Starting pitching fuels playoff runs. That’s why Matt and I are running down the rotations for each postseason participant. But bullpens also play a large role in the postseason. A starting pitcher can go seven strong and put his team in a position to win, but a poor relief outing can ruin all of his hard work. Which AL teams have the best unit to back up their starters?
First, let’s look at team relief stats. On Monday Jeff went over shutdowns and meltdowns and how they affect playoff teams. Here we’ll look at some similar data, plus some other factors, for just AL teams.
SD = shutdowns, MD = meltdowns, IS% = inherited runners scored rate, BSv% = blown save rate, WPA/LI = situational wins
It appears as though each team’s bullpen excels in a different area. The Twins don’t fare well in shutdown to meltdown ratio, but they also allow the lowest percentage of inherited runners to score. The Yankees and the Rays have identical SD/MD ratios and nearly identical inherited runner rates, but the Rays’ bullpen blows far fewer save opportunities. The Rangers’ bullpen might allow inerited runners to score, but it can absolutely shut down a team. Both the Rangers’ and the Yankees’ bullpens have more situational wins than their competitors.
The difference between the postseason and the regular season is that the lesser arms in the bullpen won’t get much work in the postseason. With that in mind let’s look at the key relievers on each team.
Tampa Bay Rays
Closer: Rafael Soriano
Soriano might not be the strikeout machine he was in Atlanta, but he’s still getting his share of whiffs. To compensate he’s shaved plenty off his walk rate, which means he’s putting fewer men on base. His .210 BABIP furthers that cause, to which his 0.78 WHIP is a testament. The Rays have also done a nice job keeping his workload limited, just 61.1 innings in 63 appearances, so he should be fresh for the playoffs. If not for the agelessness of another closer, he might be the best in the playoffs.
Relief Ace: Joaquin Benoit
After he missed all of 2009 recovering from shoulder surgery, Benoit had to settle for a minor league contract. The Rays were the beneficiaries of that. Benoit has become an irreplaceable part of their bullpen, bridging the gap between the starters and Soriano. Oddly enough, he’s throwing harder than ever, with a fastball that averages 93.9 mph. He has used that to strike out 72 of the 209 batters he’s faced, an 11.11 per nine ratio. Even though he has a BABIP under .200, his fielding independent numbers back up his dominance (2.53 FIP, 2.64 xFIP). He’s also done the one thing a fireman must: leave men on base. His strand rate sits at a ridiculous 94.8 percent, and he’s allowed just two of 23 inherited runners to score (9 percent). If the Rays enter the eighth with a lead teams will find it exceedingly difficult to mount a comeback.
The Rays have gotten an excellent season out of Balfour after a shaky 2009, and it has added great depth to the bullpen. He’s good for a strikeout when they need one, and he generally keeps the ball inside the park. Wheeler can also come up with a big K, mostly when facing right-handed hitting. Touted prospect Jake McGee has come on fairly strong in September and would give the Rays a better look from the left side than Randy Choate. But he still walks way too many batters.
New York Yankees
Closer: Mariano Rivera
We need not revisit the lore of Mariano Rivera. His track record, and particularly his postseason track record, speaks for itself. He experienced a rough stretch in September, which can be alarming for a 40-year-old closer. But until he proves otherwise it is inadvisable to bet against Rivera.
Relief ace: David Robertson
After a shaky start to the season Robertson has turned into the Yankees true relief ace. Joe Girardi is willing to use him in any critical spot regardless of inning. He frequently comes in with men on base, though he has allowed 30 percent of those runners to score. But he does come up with strikeouts, 10.28 per nine.
Had Wood been with the team all season he might have earned Girardi’s trust as the relief ace. As it stands, he fills more of a traditional setup role. Since coming to the Yankees he has allowed just one run in 25 innings, striking out 29 and walking 15. He has also allowed just one of 10 inherited runners to score, and could certainly could hear his name called when there are men on base. Chamberlain has been a bit shaky, but has come on later in the season. After two rough stints that included far too many walks, Logan has shown that he can get out lefties and even stay in the game to face a righty if need be.
Closer: Matt Capps
Giving up prospect Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps didn’t sit well with many Twins fans at first, but they’ve hardly had reason to complain about Capps’s performance in the closer role. He’s not anyone’s idea of an overpowering guy, but he strikes out a healthy number while limiting his walks and keeping the ball inside the park. He’s no Joe Nathan, but he’s as good a replacement as the Twins could find.
Relief ace: Matt Guerrier
While Jon Rauch might play a more traditional setup role, Guerrier is the guy Ron Gardenhire calls on with runners on base. This season he has taken the responsibility for 45 runners not his own, and has allowed only 10 to score. Three of them came when he surrendered a grand slam in May, so he’s been even more effective otherwise. He might not strike out a ton of guys, which would seem a requirement for a pitcher coming in with men on, but Guerrier has been successful despite that.
Clearly the Twins have a deep bullpen. Removed from the closer role when the Twins acquired Capps, Rauch has remained an effective reliever. He limits walks and strikes out a decent number, key components of an effective reliever. Mijares started the season poorly but has been dominant ever since. Crain is back to being the guy the Twins had a few years ago, though his walks could become a problem. Fuentes has proven an effective waiver acquisition; he has yet to allow a run as a Twin.
Closer: Neftali Feliz
Last year Feliz was a sensation. This year he’s playing a key role on the Rangers’ first playoff team since 1999. He brings the excellent combination of high strikeouts and low walks, and even though he pitches home games in a hitter-friendly park he has limited his home runs and extra base hits. He rounds out an excellent AL playoff closer crew.
Relief ace: Darren O’Day
He might not be the most recognizable pick, but he has been one of the Rangers’ most effective setup men. He has picked up 50 batters and has allowed just 13 to score. Like Feliz he suppresses homers, another important aspect of a relief ace. He’s the guy Ron Washington will turn to in a key spot.
Even though Ogando has thrown just 40.1 innings, he has taken on 30 inherited runners. He has allowed 12 to score, so perhaps he won’t get the call in a big spot. But he can bring it with a clean slate. Francisco was removed from the closer role early but has regained his effectiveness in a setup role. Darren Oliver continues to amaze at 39 years old. He, too, will come in with men on base, especially to face a tough lefty.
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