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Top 10 bullpens in MLB history

1/21/2013
A year after learning his famous cutter, Mariano Rivera led the best bullpen of all time. Jeff Carlick/Getty Images

For most of the first five decades of Major League Baseball, managers preferred to rely on their starting pitchers through the late innings. It wasn't until the '40s and '50s that managers began to regularly use pitchers like Joe Page, Hoyt Wilhelm, Lindy McDaniel and Elroy Face as late-inning specialists, in roles that have become more refined -- closers, and then right-handed and left-handed specialists, and then setup men, and then sixth- and seventh-inning guys, and sinkerballers who can get ground balls and hard throwers who can get a strikeout with a runner at third.
Last year, the Orioles utilized almost their entire staff in relief roles at one time or another: Just 67 of Baltimore's 162 games were started by pitchers used exclusively in the rotation.

Something to keep in mind: Deep, balanced bullpens are still a more recent part of the game framed against history, so the best are simply more recent. That noted, we present the top 10 bullpens of all time:

1. 1998 New York Yankees

Baseball history reached a crossroads in 1995, the year the Yankees shifted Mariano Rivera from a starting role into relief -- and to this day, Buck Showalter will joke self-deprecatingly about how different the '95 playoffs might've been if he'd known exactly what he had in Rivera. In 1996, Rivera was an overpowering setup man for John Wetteland, striking out 130 batters in 107 2/3 innings in 1996. Wetteland moved on, Rivera moved into the role of closer and discovered the cut fastball while playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza in 1997, and the Yankees' bullpen was the definition of dominant from 1998-2000. Jeff Nelson and Mendoza were weapons from the right side, Mike Stanton and Graeme Lloyd were left-handed weapons for Torre, and at game's end, Rivera was almost automatic. During the Yankees' 125-win season of 1998, the bullpen went 28-9, with a league-best ERA of 3.76 -- remember, this was right in the middle of the steroid era -- and a league-best WHIP of 1.29. Rivera did not allow a run in 12 1/3 innings of work in the 1998 postseason, while surrendering just six hits. In fact, in 1998 and 1999, Rivera made 18 playoff and World Series appearances without allowing a run.

As I've written here before, Rivera is arguably the greatest postseason performer in baseball history, in spite of the blips in 1997, 2001 and 2004: His career postseason ERA is 0.70, with just two homers and 21 walks allowed in 141 innings.

2. 1990 Cincinnati Reds: The Nasty Boys

Really, we're talking about three guys here: Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton. They were all relatively young -- Myers and Charlton were 27 years old, Dibble 26 -- and Lou Piniella went to them constantly to end games after the sixth inning. Charlton was moved into the Cincinnati rotation midway through the season, before switching back for the postseason, and that year, he threw 154 1/3 innings in 56 games, striking out 117. Dibble threw 98 innings in 68 appearances, striking out 136, and Myers had a 2.08 ERA in 66 appearances, accumulating 31 saves.
But their reputation was fully made in the postseason, when the trio allowed one earned run in the National League Championship Series (against the Pirates), before shutting out Oakland for 8 2/3 innings in the postseason -- so all told, the Nasty Boys allowed one earned run in 24 innings in October.

3. 2003 Houston Astros

The Astros had power and stuff from the right side, with Brad Lidge and Octavio Dotel, and even more power from the left side, with Billy Wagner.

"I was rarely concerned with batter/pitcher match-ups or pitch selection," former Astros catcher Brad Ausmus wrote in an e-mail. "Their pitches were so dominant, it was hard to put down the wrong fingers.

"And, talk about shortening a game. If we could get into the sixth with a lead, we felt really good about our chances. In Wags, Lidge and OD, we probably had three of the 10 best relievers in the league."

As the Yankees learned firsthand on June 11. That day, Roy Oswalt worked a hitless first inning but had to come out of the game in the second because of a groin strain. The Houston bullpen combined for eight more no-hit innings -- over the final four innings, Lidge, Dotel and Wagner combined for eight strikeouts - and then they all posed for pictures afterward. That year, the Houston relievers combined for an MLB-high 495 strikeouts, and held opposing hitters to a .225 batting average.

4. 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers

Katie Sharp, a researcher for ESPN Stats & Info, determined that the only bullpen in the last 20 years to rank among the top 20 all-time in ERA was Los Angeles of 2003, at 2.46. Tom Martin was the lone lefty among the primary relievers, but that really didn't matter, not with Paul Quantrill working as a setup man, alongside Guillermo Mota, who struck out 99 batters in 105 innings that year. For sheer dominance, however, closer Eric Gagne was among the best ever -- he allowed 37 hits in 82 1/3 innings, with 20 walks and 137 strikeouts. Right-handed hitters posted an OPS of .358 against Gagne, while lefties were at .390.

Years later, Gagne was among those named in the Mitchell report, complicating his legacy. But none of that mattered in 2003, when he was the most dominant reliever in the sport.

