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Bridging The Gap: Top 10 MLB Set-Up Relievers

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Bridging The Gap: Top 10 MLB Set-Up Relievers
Leon Halip/Getty Images

There was a time when pitchers who were in the bullpen, aside from the closer, were considered mediocre players who were not able to survive in the rotation.

Who needed these pitchers when the starters were going eight or nine innings?

Boy, times have changed!

Actually, that philosophy began to change in the late '80s, most notably with Tony LaRussa's American League pennant-winning Oakland A's, who began to use pitchers at specific parts of games.

LaRussa used Gene Nelson in the seventh, Rick Honeycutt in the eighth, and finished the game off with Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley. This strategy helped the A's win the pennant in three consecutive years (1988-1990) and a World Series in '89.

Actually, Tony implemented this strategy due to the limitations of his rotation. His feeling was that his starters, aside from Dave Stewart, would only provide six quality innings.

It didn't take long for another fine student of the game to adapt the new strategy and find success with limiting the innings the rotation was required to provide.

Lou Piniella formed the infamous "Nasty Boys" with the Cincinnati Reds, which led to a 91-win season and a sweep of LaRussa's Athletics in the World Series.

The "Boys" were probably the pivotal reason for the Reds success in '90. Rob Dibble was 8-3 with an ERA of 1.74, Norm Charlton sported a 2.74 ERA over 154 innings (16 games started), and Randy Myers saved 31 games with a 2.08 ERA.

Since 1990, other teams have found success by "shrinking" the game to six or seven innings. Meaning if you didn't get to the starter or middle relievers, good luck facing the set-up man and the closer.

The New York Yankees built a dynasty and probably fielded the best team ('98) in recent memory with set-up guys like Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Mariano Rivera ('96), Tom Gordon, and Ramiro Mendoza.

The Boston Red Sox won two World Series with relievers like Hideki Okajima, Mike Timlin, and Alan Embree.

There's no question that set-up men have become a big part of team's successes. These players are now receiving multi-year contracts for roughly $3-$6 million per year.

But, like the stock market, these relievers are volatile and may require algorithms to find the right pitchers.

Below is my list of the Top 10 relievers who currently aren't closers and have had success over two years.

 

10. Brandon Lyon (Houston Astros)

Lyon was signed by the Astros for three years and $15 million to be their set-up man and, if needed, become their closer.

Since '06, Lyon is 22-19 with a 3.80 ERA with 32 saves. Not spectacular, but he has been consistent.

 

9. Joel Zumaya (Detroit Tigers)

Very disappointing to see Joel's season over so soon. He is constantly fighting the injury bug which has limited him to less than 40 innings the last four years (including this year).

But there's no denying his dominance when healthy. Zumaya has struck out a batter per inning to go along with his 3.05 ERA.

He's still looked upon as the team's closer of the future.

 

8. Matt Thornton (Chicago White Sox)

Thornton has found his groove and has become one of the top southpaw relievers who is ready to take the next step and replace Bobby Jenks.

Matt was selected to his first All-Star game this year and, since '08, has recorded an ERA of 3.30 with 22 wins. More impressive is that has struck out over 310 batters in less than 290 innings.

 

7. Darren Oliver (Texas Rangers)

The New York Mets missed him when left for Anaheim, and now the Angels miss him. Having a swingman as efficient as Oliver is priceless.

Since signing with the Mets in 2006, Oliver is 19-4 with a 3.29 ERA.

He has provided stability for the Rangers bullpen and allowed CJ Wilson to move to the rotation.

 

6. Peter Moylan (Atlanta Braves)

Aside from Atlanta Braves fans, you may not know how dependable Moylan has been.

In 2007, Moylan sported an ERA of 1.80 over 90 innings and followed that up in '09 (injury limited him to 5 2/3 innings in '08) with a 2.84 ERA over 73 innings.

This year, he has a sub-3.00 ERA over 34 innings and is one of the main contributors to the bullpen's success.

 

5. Hideki Okajima (Boston Red Sox)

Since coming to America in '07, Okajima has compiled a record of 14-6 and has a 3.12 ERA. His MLB career also includes an All-Star appearance in his first year.

Though successful, Okajima has started off this year on the wrong track by sporting a 6.00 ERA. I do expect a correction and for him to finish closer to his career averages.

 

4. Pedro Feliciano (New York Mets)

"Perpetual" Pedro has migrated from a successful lefty specialist to a dominant set-up man.

For his career, he is 21-17 with a 3.21 ERA. Feliciano has also previously led the league in game appearances and is currently leading this year.

 

3. Dennys Reyes (St. Louis Cardinals)

Since joining the Minnesota Twins in '06, this journeyman has found success as a lefty specialist/set-up man.

Over the past four years, Reyes is 12-4 with a 2.78 ERA over 187 innings.

 

2. Mike Adams (San Diego Padres)

Is it me or do the Padres always find outstanding set-up men?

Adams is one of the main reasons Heath Bell led the league in saves last year and is leading again this year.

Over his career, Adams has sported an ERA of 2.46 over 212 innings. His dominance also includes a career K/9 of 9.3 and a 3.42 K/BB ratio.

He may be one of the most underrated players in the game. 

 

1. Takashi Saito (Atlanta Braves)

Just like when Saito was closing for the Los Angeles Dodgers (83 saves), he is now dominating as a set-up man.

At the age of 40, Saito is striking out 10.9/9 IP with a 3.71 ERA.

His career 2.26 ERA is pure dominance and includes an All-Star appearance in '07.

With Peter Moylan and Billy Wagner, the Braves are going to be tough to beat with these three arms in the bullpen.

It's not a surprise that the teams that these players pitch for are in the playoff hunt. Set-up men have become an instrumental part of a team's success, especially since every team keeps a close eye on their starter's pitch count and don't want to "tire out" their closers. The bridge between the two keeps growing each year.

 

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