Calls to the pen have needed erasers

Jun 7, 2005 8:21 AM

Starting pitchers in baseball get much of the attention (and money) thrown their way. The average starter is asked to go six or seven innings, while aces are expected to reach the eighth.

Many games are decided in the last three innings, however, making relief pitchers an extremely important, and often overlooked, factor.

The use of effective relievers is nothing new. Specialized closers were around in the 1960s, with terrific relievers like Dick Radatz, John Hiller, Luis Arroyo and knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. During the early 1970s, the Oakland Athletics had a deep bullpen with Rollie Fingers, Dave Hamilton and Darold Knowles. That group helped to win three straight World Series from 1972-74.

The Big Red Machine and Sparky Anderson in Cincinnati had lights-out relievers in Will McEnaney and Rawley Eastwick. That has evolved into a situation where today managers league-wide use a variety of closers, middlemen and lefty/righty specialists.

It’s important from a betting perspective to examine which teams have solid bullpen depth and which ones don’t. The Royals and Reds have blown many saves already this season and both have been money-burners. Kansas City has a 4.00 bullpen ERA while the Cincinnati is a poor 5.39. The Reds are —13 percent return on investment for the season, while the Royals are -32.

The White Sox have been the biggest surprise, leading the American League in pitching. Four terrific starters — Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia, Mark Buerhle and Jose Contreras — have gotten much of the ink. Overlooked is a bullpen of Dustin Hermanson, Cliff Politte (1.77 ERA) and Damaso Marte (2.29 ERA) that has also been outstanding.

Hermanson picked up 11 saves in his first 21 innings, allowing no earned runs! We’re a third of the way through the season, and Dustin has not allowed a run! The White Sox bullpen is a solid 3.22 ERA overall.

Minnesota, a low payroll club, has been competitive the last few years mainly because of defense, speed and great pitching depth. The Twins have two ace starters in Johan Santana and Brad Radke, but the bullpen has a cumulative 2.28 ERA — the best in baseball.

Any game that is close, the Twins have the luxury of bringing in Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero or Jessie Crane, before turning any late lead over to hard-throwing Joe Nathan (15 saves).

These days it’s not enough to have one strong relief pitcher. If a manager uses his best reliever for three innings to close out a game, that reliever is likely not available the next two games. Two of the worst bullpens this season have been the Yankees (4.09 ERA) and Red Sox (5.05), which partly explains why they’ve underachieved and are looking up at the Orioles (3.95 bullpen ERA) in the AL East.

The top two bullpens in the National League have been the Brewers (2.72) and Padres (2.92). Both teams have been the biggest surprises, as well. The Padres have excellent depth in the pen with ace closer Trevor Hoffman (16 saves) supported by Scott Linebrink, lefty change-up specialist Chris Hammond and the resurrected Rudy Seanez. The Padres have a strong +19 percent return on investment.

The Marlins will be an interesting team to watch. They are battling the Braves in the NL East, but have a very talented team that is No. 1 in batting average and pitching. They have great starting pitching, and a bullpen that has been getting the job done lately with veteran Todd Jones and Matt Perisho.

However, they have had bullpen injuries much of the season, just getting ace Guillermo Mota back while still awaiting the return of Antonio Alfonseca. If the bullpen continues to get healthy, the talented Marlins might begin to take off.