5. 1990 Oakland Athletics

Tony La Russa wasn't the first manager to use his relievers in matchup situations, but he perfected the practice, as arguably the greatest manager of bullpens in history. Dennis Eckersley might be the greatest creation of La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. At age 31, he had slogged to an ERA of 4.57 for the Chicago Cubs. He signed with Oakland, and La Russa and Duncan turned him into a reliever -- and a Hall of Famer. Eckersley was at his best in 1990, when he struck out 73 and walked four, for an 0.61 ERA. His adjusted ERA-plus for that season was 603, which was the best in history for 22 seasons ... until Fernando Rodney's exceptional 2012.

From Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Info, the highest adjust ERA-plus for all pitchers with at least 60 innings in a season:

With Eckersley leading the way, the Oakland bullpen had a 2.35 ERA, one of the best marks of all time.

6. 1972 Oakland Athletics

Dick Williams was among the first managers to consistently call on relievers for matching up lefties on lefties, right-handers versus right-handers, and he had some good pieces to work with that year: Darold Knowles, a left-hander who posted a 1.37 ERA in 54 games that year, and Bob Locker, who had a 2.65 ERA. But most importantly, at the end of games, he had Rollie Fingers, who threw 111 1/3 innings in relief that season, in 65 games, and struck out 113, on his way to 11 wins and 21 saves.

7. 2002 Anaheim Angels

The Angels had a really good bullpen throughout the regular season that year, with Troy Percival overpowering hitters (68 strikeouts in 56 1/3 innings), a young Scot Shields denting the big leagues (he had a 2.20 ERA in 29 games) and Brendan Donnelly limiting opponents to 32 hits in 49 2/3 innings. For the season, the Angels had a 2.98 ERA, one of the lowest marks in the last 20 years.

But the whole group was transformed at season's end, when the 20-year-old Francisco Rodriguez was promoted from the minors. He made just five appearances during the regular season, but showed so much that Mike Scioscia used him as his primary setup man in October, and K-Rod -- as he would forever be known -- struck out 28 in 18 2/3 innings, and the Angels won the World Series.

8. 2010 San Francisco Giants

After an excellent regular season, the Giants' relievers took over the postseason. Brian Wilson didn't allowed a run in the playoffs or World Series, striking out 16 in 11 2/3 innings, and Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt had big moments throughout the playoff run. Manager Bruce Bochy had a lot of weapons to use that year and he manipulated them exceptionally, as the Giants won their first World Series title in 56 years.

9. 2012 Tampa Bay Rays

Three bullpens did incredible work last summer and might deserve a spot in this top 10 -- the Reds had the lowest ERA, at 2.65, and the Braves ranked second in the NL at 2.76, riding the extraordinary performance of Craig Kimbrel. But Fernando Rodney had arguably the greatest season ever for any reliever -- see the chart above -- and the Rays led the AL in ERA, at 2.88. Left-hander Jake McGee allowed only 11 walks in 55 1/3 innings, while striking out 73, and also Wade Davis and Joel Peralta pitched well. Tampa Bay's bullpen was so deep that by the end of the year, Kyle Farnsworth -- who was really good in 2011 -- couldn't reclaim a meaningful role after recovering from a right elbow strain.

10. 2002 Atlanta Braves

For years, the Braves had been taken down by thin and inconsistent bullpens. But with John Smoltz in the role of closer, where he racked up 55 saves, this group posted the second-lowest ERA in the last 20 years, at 2.60. Chris Hammond and Mike Remlinger were outstanding from the left side, Darren Holmes and Kerry Ligtenberg had really good seasons from the right side. It was a solid, balanced group.

Near-misses: The 2012 Cincinnati Reds, with their MLB-best 2.65 ERA; the 1992 Blue Jays, who had Tom Henke and Duane Ward and a whole bunch of pitching talent around them (check out all parts of their pitching roster from that year); the 1972 Pittsburgh Pirates; the 1981 Yankees, with Goose Gossage and Ron Davis; the 2011 Braves, before the late-season collapse; and the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, who had Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter closing games for them.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The White Sox signed Matt Lindstrom.

2. Davey Johnson like having an A bullpen and a B bullpen, as James Wagner writes.

3. The Rockies signed a couple of veteran pitchers.

4. Matthew Hall writes about the ongoing TV impasse for the Padres.

5. This guy will be trying to win a job as a super utility player.

Other stuff

Giancarlo Stanton did this Q&A with Lance Pugmire.

• There is sad news about a college baseball coach. He was a Miami original, writes Dave Hyde.

• Some Red Sox prospects are looking forward to an opportunity, writes Scott Lauber.

Ben Zobrist is preparing for the WBC, writes Roger Mooney.

David Wright is engaged.

• The Phillies' trade of Hunter Pence appears to be shrewd.

• A longtime Cardinal was accepting a lot of condolences, as Derrick Goold writes. Stan Musial wouldn't want us to be sad, writes Bernie Miklasz.

And today will be better than yesterday.