Friday, September 20, 2013
Ranking bullpens for October contenders
By Jim Bowden
Craig Kimbrel is arguably the best closer in baseball, but the rest of the Braves pen is pretty good, too.
A simple fact of the baseball postseason is you don’t get in without a strong bullpen, and you certainly don't survive without one.
These teams believe in their pens, and they tend to especially have supreme confidence in their closer. Almost invariably you look at the numbers and see that when these teams have the lead in the ninth inning, the game is over. And that kind of confidence must carry into the postseason.
Since postseason contenders typically feature a dominating closer and an effective setup man in their bullpens, the guys who really make a difference are the next three relievers in line. They are the one-out specialists, the guys with funky arm angles, wipeout breaking balls and rubber arms who can pitch without rest. Bullpens that can offer a multitude of looks and dictate matchups are the ones that succeed in October.
If we look at a team’s overall bullpen statistics, we do get a pretty good feel as to how they performed as a whole during the regular season, which to an extent is an indicator of how they should do in the postseason. They are the best bullpens, and the numbers back up that fact (see chart below).
Below is my ranking of the top seven bullpens among postseason contenders. Not only did I take into account the statistics and scouting reports, but after all my years in baseball as a general manager, I know I also have to factor in mental toughness and an intangible “gut feel.” This ranking also is mainly based on the top four or five relievers of a bullpen, since they will likely get the bulk of the action. If the last two men out of the pen in the postseason are integral to a team’s performance, that team isn’t going very far.
1. Atlanta Braves
When New York Yankees future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera officially retires at the end of the season, the torch will be passed to Craig Kimbrel as the game’s best in the ninth inning. “Impact closer” is the best two words to describe him. The Braves lost both of their best left-handed relievers early in the season when Jonny Venters and Erik O'Flaherty underwent Tommy John surgery. However, the Braves were able to fill the voids with the trade for Scott Downs and the quick development of Luis Avilan, whose 1.47 ERA is second on the club to Kimbrel.
The Braves also have a third lefty in rookie Alex Wood, unless he is part of the postseason rotation. Luis Ayala offers a sinkerball with a lower-arm-angle look. Jordan Walden gives them another power arm from the right side, but his ability to handle postseason pressure must be monitored.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
Affectionately known as the “Shark Tank,” the Pirates bullpen is loaded with power arms and a variety of looks. The Pirates have two left-handed relievers who throw strikes in the mid- to-upper 90s in Justin Wilson and Tony Watson. Wilson is the better of the two and in his 55 appearances has a 2.15 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. Having two impact left-handed relievers is a must, considering the proliferation of quality left-handed hitters on postseason teams like Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez and Freddie Freeman.
Jason Grilli was one of the game’s best closers until he went down with an injury earlier in the season. His velocity is back; manager Clint Hurdle is only waiting for the command in the zone to follow suit. If it doesn’t, then Mark Melancon will remain the closer. Melancon has been phenomenal after replacing Grilli, thus giving the Bucs two closers. The Pirates also have depth with Jeanmar Gomez and Bryan Morris.
3. Kansas City Royals
The Royals have the best overall bullpen in the American League. Greg Holland has developed into the AL’s best closer from a numbers standpoint. He's 2-1 this year with a 1.31 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and .171 opponents average against stuff that's often unhittable. He’s struck out 94 men in just 62 innings, walking just 15. He’s 43-for-46 in save opportunities, so the Royals feel good with a late lead.
The rest of that bullpen is loaded with power arms -- the best kind of bullpen for the postseason. Almost the entire bullpen can throw in the high 90s -- not mid-90s, high 90s. They have depth and they have length. Louis Coleman, Wade Davis, Will Smith and Luke Hochevar all have ERAs under 2.00 as relievers, and the diminutive lefty Tim Collins can dominate left-handed hitters at times. The power arms of Aaron Crow (an All-Star in 2011) and Kelvin Herrera miss bats when they control their stuff.
The statistics might say the Cards are No. 9 and don't belong here, but in this one case I’m not paying attention to the stats. This bullpen has performed better than the ranking the stats reflect. Rather, I’m paying more attention to the scouting reports. Edward Mujica has the least formidable "stuff" of any closer in baseball, but it hasn't mattered. He hits his spots, pounds the zone, challenges hitters and gets ground balls. He's converted 37 of 40 save opportunities, and that's what matters most. His 2.15 ERA and 0.89 WHIP tell the story. Give him the lead, he'll finish it.
But the Cardinals perhaps have the best variation of looks of all the bullpens. Seth Maness has a nasty sinker; Trevor Rosenthal has a 100 mph fastball; Randy Choate is the perfect lefty-on-lefty specialist. The Cardinals’ other lefty is Kevin Siegrist, who has been the most impressive of all their relievers. In 29 appearances, his ERA is 0.50 and his WHIP 0.87 and opponents hit just .119 against him. Don't be surprised if next year he's in the Cardinals’ rotation. The acquisition of John Axford has given them a proven veteran arm; he also still throws 96. Rookie Carlos Martinez has great stuff, period.
The A's also have an impact closer in Grant Balfour,who broke Dennis Eckersley’s consecutive-save record this year on his way to converting an impressive 38 out of 41 games with a 2.72 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. The A's are really good at getting to him with the power arms of righty Ryan Cook and lefty Sean Doolittle, both of whom are capable of closing. Their stuff dominates batters and can get out big middle-of-the-lineup bats. Dan Otero has been a key for them in the last few months of the season, posting a 1.47 ERA in 29 appearances with just five walks and no home runs. Pat Neshek and Jerry Blevins provide important depth, and Blevins will be effective as a second lefty against left-handed hitters behind Doolittle.
The Rangers bullpen has been the strength of the team this year, led by closer Joe Nathan, who converted 39 of 42 save opportunities with a 1.56 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. Nathan's experience and reliability will be a real plus if the Rangers make the postseason. Tanner Scheppers has pitched the eighth inning this season with an upper-90s power arm. His 1.99 ERA and 1.10 WHIP tell his story. But lefty Neal Cotts might be one of the best under-the-radar reliever stories of the year. Cotts has a 1.07 ERA in 51 appearances, a line that includes a WHIP of 0.967. He will be a key piece for them -- if they make it to the playoffs -- to pitch against lefty sluggers such as David Ortiz or Prince Fielder in the sixth- and seventh-inning single matchups, outpitching and supplanting Robbie Ross. How Cotts handles high-leverage pressure will be key. Jason Frasor was a terrific offseason pickup, too. Joakim Soria continues to regain closer form after recovering from Tommy John surgery. He is walking too many but remains a quality option. The Rangers continue to monitor Neftali Feliz’s comeback from Tommy John surgery to see if he can help them in October. Feliz’s velocity is there, but the breaking ball and command are not.
Kenley Jansen has been terrific, saving 25 of 29 games for the Dodgers with a 1.98 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings. His cutter is devastating and his confidence at pounding the zone and pitching ahead has been the difference. Brian Wilson was the best reliever picked up during the season, looking healthy with his closer’s confidence returned. The Dodgers have two quality left-handed relievers, too, in J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez who both own ERAs below 2.20. The Dodgers also have additional depth in Chris Withrow and Ronald Belisario, who are effective in the sixth and seventh innings.