The more you watch the likely post-season teams close out their seasons, the more you think we might be in for some very long nights next month. The number of teams with questions about their bullpens seems to be awfully close to the number of teams who will get to play in October.
Set aside the top tier for the moment. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers have three of the top four bullpens in the game by total WXRL, and those rankings are warranted: The Red Sox have an amazing wealth of arms, having added Billy Wagner to an already deep mix, and can get complete innings or play mix-and-match with most of their staff. When you reduce “bullpens” to “the guys who will pitch in the playoffs,” the Sox take the lead on the field. The Yankees have spent much of the season rotating relievers in front of Mariano Rivera, but have settled on Philip Hughes as the two-way set-up man. There are some questions as to the order in front of Hughes, as neither Damaso Marte nor Phil Coke have been that effective, and Girardi still seems unsure of how he wishes to deploy Brian Bruney and Alfredo Aceves. Look for him to play a lot of matchups before turning as many as nine outs a night over to Hughes and Rivera. The Dodgers are bolstered statistically by two rookies, Ronald Bellisario and Ramon Troncoso, but their postseason core will be closer Jonathan Broxton and two left-handers who weren’t around for much of the year, George Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo. Kuo may in fact wind up being the best reliever in the NL postseason, a power lefty capable of throwing multiple innings and getting right-handed batters out.
After those three teams, however, there are many questions, even for those teams that have strong statistical profiles:
Twins (seventh in WXRL): The Twins may belong in the safe group above, but there are concerns because for a team that doesn’t get a lot of innings from its starters, the bridge pitchers to the back of the bullpen are weak. Should the Twins edge the Tigers in the AL Central, the primary questions they’ll face are whether they can score enough runs, and then if they can keep from losing games in the sixth and seventh innings. Joe Nathan and Jose Mijares are fine in the eighth and ninth, and Matt Guerrier has a low ERA, but also a low strikeout rate and a high workload. Jon Rauch is a serviceable middle guy who puts the ball in the air a lot, not a positive trait for an AL reliever.
Cardinals (11): The most high-maintenance good bullpen in history, the Cardinals are on pace to have the second-lowest average IP/appearance ever, behind last year’s Mets. (That’s Eric Seidman (6) and Bil Burke (421) on the assists.) Tony La Russa has been able to get away with this because of the innings he’s gotten from his top three starters. They get him into the seventh, he matches up for three to five outs, then goes to Ryan Franklin in the ninth.
Franklin is the problem, or at least the potential one. He made the All-Star team because he didn’t walk people, because his fly balls all stayed in the yard, and because the balls put into play against him all found gloves. He wasn’t giving up a particularly low rate of line drives or ground balls, just seeing good outcomes on contact. In the second half, he’s walking a lot more guys-11 in 108 PA, versus seven in 121 PA, about 50 percent more-and his BABIP has corrected from an unsustainable .196 to a normal .321. His ERA remains low in part because the fly balls he allows have stayed in the park: 61 on the season, just two home runs. That’s an unnaturally low rate; for his career, Franklin’s rate is right around average, 10.2 percent. (Thanks, Fangraphs.)
Now, it’s not unheard of for a pitcher to sustain a ridiculously low HR/FB rate on his way to closing out a championship. You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find an example of that. The problem is that when the rate does correct, everything goes bad in a hurry. Franklin’s position as a the Cardinals’ closer is firm, but his ability to prevent runs in that role is tenuous. Two of the three things that kept his ERA down in the first half-just one of those a skill-have slipped away from him, and should he lose the third, the Cardinals could find themselves making a rapid and dramatic exit from the playoffs.
