By John Perrotto
Teams that stockpile hard-throwing, one-inning specialists are tougher than ever to beat.
The Boston Red Sox used a specific offensive philosophy in 2004 to win their first World Series since 1918 and end the "Curse of the Bambino." The goal, you see, was to run up the opposing starter's pitch count as quickly as possible. In turn, the team would be forced to go to the bullpen early and bring in a pitcher of "lesser" quality. The plan worked so well that it helped the franchise win a second World Series in 2007.
Ten years later, the 2014 Kansas City Royals used a contrary philosophy, emphasizing relief pitching to reach the postseason for the first time since 1985. The Royals wanted their starting pitcher to work just six innings, then turn the game over to their dominant relief pitchers. The tactic worked, helping the team make it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series before it lost by one run to the San Francisco Giants.
"It's a whole different game than it was 10 years ago in terms of bullpens and how they've changed the offensive philosophy," says Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who managed those Red Sox teams and is now a division rival of the Royals in the American League Central. "We used to tell our hitters to make the starter work, and then we'd take advantage of the bullpen. You can't do that anymore.
"When you get to the bullpen now, you have a whole bunch of really good pitchers lined up to face you, one after another. All of them throw what seems like 95 mph. We tell our guys now that if they see a good pitch to hit early in the count or early in the game, go ahead and attack it. Try to build a lead on the starter before the bullpen becomes a factor."
Although the trend has been heading toward building lockdown bullpens in recent years, the Royals took it to another level last October when setup men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera combined with closer Greg Holland to dominate opposing hitters on baseball's grandest stage.
Holland allowed only one run in 11 innings as the Royals beat the Oakland Athletics in the AL Wild Card Game, completed a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels in the Division Series, and took four straight against the Baltimore Orioles to win the League Championship Series before falling one run short to the Giants in the seven-game World Series. Meanwhile, Davis surrendered just two runs in 14 1/3 innings and Herrera gave up just three in 15.
"It was tough being on the other end of it, but it was amazing to watch those guys," Orioles closer Zach Britton admits. "They were facing some of the best lineups in all of baseball and were just mowing them down. The Royals had a good team, but those guys really made the big difference. Once they turned the lead over to the bullpen, the game was over. It really became a six-inning game."
The rest of baseball has taken note. Seemingly, more clubs than ever before spent this past offseason stocking up on quality relief pitchers, and the same held true in the days leading up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. In late July, the Cardinals owned baseball's top bullpen ERA to go along with the best record in the Major Leagues, yet they traded for two pitchers with closing experience: the Marlins' Steve Cishek and the Brewers' Jonathan Broxton. The pair bolstered a stable of relievers that already included All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal, left-handed setup man Kevin Siegrist and right-handed setup man Seth Maness.
As Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak explains, "The teams with the best bullpens usually win in October."
Across the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates followed the same approach, acquiring Joakim Soria from the Detroit Tigers in their bid for a third straight postseason berth. Soria assumed the role of right-handed setup man, joining left-handed counterpart Tony Watson and closer Mark Melancon to create a formidable trio.
"I know my IQ in the eyes of the fans seems to go up and down in direct proportion to how well our bullpen is performing," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says with a hearty laugh. "A good bullpen can make a manager look good."
His delivery may have been light-hearted, but the sentiment is serious.
"You need to have a good bullpen in today's game if you want to win and get to the postseason," Hurdle continues. "It's a must. One of the biggest reasons why we've been able to turn things [around] here has been because of how well our bullpen has performed."
Nobody knows that better than Kansas City skipper Ned Yost, whose 'pen has helped fuel a renaissance for a franchise that until last year had not been to the postseason in nearly three decades. Thus, he's not the least bit surprised other teams are emulating the Royals' bullpen blueprint.
"Teams often copy what has been successful for other teams; that's only natural," Yost says. "Like they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
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Never before have relief pitchers produced such jaw-dropping numbers as they have this decade.
Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman recorded one of the greatest seasons of any reliever in history last year, and that assessment goes far beyond his 36 saves. He struck out 106 batters and allowed just 21 hits over 54 innings, the equivalent of 17.7 strikeouts and 3.5 hits per nine innings. Both figures were the best ever for a reliever with at least 50 innings pitched in a season.
Additionally, the six highest K/9 marks coming into this season had been recorded since 2010: 16.66 by Craig Kimbrel for the Braves in 2012, 16.10 by Kenley Jansen for the Dodgers in 2011, 15.99 by Carlos Marmol for the Cubs in 2010 and two others by Chapman - 15.83 in 2013 and 15.32 in 2012.
Meanwhile, the lowest marks in hits per nine innings among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched have occurred during the previous three seasons, coinciding with the high-K climate. Besides Chapman's record, Kimbrel gave up a mere 3.88 hits per nine in 2012, and the Red Sox's Koji Uehara yielded just 4.00 in 2013.
Yankees catcher Brian McCann has experienced the trend from an up-close perspective. The 11-year veteran has faced many of the top relievers of the past decade and now handles a Yankees bullpen that includes the imposing Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, along with hard-throwing southpaw Justin Wilson and others.
"It's so different than when I came up in 2005," McCann says. "Every team had at least a couple of good relievers, but now it seems like every team has guys from the fifth or sixth inning on who can just blow you away.
"As a catcher, it's fun to have those guys on your side. As a hitter, though, it's awfully tough to have to face them."
McCann chuckled as he recounted one early season game in particular.
"We were playing against a team that had just called up a relief pitcher from Triple-A, and none of us had ever faced him," McCann recalls. "Then someone says, 'According to the scouting report he doesn't throw hard; his fastball tops out at only 94 miles per hour.'
"I had to stop for a minute and shake my head. Only 94 miles per hour."
Rarely does a day go by during the course of a season when Cubs skipper Joe Maddon doesn't ponder the evolution of relief pitchers. It confounds him, too.
"You wonder where they all come from," Maddon says. "Is it a workout regimen that allows pitchers to have stronger arms? Is it better nutrition that makes them bigger and stronger? Is it just a general evolution of the position? It's just really remarkable to watch."
It's all of the above, according to Nationals reliever Drew Storen, who's been pitching out of the Washington 'pen since 2010. But he believes the biggest change centers on the preparation, as pitchers are now being groomed for the bullpen at an early age; Storen himself served as the closer at Stanford. Converting struggling starters into relievers is no longer the only means to stock a bullpen.
"Bullpens have become such an important part of the game that teams understand the value of developing relief pitchers," Storen says. "You see more and more young guys who already have that mindset of what it takes to be successful working out of the bullpen."
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This new mindset is changing the game and was evident again at this year's All-Star Game. In the past, it was nearly impossible for a reliever to garner a nod unless he was a closer. But in the last six years, 17 relievers have been chosen as All-Stars despite having fewer than five saves at the unofficial halfway point. By comparison, there were just 10 such pitchers chosen from 2001-09, and six from 1971-2000.
"You need to have those guys setting up and pitching in the middle [of a game]," Rosenthal says. "They're invaluable. The deeper your bullpen, the better chance you have to be a winning team."
Perhaps nobody understands bullpen value better than Giants manager Bruce Bochy. While San Francisco's starting pitchers -- notably Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum -- have drawn most of the acclaim during their three recent title runs, four relievers were also constants when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, '12 and '14: Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo.
"The experience and calmness those four guys bring to the bullpen has been very valuable," Bochy says. "They've pitched in a lot of big games, got out of some tough spots, thrived in those situations. The entire team's confidence grows when you can reach down into your bullpen and know you can count on the guys you bring in to get big outs. It makes a difference."
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John Perrotto is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh and has been covering Major League Baseball for a variety of outlets since 1988. This article appears in the 2015 Official MLB League Championship Series Program.