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How a good bullpen leads to championships

Monday’s trade deadline was headlined by two first place teams, the Yankees and Dodgers, as they both bolstered their starting rotations by adding ace caliber arms.

The Yankees added Oakland’s Sonny Gray for three prospects, one of them being outfielder Dustin Fowler. Los Angeles acquired Texas’ Yu Darvish for outfielder Willie Calhoun, infielder Brendon Davis and RHP A.J Alexy.

However, many teams decided to beef up their bullpens.

good bullpen leads championships
Addison Reed will play a vital role in Boston’s pursuit of the AL East (si.com)

The Cubs added Justin Wilson, who currently has a 2.68 ERA. The Nationals traded for All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler. The Red Sox got Addison Reed, who will serve as a setup man for Craig Kimbrel. Pittsburgh ended up shipping off Tony Watson to the Dodgers, while also receiving Joaquin Benoit from the Phillies in a trade. Joe Smith is headed back to Cleveland, where he posted a 2.76 ERA in five years for the Tribe.

So why did so many teams make moves for relievers? A lot of these teams already have set closers, so why trade away talent in exchange for setup men or seventh inning guys? Because having a strong bullpen will not only get you into the playoffs, but win championships.

Today’s Game

To put the use of relievers into perspective, there was a whopping 1,377 complete games thrown during the 1917 regular season. Last year, we saw a total of 83. Interestingly enough, the amount of shutouts per year have stayed pretty steady over this time frame. This means that starting pitchers are still performing, but with a little help from the pen.

With the knowledge we now have on injuries, it makes sense to get the starter out of the game when his pitch count is high, or if he gets into a jam. Not only for injury concern, but it’s just smarter to use the bullpen because you don’t want the hitters getting three or four at-bats against one guy. Today’s hitters are better than ever, and make adjustments with ease.

In today’s game, we are seeing the relievers record about 10 outs for every 27. This trend has been creeping upwards, and looks to be headed that way for a long time. Not only are they recording more outs than ever, but the amount of pitchers being used in games is also increasing.

With all this said, it is clear that relief pitchers are important, and their role continues to get bigger and bigger. To show you the importance of the bullpen, I have examined the last 10 World Series winners and analyzed their relief pitchers ERA.

 

WORLD SERIES WINNERS AND THEIR BULLPEN ERA RANKING

YEARWINNERBULLPEN ERA RANKING
2007RED SOX2ND
2008PHILLIES2ND
2009YANKEES13TH
2010GIANTS2ND
2011CARDINALS17TH
2012GIANTS15TH
2013RED SOX21ST
2014GIANTS5TH
2015ROYALS2ND
2016CUBS8TH

Analysis

Of the last 10 years, only two times has a team, not ranked in the top half in the league for bullpen ERA won the World Series. Last year, we saw seven of the top 10 teams in bullpen ERA advance to the playoffs. To put that into perspective, only 10 teams get the chance to play in October, which shows how valuable having a good bullpen truly is.

good bullpen leads championships
Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Varitek after winning the 2007 World Series (MassLive)

Is it impossible to win without a good bullpen? Clearly, the 2011 Cardinals and 2013 Red Sox had no problem, but a few things should be noted. The 2011 Cardinals ranked first in the NL in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS+, runs and hits. The 2013 Red Sox ranked first in the AL in runs, OPS+, SLG and OBP. They also finished second in batting average.

So, if you want to win without a good bullpen, you are going to need an elite offense to carry the load.

I decided to dig a little deeper and find out how many teams who ranked in the top 10 in bullpen ERA during their respected season made the playoffs.

Below is a table that shows the number of playoff teams who finished in the top 10 for bullpen ERA. A quick reminder in regards to the postseason. Before 2012, there was only eight playoff teams. Now, with the addition of the wild card game, there are 10 spots.

the bullpen matters more than you think

PLAYOFF TEAMS WHO FINISHED IN THE TOP 10 FOR BULLPEN ERA

YEAR# OF PLAYOFF TEAMS WHO FINISHED IN THE TOP 10 FOR BULLPEN ERA/ TOTAL PLAYOFF SPOTS
20074/8
20085/8
20093/8
20106/8
20112/8
20125/10
20134/10
20146/10
20155/10
20167/10

 

At this point, you should not be surprised when you see an elite reliever getting paid big money. It is clear that these guys are important, and often overlooked. Of the last ten seasons, 52 percent of the playoff teams were ranked in the top 10 for bullpen ERA.

Is it a significant advantage if your team’s bullpen is among the top of the league in K/9? The next table shows the World Series winner, with their relievers K/9.

WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS AND THEIR RELIEVER’S K/9

YEARTEAMRELIEVER K/9 RANKING
2007RED SOX9TH
2008PHILLIES10TH
2009YANKEES2ND
2010GIANTS6TH
2011CARDINALS8TH
2012GIANTS27TH
2013RED SOX7TH
2014GIANTS28TH
2015ROYALS17TH
2016CUBS3RD

 

Of the last 10 World Series winners, seven of them, during their respected championship years, ranked within the top 10 in reliever K/9. While it clearly helps a lot to have guys who can strike people out at good rates, it is not the end of the world if your bullpen is filled with guys who induce a lot of ground balls or pop flies. An out is an out, and as long as you get them, nobody will care.

CONCLUSIOn

Over half the playoff teams of the last 10 years have been teams with top notch bullpens. While at first it may have seemed shocking to trade big time talent for a reliever, it is clear that the value of these bullpen arms is humongous, and will only continue to grow.

good bullpen leads championships
Can Kenley Jansen, and the rest of the Dodgers staff, stay hot heading into the final months of the season? (espn.com)

 

If the MLB season ended today, here is a look at the “would-be” playoff teams and their bullpen ERA.

New York (AL) (5th)

Boston (3rd)

Cleveland (1st)

Kansas City (7th)

Houston (24th)

Washington (29th)

Chicago (4th)

Los Angeles 2nd)

Arizona (6th)

Colorado (22nd)

 

Featured image by calltothepen.com

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