The point is that each of these characteristics were attempted and found to be successful. That 2003 A’s team overachieved, as did the 2008 Rays, especially compared to the size of their payroll relative to the competition. In similar fashion, a new team feature has been discovered in recent years to be of greater value than it was previously perceived to be. The “new way to win” that has found success and gained popularity around the league is the possession of a shutdown bullpen.
The Texas Rangers experienced the results of this most recent trend firsthand in the 2010 and 2011 World Series. A key to the successful playoff runs for the San Francisco Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals was having the best bullpen in the playoffs those years. In 2010, the Giants bullpen pitched 38.1 innings in the playoffs, recorded a 3.05 ERA with 39 strikeouts, a 1.07 WHIP, and a batting average against of .200. In 2011, the Cardinals bullpen garnered similar results, firing an astounding 68 innings (average of 4 innings per postseason game!), with a 3.31 ERA, 56 strikeouts, a 1.03 WHIP, and a batting average against of .215. If your eyes glazed over with all these numbers, I apologize. The short summary is that these bullpens were dominant on the way to their teams claiming the World Series title.
The increasing value of the bullpen has also been apparent in the free agent market. In recent years, massive contracts have been given to Rafael Soriano (3 years, $35M), Joaquin Benoit (3 years, $16.5M), and Sean Marshall (3 years, $16.5M). And those are just set-up men. The market for closers is even larger, with Jonathan Papelbon (4 years, $50M), Heath Bell (3 years, $27M), and Mariano Rivera (2 years, $30M) leading the way. This increase in the contract sizes for relievers is reflective of the fact that the bullpen market is no longer inefficient, as the secret has got out and now the teams with big pocketbooks are getting into the feeding frenzy.
Recent history has shown us, salary figures have shown us, and now the first 13 games into the 2012 season is confirming for us that in today’s game it is critical to have a strong bullpen. The biggest disappointments of the 2012 season so far, based on how they were expected to perform to where they are right now are the Los Angeles Angels (4-9), the Boston Red Sox (4-8), and the Tampa Bay Rays (7-6). These three teams rank 28th, 29th, and 30th in the league in bullpen ERA. In case that doesn’t register, that gives them the three worst bullpens in all of Major League Baseball so far in 2012. The Angels bullpen’s ERA is 5.40, the Red Sox is 6.63, and the Rays is 8.63. The highest bullpen ERA ever in a season was the 2009 Washington Nationals with a 6.68 mark. These three otherwise highly talented teams are at a historic level of terrible bullpen performance.
In an interview with 1310 The Ticket in Dallas after the 2011 World Series, Jon Daniels himself said that they have learned firsthand the importance of having a strong bullpen. This offseason, he orchestrated the moves required to attain that kind of bullpen by signing Joe Nathan, moving Alexi Ogando to the bullpen from the rotation to a “super reliever” kind of role, and by not trading Koji Uehara. Early in 2012, the Rangers bullpen is looking stronger than ever, with an ERA of 2.43, WHIP of 0.91, and a K/BB ratio of 14.5. It is no coincidence that the Rangers record sits at 11-2, best in all of baseball.
There is nothing more frustrating for a team than playing 7 or 8 innings of solid baseball and establishing a lead, only to see the bullpen blow the game. Those are the kinds of games that stand out the most in memory when pennant races are down to the wire. The Angels, Red Sox, and Rays are all candidates to be in the playoffs. However, unless their bullpens improve, or the starting pitching starts throwing more complete games, they will be hard pressed to remain legitimate contenders in 2012. For now, the Rangers can continue to be confident in their bullpen, and look to ride the success of those seven arms to another AL West title, and the achieving of their ultimate goal.