the group may not be statistically impressive, there's not another team that can compete with the combination of raw stuff, youth and experience that you find out in the bullpen at Busch Stadium.

Washington Nationals

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    If you're looking for all-around bullpen strength, look no further than our nation's capital.

    The Washington Nationals sit with the third-lowest bullpen ERA (2.67), fifth-lowest WHIP (1.18), save percentage (75 percent) and opponent's OPS (.619) in baseball.

    Three of the Nationals' key relievers: setup men Tyler Clippard (pictured, 1.98) and Drew Storen (1.13), along with closer Rafael Soriano (1.18) have ERAs below 2.00, while a fourth, Aaron Barrett (2.64) sits under 3.00.

    It's a group that has been together for a number of years (except Barrett, a rookie), each comfortable in their role, and the three veterans have playoff experience under their belts.

    While they don't post high strikeout totals, Washington's bullpen has been dominant by way of one pitch that they all share, the slider, something that The Washington Post's James Wagner took a look in early July:

    Below are the batting averages against Nationals relievers’ sliders (Through July 2):

    • Drew Storen: .130 (3 for 23) — a pitch that helped his second-half resurgence last year after returning from the minors
    • Aaron Barrett: .140 (6 for 43) — bullpen mate Tyler Clippard: “I feel like he’s got the best slider in the league. Playing catch with him and watching that pitch as he throws it, it bites hard and is very impressive.”
    • Rafael Soriano: .200 (8 for 40) — struggled last year with the slider, perhaps his best pitch, but worked to regain it
    • Craig Stammen: .109 (6 for 55) — “Stammen has always had an incredible one,” Storen said.
    • Ross Detwiler: .210 (4 for 19) — this pitch is listed as a slider, although it is a curveball, because he throws it so hard

    When the opposition knows what's coming—and it's powerless to do anything about it—your bullpen is in pretty good shape.