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.
Many games are decided in the last three innings, however, making relief pitchers an extremely important and often overlooked, element.
Just look at the Kansas City Royals the last two years. A deep, dominant hard throwing relief staff helped them to back-to-back AL Championships, along with one World Series title.
The Boston Red Sox had a train wreck 2012 season under one-and-done manager Bobby Valentine. 2013 was completely different under John Farrell and there’s little doubt what has turned the tables: pitching.
The Red Sox were a top 8 team in runs scored in 2012 and are doing it again this season with the bats. But the biggest difference in their recent championship was pitching, going from 27th in team ERA in 2012 to top 10 in 2013. The 2013 Red Sox loaded up on relievers in the offseason to upgrade a bad pen and, despite injuries, it paid huge dividends, as Kansas City has done.
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 A’s 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 and 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 the ones that don’t. The 2014 champion Giants won with the rock solid arms of Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Hudson, supported by a flexible pen with a pair of closers who topped 19 saves (Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo).
The 2012 champion Giants also won with strong starters Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Vogelsong, Barry Zito and Bumgarner. That took a load off the bullpen, which was outstanding while being used only sparingly: The 2012 Giants had only two starts made by pitchers beyond those Big 5. 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 Red Sox 2013 ALCS MVP was closer Koji Uehara – and he deserved it. It’s hard to believe now he was kept off the Texas Rangers 2011 World Series roster. Then in the World Series, Boston hit just .211, the lowest average for a Series champion in 39 years. Again, pitching led the charge.
The 2016 Cubbies have been No. 1 in baseball in pitching ERA. Yes, the starting staff of Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey have been impressive, but Hector Rondon, Trevor Cahill and Adam Warren have been dominant in relief.
Don’t be surprised if you see teams like the Cubs, Red Sox, White Sox, Rangers, Nationals and Giants looking to strengthen the bullpen before next month’s trading deadline. Strong relief staffs can help keep scoring down from the sixth inning on.
A few 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.
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 both on the field and at the betting window.