MLB Coverage: A Tale Of Four American League Bullpens

We’re down to anywhere from 35-37 games left in the baseball season, and the issue of the bullpens will loom large, as they always do, in September. What teams are going to suffer the crushing losses that kill playoff hopes? What teams know they’re going to put a game in the win column if they’re up after six innings? TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage focuses in on the American League, to see where this might become a factor.

Let’s begin with setting some basic parameters. Your typical American League team will close 71% of its save opportunities, based on performance  through August 25. Of the eight playoff contenders  (Boston, Tampa, Baltimore, NY Yanks, Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland, Texas), four of them fall right around the league average.

It might surprise to you know that the Tigers are one of those teams. For all the consternation surrounding their pen, Detroit joins Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Oakland in falling around the league norm.

It’s the four outliers who will be our focus, two of them negative and two of them positive. Boston and Cleveland have poor save percentage rates, while New York and Texas excel. The Red Sox have only closed 55 percent of their chances, easily the worst among the contenders. The Indians are on 60 percent. Meanwhile, the Rangers and Yankees each exceed 80 percent.

Before we delve into the specifics of each team’s bullpen, note that this stat explains why Texas and New York have succeeded in spite of all their injuries—the Rangers have been at least as hard hit as the Yanks, even though Texas’ woes don’t get splattered all over the media coverage. What both teams have in common is that when they get in position to win a game, the game gets won.

We also have to keep in mind though, that no area of a baseball team fluctuates more throughout the course of a season then the bullpen. The stats cited are season-long compilations, and managers are constantly tweaking, with GMs constantly looking for help. As we sift through the relief corps of Boston, Cleveland, Texas and New York it’s important to note not just what they did in April, but what they’re doing right now.

With that in mind, here’s how each team’s pen breaks down, with thoughts on how they’ll fare in September and possibly October…

Boston: Koji Uehara has solidified a closer’s role that neither Joel Hanrahan or Andrew Bailey could, before being lost for the year. Uehara has a 1.24 ERA for the year, and he’s been perfect since the All-Star break.

The Red Sox have also gotten good work from Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow, two more arms who have been even better post-All Star Game then prior. And a July trade for Matt Thornton had been a positive, until Thornton went on the disabled list. Now he’s healthy again.

As a partisan Boston fan, I feel confident that this pen in its current form is good enough to ensure that a September meltdown won’t happen. I’m less confident about them closing out the kind of games you need to win to either secure the AL East or lock down big playoff games. It would have been preferable if Uehara could have stayed in a setup role and a harder thrower taken care of the ninth inning. But in either case, the current bullpen is not as bad as the season-long numbers would suggest.

Cleveland: An injury to Chris Perez earlier in the year was the main problem in killing the team’s save percentage, but it has to concern Terry Francona that Perez has not been lights-out even when healthy. He’s coughed up two saves since the break, including a killer when they were swept four straight by Detroit. With a 3.22 ERA, Perez is steady, but not dominant.

Francona has put together a bullpen in front of his closer. Cody Allen and Joe Smith have each pitched very well all year, including recently. Bryan Shaw is pitching his best baseball of the season in the second half, and the trade deadline acquisition of Marc Rzepczynski has been a boon, with the veteran tossing 9.1 innings of scoreless baseball.

“Steady” is the word that would now characterize the Cleveland pen, and if Perez had not missed time earlier in the year, the save percentage would be closer to the league norm.

What my concern is that when you get later in the regular season, and possibly the postseason, you’re going to want your closer coming into the ninth inning of tie games, not just when you have the lead. And here, I think, Perez, becomes a liability.

New York: The current form isn’t as impressive as the season-long numbers, but that’s mainly because Mariano Rivera had his highly publicized run of three straight blown saves, two of which the Yankees ended up winning anyway. Rivera’s ERA since the break is nearly a run higher than his season-long numbers.

But does anyone really believe that Mariano isn’t going to turn it around? He closed out Tampa Bay yesterday with a six-pitch inning. David Robertson is having a fantastic year, and been on fire in the second half with 0.52 ERA. The bottom line is still you have seven innings to beat the Yankees.

What Joe Girardi has to be concerned over is that Boone Logan and Shawn Kelley haven’t been as good in the second half as they were in the first, and that’s not something we can just assume will self-correct. Maybe they’ll turn it back around. Maybe the improved offense, with Alfonso Soriano on board, and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter back, will mean the pen has more margin of error. But it does seem safe to say the Yankee bullpen doesn’t look as deep today as it did a couple months ago.

Texas: Joe Nathan is having a brilliant year in the closer’s role, and the quartet of Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross, Jason Frasor and Neal Cotts have all been outstanding in setup work. Then let’s mix in Joakim Soria, who’s following Nathan’s path of rejuvenating his career in Texas.

This pen has no weaknesses and is deep enough to lock you down from the fifth or sixth inning on. We can further add that Frasor and Soria have experience closing if Nathan needs a night off. Scheppers hasn’t been quite as strong in the second half, but that’s been covered for by the brilliance of Cotts.

Texas has the best bullpen in the league and it’s time to give a big shout-out to Ron Washington for putting this together. Let’s give this guy some love as one of the game’s really good managers. I don’t know that the Rangers will survive in the AL West, but between the injuries and the offensive struggles, it’s unreal that we’re even having the conversation. The bullpen is the biggest reason why.