Relief has finally gained respect

Jun 15, 2004 1:24 AM

Relief pitching has become an intricate, often overlooked, part of baseball.

Chicago ace Mark Prior recently made his long awaited return to the rotation, much to the delight of Cubs fans. Prior looked terrific, pitching six innings, allowing two hits while striking out eight.

Prior’s earned run average at the end of the day stood at 0.00, but he failed to gain the win. In fact, the Cubs lost the game. In the ninth inning, Joe Borowski and Mike Remlinger coughed up the lead giving the Pirates a 2-1 win. While many hearts and minds were centered on Prior’s health, the game broke the hearts of Cubbies’ fans because of lousy relief work.

Starting pitchers are often pampered, though Prior isn’t one of them. Last season Prior pitched 211 innings in 30 starts. That’s seven innings per start and he averaged more pitches in those games than any other starter.

In 1970, there were eight pitchers who topped 290 innings for the season. Four of them topped 300, with Gaylord Perry (329) leading the way. In 1980, Steve Carlton threw 303 innings and as recently as 1988, pitchers Dave Stewart and Orel Hershiser each topped 300 in the regular and postseasons combined.

It’s a very different ballgame today. A year ago, only three starters topped 235 innings, led by Roy Halladay (266) and Bartolo Colon (242). Relief pitchers used to be considered less-significant specialists or guys who didn’t have the strength to be starters. Now general managers build teams with the idea of having several middle relievers, one or two lefty specialists, and a reliable closer. For most starting pitchers, logging 200 innings (not 300) is the new watermark.

Money is part of the reason. Many pitchers are coddled in the minor leagues because teams don’t want to blow out the arm of a promising young pitcher. Expansion has made pitching the rarest of commodities. Organizations would rather have a young arm go seven innings instead of nine to save wear and tear. Few pitchers complain about the lighter workload, as their livelihoods are at stake.

Another reason is the case of the 1980 Oakland A’s starting staff, which has been well chronicled. Oakland had a talented young rotation of Mike Norris (age 25), Rick Langford (28), Matt Keough (24), Steve McCatty (26) and Brian Kingman (25). All pitched over 200 innings, with Norris throwing 24 complete games, Keough completing 20 and Langford leading the majors with 28 complete games.

Old school manager Billy Martin thought pitchers developed arm strength by throwing a lot. That rotation developed more than strength: All five suffered arm trouble and flamed out fast as effective starters, prompting the rest of the baseball world to take note. The concept of the pitch count and coddling young arms was born, which is widely practiced today.

The bullpen is now a vital asset. No longer do teams put their worst pitchers in the pen and the Hall of Fame is slowly building a wall of talented stoppers. The 1990 Reds stunned the baseball world by upsetting the Pirates in the NLCS and the mighty A’s in the World Series. Cincinnati stormed through the postseason with devastating relief pitching in Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers. Dibble and Myers were co-MVPs of the NLCS and when the Reds swept the Athletics in the World Series, managers around the league recognized how valuable a deep pen can be.

The Angels utilized a similar formula in winning the title two years ago. Anaheim had a great offense, average starting pitching and a brilliant pen, anchored by Brandon Donnelly, Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Scott Shields and Ben Weber.

This season, the Mariners lost closer Kaz Sasaki and Arthur Rhodes and their bullpen ERA is one of the worst in the AL, which is surprising since they play in such a large pitcher’s park. Notice that Seattle started 17-10 "over" the total on the road. One of the year’s surprises has been the improved young pitching of the Rangers. Texas is 19-7 "under" the total on the road.

The Giants have been without Rob Nen the last two seasons and currently have the second-worst bullpen ERA in the National League. San Francisco is 16-10 "over" the total away from home. Arizona’s relief staff has been in disarray with a 4.85 ERA. The Diamondbacks started 34-23 "over" the total this season, including 19-10 at home.

The pen is mightier than the sword, but is it mightier than good starting pitching? Not if that pen can’t get anyone out. Bullpen strength is a key component that can’t be ignored — by baseball teams or baseball bettors.