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.