It's been a very tough week for baseball and for all of us trying to understand the forces that control not just the sport, but all of us. Let's try to keep moving forward.
The success of a starting rotation is directly linked to its bullpen. If a bullpen can't hold a lead, the starters can't get a win. If opposing players know a team has no good relievers, they may take more pitches to facilitate the earlier exit of the starter. And conversely, starters may be asked to stay in games longer for fear the relief staff will quickly give up the lead.
After a week there is only limited data, but perhaps we can see some trends. Let's look for warning signs of bad bullpens which could mean trouble for their starting rotations.
STL: In 2008, the Cardinals were tied for first in blown saves with 31. To address the issue, Tony La Russa handed the reins over to Jason Motte, who has become this year's poster boy for Spring Sensation/Summer Flop. Since Motte spit the bit, La Russa has gotten three saves from three relievers: Dennys Reyes, Kyle McClellan and Ryan Franklin. The latter two are more likely in line for saves with Chris Perez in AAA waiting for a callup. Plus, after '08, La Russa will have a short leash on the bullpen until someone shows they can close. The downside is the starters may be asked to stay in longer than they should, which could lead to tired arms and a second-half slide.
SEA: The Mariners were the other team with 31 blown saves last year, and they thought they had it figured out with Brandon Morrow. To be fair, with time off for forearm problems in March, this is essentially the latter part of his spring training. But Morrow's highest value to the team is as a starter, and with the emergence of David Aardsma (a good closer at LSU), hopefully the Mariners will realize this. They've come roaring out of the gate, and if Aardsma can get the job done, all the Mariners SP -- especially Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn -- take a bump up in value.
ATL: The Braves' bullpen pitches the ball to batters much the same way I would throw one to a collie -- slow and underhanded. Mike Gonzalez has not been a sure thing in the ninth, and the simple and complicated answer to this problem is Rafael Soriano. Simple because he has looked sharp; complicated because he's a DL stint waiting to happen. Expect the closer situation to improve, but the bullpen needs wholesale changes, which could include coveted stud pitcher Tommy Hanson. He likely comes in as a starter, but one can dream, right?
LAA: Despite what others tell you, sometimes you really should pay for saves. The Angels had the best closer in baseball and decided to Moneyball it with Brian Fuentes. Look, I've been Fuentes' champion for years, but so far this isn't working out. He looked awful in spring training and mediocre this month. Perhaps Jose Arredondo is the answer -- I still maintain Scot Shields is headed to the DL sometime this year -- but regardless, the AL West is much improved and this team could slip to third dealing with SP injuries and bullpen woes. Having said that, if Ervin Santana and/or Kelvim Escobar are available in your league, pick them up as they'll be coming back sooner rather than later.
CHC:Kevin Gregg has been an up-and-down pitcher this year, and with the expectations for the team obscenely high, expect Lou Piniella to keep Gregg on a short leash. If he doesn't do the job, there's always Carlos Marmol, but keep an eye out for dark horse candidate Aaron Heilman, who would allow Piniella to keep Marmol a setup man, something Lou likes. Of course, Gregg blew Rich "Hard Luck" Harden's masterpiece against the Brewers last week. Harden should win more games after the closer situation is solved.
COL:Huston Street has been as bad as we thought he'd be (note to GM's: don't get your closer from Oakland as they use them up and toss them away empty), and that homer he gave up to Matt Stairs hasn't landed yet. Manny Corpas is hot on his heels, with an ERA and WHIP that are almost half of Street's. Once the reigns are handed over to Corpas, expect better results.
Another problem is bullpen overuse -- generally defined as pitching an appreciably higher amount of innings than the league average -- that's likely a symptom that starters aren't getting the job done. However, if overuse continues, the bullpen can tire as the year goes on and deteriorate, making it harder for the starters to win games.
Currently, the average bullpen stint per game is about 3.2 innings (that's two-tenths of an inning, not two outs), or an average of 3.01 in the AL and 3.34 in the NL. In '08, the MLB average was about 3.2 innings, so we're right on track this year. However, a few teams have already shown signs of overuse.
CLE (4.11 Bullpen IP/G): The Indians cold start has been well-documented, but part of it has been the starters' inability to go deep into games and having to rely on a bullpen that is currently sporting an ERA of 5.84. The Indians' bullpen won't get better unless it gets some rest. While we thought Cliff Lee would be hittable, we didn't think he'd be this hittable. Stay away from this team until the starters can get past the fifth inning and the bullpen comes back down toward 3.3 innings per game.
PHI (4.00 IP/G): The Phillies' bullpen is doing a good job with a 3.14 K/BB ratio and a 2.63 ERA. However, it's averaging four innings a game, which is going to lead to burnout. Yes, Brad Lidge is an elite closer, but remember what I said last year: Not once did he enter in a save situation with a man on base. Charlie Manuel may not have the luxury of babying Lidge like that this year, and it remains to be seen if he can handle the pressure. Perhaps after Cole Hamels' velocity rises the bullpen will get some rest. But if it doesn't, get ready for a mid-season meltdown.
WAS (3.88 IP/G): Is there anything positive to say about this team? The starters aren't pitching well and the bullpen is even worse. Stay away from this situation which could get worse before it gets better.
BAL (3.77 IP/G): Wasn't the bullpen supposed to be the Orioles' strength? With an ERA over 8.00, the Orioles starters are handing the ball over to pitchers who give up copious amounts of runs. Expect the SP to be asked to go longer into games resulting in rises in their ERA's as well, which will be even worse as they play more division games against four very tough teams.
Bad Bullpen Pitching
Lastly, sometimes bullpens are just plain bad. Here are three that I haven't mentioned yet, but have been other-worldly run machines so far.
TEX (9.19 ERA): Luckily the bullpen is well below the league average in innings pitched (only 2.61), but when it has taken the mound it's been bad. Taking into consideration that the Rangers' closer, Frank Francisco, has pitched fairly well, you can see a team asking its starters to pitch eight innings, which in that summer heat will make the second half of the year an uphill struggle. If you have Kevin Millwood right now, think seriously about selling high.
CIN (7.36 ERA): The Cincinnati rotation is shaping up to be one of the stronger ones in the NL, but if the team can't depend on the bullpen, they will be overused and used up. The benefit to you is that Homer Bailey may start sooner rather than later, so scoop him up for a team that can score runs and when they get to the ninth, close the deal.
During the baseball season we get so caught up in pitching wins and losses, we tend to forget what those terms really mean. While the deaths of Mark Fidrych and Harry Kalas were sad, the death of Nick Adenhart at the hands of a drunk driver was a particularly devastating loss. I remember pointing out to my son in a spring training game in '08 how Adenhart -- pitching only five feet away from us -- was playing well while still seeming to have fun. He didn't meet his potential in the majors in '08, but was poised to do so in '09.
Every week I comment about pitching and have watched players succeed and fail, but I'm humble enough to understand that I can't totally fathom the commitment and sacrifice it takes to get to the pinnacle of any professional sport. To be so close to enjoying the fruits of that labor and have it taken away by someone not even worthy of a driver's license creates equal parts anger and sadness in me that cannot be reconciled. It will be with a heavy heart that I watch the '09 season as the words of A.E. Housman echo in my head:
Now you will not swell the routOf lads that wore their honours out,Runners whom renown outranAnd the name died before the man.