Starting pitchers in baseball get a lot of attention

Jun 21, 2011 3:06 AM

Starting pitchers in baseball get much of the attention (and money) thrown their way.

The average starter is asked to go 6-7 innings, while aces are expected to give 7-8 quality innings. Many games are decided in the last three innings, however, making relief pitchers an extremely important, and often overlooked, element.

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 win three straight World Series from 1972-74.

Then came the Big Red Machine. Sparky Anderson 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. Cleveland had a deep bullpen in 2007 that helped get them to the seventh game of the ALCS. That pen completely fell apart the next three seasons – until 2011, where they have had the top relief staff in baseball that has helped to fuel their surprising first place run.

The Rockies had a lot of effective relievers that same season, which was a huge key in their shocking late 21-1 run that led to the NL pennant.

That same season the eventual champion Red Sox had outstanding starting pitching, with Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield going 6-7 innings almost every night, as did last year’s champion Giants with Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez.

That took a load off the bullpen, which was outstanding while being used only sparingly. That’s why starters who can stay healthy and eat innings have value beyond their numbers, as they can have a domino effect on the relief staff.

The Yankees righted the ship in 2009 by getting two huge innings-eaters with the additions of C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But this season, they failed to add free agent starter Cliff Lee and the strains are already showing on an aging starting staff that has been hit hard by injuries.

The Yankees are on a 9-2-2 run OVER the total at home and 5-1-1 OVER against lefties.

Milwaukee added Shaun Marcum and Zach Greinke, who alongside ace Yovani Gallardo have helped the surging Brewers the last month.

The teams with the most blown saves are the Astros, Braves, Cards, Nationals and Angels. AL defending champ Texas is eighth in blown saves, fifth worst in bullpen ERA, a major weakness for a first place team.

The Rangers are 11-4 OVER the total in their last 15 after allowing five runs or more in their previous game. Don’t be surprised if you see the Rangers looking for relief help before next month’s trading deadline.

Milwaukee had a train wreck season last year largely because of an explosive bullpen, finishing the season with 21 blown saves, third most in the NL. This season they have also struggled with blown saves, but should get better if a guy like Greinke (who didn’t join the team until May, can regularly give them 7-8 innings, which he hasn’t been doing.

Otherwise, mark the Brewers down as a team that will be shopping for bullpen help before the deadline.

Strong bullpens can help keep scoring down from the sixth inning on. Three years ago, the Angels had a dynamite bullpen that helped fuel a stretch where they won 10 of 15 games, going 13-2 UNDER the total. Over a nine-game stretch, the relievers didn’t allow a run in 17 innings.

A key to the Red Sox hot streak since May has been starters Beckett, Buchholz and Lester staying healthy and throwing well, taking the heat off a pen. Boston blew 22 saves last season while not making the playoffs, the second most in the AL.

Teams that go with a lot of untested young arms can experience breakdowns. If the kids can’t throw a lot of innings, that can wear down a pen fast, something to keep an eye on. You can’t pay too little attention to the pen, which is a huge part of baseball success today, on the field and at the betting window.