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October 5, 2009

Playoff Prospectus

Post-Season Pens

by Christina Kahrl

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Last week, I ranked the playoff rotations, coming to the conclusion that, looking at who would be starting the post-season games as opposed to the team-wide performances, the Cardinals were easily in the best position as far their rotation was concerned, while the Yankees, Angels, and Rockies were at something of a comparative disadvantage. To repeat the exercise with the bullpens, let's look at who's done best in terms of season-long performance (through Sunday's games):

                   MLB   Relief   MLB
Team         WXRL  Rank   FRA     Rank
Yankees    15.489    1   4.18      7t
Dodgers    13.235    2   3.46      1
Red Sox    11.405    4   4.17      6
Twins       9.990    9   4.28     11
Angels      8.482   12   4.80     23
Cardinals   8.010   15   4.02      5
Tigers      7.782   17   4.63     19
Phillies    6.631   18   4.30     12
Rockies     6.374   19   4.85     24

Overall, the season-long and team-wide WXRL marks confirm a lot of what you'd expect at first glance-the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox have three of the best closers in the land in Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Broxton, and Jonathan Papelbon, after all, and the Twins aren't too far behind with Joe Nathan shutting things down. The Phillies and Brad Lidge? Well, that's a Halloween-appropriate scare. However, when you get into the brass tacks of how the bullpens have performed on the basis of what they've done with the runners they've inherited and what they've allowed opposing hitters to do via Fair Run Average, and you get a slightly different picture. Lidge's regular deliveries of bad news in the ninth aside, the Cardinals get some props, and the Red Sox come down a few pegs. Maybe that Theo Epstein character knew what he was doing, adding Billy Wagner at the last instant after all.

So, to revisit the exercise we did with the rotations, why not look at the bullpens with these same metrics, but favor those who will have the biggest impact? For this, I cut teams down to their top four relievers, used combined full-season FRA results for the guys traded in-season-so that Rafael Betancourt's impact on the Rockies or George Sherrill's with the Dodgers truly shine to full effect-and weighted things to favor the closers to reflect modern sensibilities, essentially weighting closers' contributions equally to the other three. With that done, which teams have the real firemen they'll want to turn to late in the game?

           Top 4      Top 4
Team         FRA       WXRL    Top 4 Dudes
Twins       2.08     12.805    Nathan, Guerrier, Mijares, Rauch
Yankees     2.20     14.159    Rivera, Hughes, Aceves, Coke
Cardinals   2.23      7.737    Franklin, McClellan, Miller, Reyes
Red Sox     2.38     10.676    Papelbon, Okajima, Ramirez, Wagner
Dodgers     2.52     13.795    Broxton, Sherrill, Troncoso, Kuo
Rockies     3.64      7.015    Street, Betancourt, Morales, Beimel
Angels      3.77      8.292    Fuentes, Oliver, Bulger, Jepsen
Tigers      4.07      9.059    Rodney, Lyon, Miner, Seay
Phillies    6.68      2.187    Lidge, Madson, Eyre, Myers '07

A few notes, by team:

  • The Twins combo is devastatingly good, with Nathan getting quality support from both Jose Mijares and Matt Guerrier. Late-season addition Jon Rauch is something of a placeholder to square the quartet in this exercise; watch out for Jesse Crain, who has been much more effective since coming back from the DL (2.76 ERA).

  • Cardinals: Franklin's been freaky-good, yes, and with the example set by Lidge in terms of blazing a trail from horror to greatness to Human Torch all over again, people might wonder and worry. Fair enough, but performance talks, and Lidge kept it together last year-who's to say Franklin can't this time around? It seemed appropriate to rank Reyes as the Cards' fourth man ahead of Blake Hawksworth, given Tony La Russa's raising situational matchups from mere in-game tactic to full-blown life-style choice.

  • Yankees: Coke might seem a strange choice for the fourth guy, since you would figure Damaso Marte's the situational lefty of choice, but Marte's numbers are awful, while Coke's performance (4.32 FRA) makes a nice enough placeholder in trying to sort out Joe Girardi's odd set of choices past the obvious virtues of Mo (1.80 FRA) and Phil Hughes (an incredible 1.27).

  • Red Sox: The benefit of pushing Billy Wagner into the mix makes sense, given that Takashi Saito's performance has been uneven in a low-leverage role (0.172 WXRL), and Manny Delcarmen's been bad news (4.87 FRA). Let's face it, I think we're all guessing that Wagner's more likely to be getting key spots than either of those two. Why Ram-Ram ahead of Daniel Bard? Because he's been more effective over the full season, and in a more significant role, Bard's late-season trial in the late innings notwithstanding.

  • Dodgers: Sherrill's the real star here, with a 1.83 FRA to Broxton's 2.63, so the eighth inning's even better guarded than the ninth. There's talk that Ramon Troncoso might not even make the roster, but the separation between his FRA (2.79) and Ronald Belisario's (2.99, but in a much more situational righty's role in less-important situations overall) is minute enough that it wouldn't affect their Dodgers' ranking, just an observer's judgment of Joe Torre for potentially dropping a key reliever on the basis of one bad ballgame against the Cardinals.

  • Rockies: The Rox get a big boost from giving Betancourt (3.10 FRA) and Joe Beimel (3.75) their due for each man's full season of work, just mostly with other teams. They might get an even bigger boost if Jose Contreras' September spin in the pen (1.54) means that the big Cuban is going to make like El Duque and show off some late-career post-season heroics. If Huston Street's ailing, the Rockies might just be able to wing it without him.

  • Angels: This hasn't been Brian Fuentes' year, but between him, Darren Oliver, and flame-throwing Jason Bulger, the Halos have an employable if too-frequently combustible trio. This might encourage Mike Scioscia to give his starters long leashes in October, which makes sense given the team's limited depth in the pen.

  • Tigers: Fernando Rodney probably conjures up too many comparisons to Todd Jones-he may convert save opportunities, but he's generally putting as big a scare into his team's fans as he does the opposition. A mere one blown save or no, his 4.16 FRA is only worsted by the Flaming Lidge among post-season closers. Fu-Te Ni has had his moments; plug him in for Seay, and the Tigers rank ahead of the Angels with a 3.69 Fab Four FRA-but that doesn't reduce the Fernando factor.

  • Phillies: With Chan Ho Park, Scott Eyre, J.C. Romero, and Brett Myers all at less than their best beyond the pall of smoke that follows Lidge to the bump, it's hard to evaluate who's going to be in the pen and doing what. I've used Myers' performance as a reliever in '07 as a middle-relief placeholder; swap him into the closer's role and replace Eyre and Lidge with Park and Romero (dream on, Phillies phans), and you wind up with a completely adequate Fab Four FRA of 3.02-or much more like a real playoff team's performance. So much depends on Lidge either magically recovering his missing velocity or getting swapped out of the role while other people heal up fast, that you almost want to set the defending world champs to one side away from the other seven playoff teams and say, 'well... maybe.'

So, strange as this might seem, it's the Twins-if they make it-and the Cardinals who are sitting pretty with the best pens in their respective leagues. Just as the Cards boast the best quartet for starting their games, they also have the best foursome to take on the lion's share of their key late-game frames. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers have nothing to be ashamed of, the Rockies are hoping their late-season reinforcements can make the difference, the Angels and Tigers aren't in a good way, and the Phillies are a complete wild card. Think it'll be fun to watch? You betcha.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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