On a crisp October evening, the Cubs hold a one run lead over the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS. Heading into the top of the 7th, Werth, Harper, and Murphy are due up for the Nationals. Cubs manager Joe Maddon sticks with Jake Arrieta against Werth, but after 110 pitches looks to make a move to the pen. With one out and Harper and Murphy coming up, who does Maddon turn to with the season on the line? Travis Wood? Clayton Richard?
In Game 7 of the ALCS, the Rangers are locked in a 5-5 tie with the Astros heading into extra innings. While the Astros still have quality arms like Pat Neshek and Scott Feldman to go to, the Rangers are forced to go with either Shawn Tolleson (5.76 ERA, 4.99 FIP) or the inexperienced Matt Bush, having already burned through their top three relievers (Dyson, Barnette, and Diekman).
At this point in the season, having a weak or shallow bullpen doesn’t seem like a huge concern. Sure, every few weeks a game will slip away because of a porous pen, but no bullpen is perfect. However, come playoff time, the need for a strong, deep group of relievers becomes vital for a World Series run.
The general sentiment regarding the playoffs is that we really don’t why some teams succeed and others fail. It’s a crap shoot, more or less. However, if you take a look back at the last five years, one common dominator among teams that make the World Series is quality relievers.
|Team||Bullpen SIERA*||Top Relievers (ERA)**|
|2015 Royals||3.53/3.60 League Avg||Wade Davis (0.94), Ryan Madson (2.13), Kelvin Herrera (2.17), Luke Hochevar (3.73), Chris Young (3.06), Franklin Morales (3.18)|
|2015 Mets||3.50/3.56||Jeurys Familia (1.85), Tyler Clippard (3.06), Addison Reed (1.17), Sean Gilmartin (2.67), Hansel Robles (3.67)|
|2014 Royals||3.25/3.38||Greg Holland (1.44) Wade Davis (1.00), Kelvin Herrera (1.41), Jason Frasor (2.66), Brandon Finnegan (1.29)|
|2014 Giants||3.26/3.29||Jeremy Affeldt (2.28), Santiago Casilla (1.70), Javier Lopez (3.11), Jean Machi (2.58), Yusmeiro Petit (3.6), Sergio Romo (3.72)|
|2013 Red Sox||3.31/3.44||Koji Uehara (1.09), Craig Breslow (1.81), Junichi Tazawa (3.16)|
|2013 Cardinals||3.12/3.48||Randy Choate (2.29), Seth Maness (2.32), Trevor Rosenthal (2.63), Kevin Siegrist (0.45), John Axford (4.02)|
|2012 Tigers||3.64/3.59||Jose Valverde (3.78), Joaquin Benoit (3.68), Phil Coke (4.00), Octabio Dotel (3.57), Al Alburquerque (0.68)|
|2012 Giants||3.56/3.60||Jeremy Affeldt (2.70), Santiago Casilla (2.84), Sergio Romo (1.79), Jose Mijares (2.56), Geoge Kontos (2.47)|
* Skill-Inetractive ERA. Think more accurate version of ERA.
** Baseball Reference didn't provide individual SIERA. If you'd like to find them, hit me up.
Of the eight teams listed, seven have a SIERA better than league average. And although the Tigers were slightly above the league average, young flamethrower Al Alburquerque provided a late season boost coming back from an arm injury (0.68 ERA in September).
So, if it’s abnormal for a team to make the World Series with a below-average bullpen, how do the 2016 contenders stack up halfway through the season?
|Cubs||3.78/3.95 NL Avg|
|Rangers||4.28/3.72 AL Avg|
As the data above shows, National League contenders all have respectable bullpens at this point. For all the talk about the Cubs needing another arm, they actually have an above average bullpen. Although I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a Schwarber-Miller swap (mostly because of Harper and Murphy), I don’t think the Cubs are in desperate need of a reliever at the trade deadline.
The American League is a different story. The Rangers’ bullpen is awful, the worst in the AL and 2nd worst in all of baseball. And the Orioles’ bullpen, while a little deeper, isn’t much better. Matt Bush and Dylan Bundy have made for good stories, but both teams should add a couple more quality arms over the next few weeks. On a more positive note, the Astros’ bullpen has been fantastic despite Tony Sipp’s regression (5.40 ERA after a 1.99 ERA in 2015).
So, as we enter into the last three months of the season, keep an eye out for surging and struggling bullpens; they might just determine who will be playing in the 2016 Fall Classic.