NL All-Star Report: Picking A Bullpen

TheSportsNotebook’s All-Star review reaches the finish line these next two days as we look at the bullpens, starting today with the National League. This isn’t about just picking the top closers—I understand doing it that way for the Mid-Summer Classic itself, but a true All-Star team in this day and age should be properly staffed with setup men, so the purpose of this post will be to select two setup relievers and a closer to fill out the National League pitching staff.

Jason Grilli for Pittsburgh and Sean Burnett in Washington deserve to at least be the ones that we open the bidding with, so to speak, when it comes to the setup crew. Grilli’s ERA is 1.93, Burnett’s is a buck-47 and both are allowing less than a baserunner per inning. The latter is a stat I don’t look at much with starters or closers, but for setup relievers, who come in and out of innings in midstream, I think it’s more important.

There’s no denying the shutdown ability—not just with runs, but baserunners—exhibited by Sergio Romo in San Francisco (0.79 ERA, 0.75 WHIP) and to a lesser extent Miami’s Randy Choate (2.49/1.05), but neither have worked enough innings to be in the top two. Both are at just 22 IP, while Grilli and Burnett are each 30-plus. Choate’s teammate in Miami, Steve Cishek, along with St. Louis’ Mitchell Boggs, each have the workload and the ERAs (2.31 & 2.02 respectively), but neither is as good as Grilli or Burnett, and in both cases the WHIP is a little high.

A much stronger case can be made for Matt Belisle in Colorado and James Russell of the Chicago Cubs. Both have to do their work in hitter’s parks and Belisle’s put up a 1.83 ERA, while Russell is at a solid 2.27. Belisle is a positive horse, with 44 innings worked, a huge amount for a setup reliever at this point in the season, while Russell is at 39. In both cases, the WHIPs are good (1.17 & 1.24), although not quite as good as Grilli or Burnett.

That’s the outline for selection then. I can see a reasonable case for taking any of Jason Grilli, Sean Burnett, Matt Belisle or James Russell. Because of Belisle’s workload and lower ERA, I’d make him the top selection and on the flip side I would eliminate Grilli. He’s obviously having a tremendous year, but the ERA is higher than Burnett and the innings lower than Russell. That leaves the relievers from Washington and Chicago to pick from. The ERA gap is huge in favor of Burnett, while the innings gap is big for Russell. You can argue that Wrigley Field hurts Russell’s ERA, but you can also argue that his team’s incompetence means more chances to work and get innings. The fact Burnett’s WHIP is better gives him an edge, along with the fact that his performance has ensured that Tyler Clippard hasn’t been missed since moving to the closer’s role, which in turn means Drew Storen hasn’t been missed since going to the disabled list at the start of the year. And since Washington doesn’t hit much, the success of all facets of the pitching staff are vital to why they lead the NL East. All of that adds up to a case for Burnett, whom I would put on TheSportsNotebook’s midseason All-Star team along with Matt Belisle in the setup roles.

Now on to the closers. The top choice here right now is really cut-and-dried. Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel has the volume in saves, with 23. He’s got the closing percentage, having nailed 23/24. He’s got the ERA, at just a buck-fifty. There’s no credible reason not to pick him to fill out the staff. Kimbrel is his second year as the closer and has 69 saves in 1.5 seasons. Not a bad start to a career for the 24-year-old, although Atlanta fans have to worry whether his arm will burn out young.

What’s more interesting is how the NL closer situation might unfold the rest of the way. Kimbrel blew eight saves a year ago, and the 85% close rate he had in ’11 isn’t All-Star level. If he coughs up a few in the second half, the door is open first for Jonathan Papelbon, who has done the job in Philadelphia, nailing down 18/19, although you would like a much lower ERA than 2.93 for an All-Star closer. Huston Street in San Diego has closed all thirteen of his chances and the ERA is at a sparkling 1.23. Two others to watch would be Santiago Casilla for San Francisco and Joel Hanrahan in Pittsburgh. Each is 21/24 right now,  and I don’t like to see closers below 90 percent on their save chances. But each is more than capable of nudging back over that benchmark and each will be closing significant games in a division race. The ERAs for both are in the mid-2s and it’s easy to see either one being the choice when TheSportsNotebook does its season-ending All-Star team.

For now though the honors go to Matt Belisle (Colorado) and Sean Burnett (Washington) in setup, with Craig Kimbrel (Atlanta) as the closer.