Bullpen makeup a matter of preference
Importance of relief corps is only common denominator
When looking for what works and what doesn't in playoff bullpens, there's always an exception.Inexperience often breeds skepticism, but look at the 2006 World Series participants, the Cardinals and Tigers -- two teams that leaned heavily on youngsters. Not to mention the 2002 Angels, who turned loose a kid named Francisco Rodriguez on an unsuspecting baseball world. A team that lacks lefty-matchup types, likewise, will get questions about its bullpen. But those same '02 Angels got all of nine outs from lefty pitchers in the postseason -- and they beat teams that included left-handed hitters the likes of Jason Giambi, David Ortiz and Barry Bonds. Even power arms are not necessarily a sine qua non. The 2004 Red Sox leaned heavily on Keith Foulke and Mike Timlin, two guys who are far from anybody's idea of radar-gun freaks. A winning team needs three main ingredients to have bullpen success in October. It needs depth. It needs at least one or two hurlers to come forward and pitch like aces. And it needs a manager willing to use the best pitchers in the biggest spots, not worrying about the save rule or tomorrow's game or anything other than winning right here and now. "It's awful tough to win without a bullpen," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "We kind of saw both ends of that the last few years. What guys like Foulke and Timlin and that group did for a while there was incredible. Then we got ourselves in a situation where we got roughed up a little bit the next year. If you can get your bullpen on a roll, it certainly enhances your chances for winning." The Yankees bullpens of the late 1990s provide a prototype, and it's little coincidence that those clubs won four titles in five years. The mighty Yanks club had an automatic man in the ninth in Mariano Rivera, and manager Joe Torre never hesitated to use Rivera for more than three outs. Leading up to Rivera, Torre had Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton, a righty and a lefty, for the late setup innings, with Ramiro Mendoza from the right side and at least one other lefty in the midgame. You don't need seven or eight relievers to win playoff games. Five is a perfect number, thanks to the off-days in the schedule. The top guns can go virtually every game.
You do, however, need more than one or two pitchers who can get outs. The game changes in the postseason, and the middle innings seem to become even more decisive. Starters' outings get shorter in October, and one lost lead can change a series. From 2000-2006, playoff teams got 6.06 innings per start in the regular season, and 5.73 innings in the playoffs.And then there's the simple unpredictability and fickleness of a five- or seven-game series. Sometimes the best bullpen doesn't always pitch the best, and that's when it gets fun. "It's so hard to predict what's going to happen, especially if you have injuries or other things where guys have to do things they're not accustomed to," said Indians closer Joe Borowski. "That also throws it out of whack. It's hard to say, 'We're going to have a great bullpen.' You just can't tell."
A team-by-team look at the playoff bullpens:
Boston Red Sox: This is a deep unit, though the uber-bullpen that the Sox thought they'd assembled hasn't quite worked out. That's because Eric Gagne has been a disappointment since his trade from Texas. Even with Gagne not right, there's a great deal to like. Jonathan Papelbon is overwhelming. Hideki Okajima and Mike Timlin are dependable, youngster Manny Delcarmen has the faithful buzzing and Javier Lopez makes a fine second lefty.Cleveland Indians: If a bullpen is only as good as its closer -- hint, it's not -- then the Indians have some worries. Joe Borowski's save total masks what wasn't a very good season; note the nine homers allowed. The two guys setting him up, though, are dynamite -- righty Rafael Betancourt and lefty Rafael Perez have just been nasty. This group, with talented but unknown youngsters like Perez and Jensen Lewis, bears some resemblance to the '06 world champion Cardinals. Los Angeles Angels: As always, the Angels have a fine 'pen, but this year's group is not quite as intimidating as some of recent vintage. Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields have been a little more mortal this season, though veteran additions Darren Oliver and Justin Speier have helped. Depth is still an asset here, but it's not quite like earlier years this decade, when an Angels lead in the sixth meant the game was over. New York Yankees: It's feast or famine, definitely a different look from the days when Joe Torre had four-headed monsters of death in the late innings. This time, it's Mariano Rivera in the ninth, Joba Chamberlain setting up and a lot of question marks. Torre won't hesitate to make sure Rivera and Chamberlain get in games, though, and that's a plus. The starters need to pitch deep, or the sixth and seventh innings could be problematic.
Arizona Diamondbacks: This is the best bullpen you haven't heard anything about. Jose Valverde and Juan Cruz are big-time power guys, both averaging well over 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Brandon Lyon and Tony Pena throw strikes and get outs. There's no lefty-killing lefty, but that never stopped the Angels in recent years, and besides, Valverde and Lyon can get left-handed hitters out.Chicago Cubs: The reputation of the bullpen as the Cubs' weak link is a bit overstated, but this team has had some scary moments. Ryan Dempster has only blown three saves, though, and the right-handed setup relief has been outstanding. Carlos Marmol and Bobby Howry make an excellent late-inning tandem. Scott Eyre is having a decent year but is miscast if he's used as a specialist, but Will Ohman gets lefties out. Oh, and you think Wrigley will go nuts if Kerry Wood gets the call for some big outs in October? Colorado Rockies: Manny Corpas supplanted Brian Fuentes as the guy in the ninth, and it's worked out very well. Corpas has been more reliable in finishing games, and Fuentes has been dominant in the second half -- especially against left-handers. Jorge Julio is a big name but remains somewhat flammable, but Jeremy Affeldt, LaTroy Hawkins and Matt Herges have done solid work. This group is good enough not to hurt the Rockies, but not good enough to change the dynamic of a series. Philadelphia Phillies: The Phils have the fourth-worst bullpen ERA in the National League -- by far the worst of any NL playoff team. It's not just their ballpark that's to blame, either. Brett Myers settled in nicely in the ninth, but beyond that, it was a season-long search for the right guys in the right spots. Some intriguing pieces are here, but Charlie Manuel is going to need to trust the kids rather than going to old hands like Jose Mesa, Antonio Alfonseca and even Tom Gordon.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.