Angels (14): The Angels’ issues in the ninth inning have been well-documented, as Brian Fuentes has found himself to be much more hittable in the AL despite moving down from the mountains as he crossed leagues. His lowered strikeout rate has been the biggest factor in his decline this season, one masked by a league-leading 44 saves. The Angels aren’t their usual dominant selves in the seventh and eighth innings, either. Darren Oliver has reinvented himself as a command guy-just 12 unintentional walks in 68 innings-giving the team a good matchup lefty. From the right side, Kevin Jepsen has been a find, with a terrific ground-ball rate and good command, and Jason Bulger has finally gotten a chance to contribute, posting a strikeout an inning in his time on the mound. It is, at best, an average group, and there’s a pretty wide range of possible performances here. Jepsen and Bulger have very little track record on which to base a confident projection of their next 15 innings.
Adding to the uncertainty, but also the upside, is the probability that Ervin Santana will join this mix. The Angels have five effective starters, and of them, Santana’s power mix does seem best-suited for relief work. He has very little relief experience, which makes him something of a wild card, but as a two-inning guy, or a long reliever who enables Joe Saunders to be short-leashed, he’s an asset.
Tigers (17): Now we’re down to the teams whose bullpens have been a problem during the season. The Tigers don’t have a single reliever who you think, “that guy is tough to beat.” Fernando Rodney walks too many guys to be a great closer, and that trait will be exacerbated against the patient Yankees and Red Sox in the postseason. Brandon Lyon has turned out to be a nice low-cost pickup, upping his strikeout rate and containing his walk and home-run rates. Both Bobby Seay and Fu-Te Ni can be assets from the left side. Primarily, though, this bullpen gets itself into trouble by walking people, and that’s unlikely to change next month.
Phillies (19): One reason the Phillies can’t just make Ryan Madson the closer is that they don’t have an obvious choice to pitch the high-leverage innings he’ll be abandoning. Brett Myers made five appearances and got hurt again. Chan Ho Park is out with a hamstring injury. Chad Durbin is hampered by being, you know, Chad Durbin. Throw Lidge into that mix.
Mind you, that’s the good side of the pen. The Phillies don’t really have a left-handed reliever right now. Scott Eyre hasn’t pitched since early September and will have surgery-or just quit-at season’s end. J.C. Romero hasn’t pitched since July 19; they’ll get him back next week. Jack Taschner might be done for the season, and Sergio Escalona has made just nine appearances all year. Jamie Moyer is both left-handed and pitching out of the bullpen, mostly, but he’s not exactly a high-leverage guy, and he’s never been one to get lefties out. At best, the Phillies will have fragile, somewhat rusty lefties; at worst, they’ll have no one.
I don’t see any way to not put Pedro Martinez into this mix. The other options are relieving Joe Blanton or J.A. Happ; Blanton isn’t a tactical guy, and I’m not sure you want to change Happ’s role again with him coming off of the DL. Martinez can miss bats, he has some relief experience, and as cold as this sounds, you really don’t care about his future. If damaging him a little bit, risking him a little bit, gets you that much closer to a championship, you have to do it.
Rockies (20): This rating undersells the Rockies a bit, who have rebuilt their bullpen in-season by adding Rafael Betancourt, Joe Beimel, and Franklin Morales to it. Matt Herges is back as well. I’m not sure it’s a good pen, even with all those guys back and a healthy Huston Street, but it is better than what it was when Manny Corpas and Alan Embree were significant contributors, and it’s better than what the Phillies and Tigers can put out there.
Where the Rockies are a little bit intriguing is in that they might be the closest thing to the 2008 Rays, where if Jim Tracy wants to do so, he can abandon roles and just start using guys to get outs. The primary difference between his roster and what Joe Maddon has is that he doesn’t really have multi-inning relievers; his best ones, aside from really-a-starter Morales, tend to be used to as matchup pitchers or to get out of a single inning. It’s probably a silly idea, anyway-a healthy Huston Street is going to close games-but there’s enough live arms here to make that an option if Tracy wanted to do so.
There are enough teams with bullpen questions that we could see a postseason filled with late-inning drama, as managers try and squeeze championship-caliber performance out of considerably less talent. It could make for a lot of excitement-and very late nights-for baseball fans.