Which American League Playoff Contenders Have the Best Bullpens?
While a strong starting rotation and a consistent lineup are vital components to any Major League team's successful championship run, a hot bullpen can cover up a lot of sins. At the same time, a bullpen that is struggling as the playoffs hit could find themselves watching the World Series from their living rooms.
Which is why now is the time to take a look at the state of each potential playoff team's bullpen.
Previously, we examined how the National League bullpens stack up. Now, we'll look at the American League, using numbers from the last 30 days. All figures come from of the start of play on September 22.
Last season, the Cleveland Indians essentially rode Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to Game 7 of the World Series. This year, there is a bit more uncertainty that a similar plan will work, thanks mainly to Miller's health -- however, the multi-inning relief whiz is back after missing time with a right knee issue, so crisis (potentially) averted.
Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero and Tyler Olson helped hold down the fort in Miller's absence, giving Cleveland a deeper bullpen that last season, which they may need. When you combine those assets with the Tribe's outstanding starting rotation and red-hot offense, it's easy to see why they've won 27 out of their last 28 games heading into Friday's action, and why they'll be perhaps the toughest out in the American League this fall.
Los Angeles Angels
The Los Angeles Angels are hanging on in the AL wild card race, 2.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins for that final playoff spot. And while they have the fourth-worst ERA among starting staffs over the last month (5.18), the bullpen is doing all it can to keep their heads above water.
They have the third-best fWAR among relievers over the last 30 days (1.6), with a 4.06 ERA that ranks sixth-best during that stretch. Blake Parker has been one of the team's top relief arms this season, and could be the closer if they're still playing in October. Cam Bedrosian, the team's closer coming into the season, has a 4.50 ERA in his last 10 innings, and Keynan Middleton has struggled a bit. Still, a team-wide 25.7% strikeout-rate is fourth-best in the AL over the last month.
Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox relievers have struck out 30.9% of all batters faced over the last 30 days, second-best in the AL, and their 3.13 ERA ranks third. Craig Kimbrel continues to dominate in the closer's role, ably aided by Addison Reed, Joe Kelly, Fernando Abad, and Austin Maddox. All of those arms have ERAs under 4.00 over the last month, and now they've converted starter David Price to be a left-handed reliever out of the 'pen, giving them yet another quality pitcher to throw at teams in the later innings.
New York Yankees
They may not have the highest fWAR of any AL bullpen over the last 30 days (fifth, at 1.4), but on paper, New York's bullpen is still the best. They can line up Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle, and David Robertson for the final four-plus innings of any playoff game, which essentially requires them to get about four-plus innings per night from their starting pitcher.
Their 32.6% strikeout rate over the last month of the season is tops in the American League, and their 3.67 ERA is fourth-best -- although it's been a struggle for Betances at times. He has a 7.45 ERA in his last 12 outings, and has walked a staggeringly high 17.3% of batters faced this season.
Quick, without looking it up, who's the Twins' closer? If you knew it was Matt Belisle, you get a lollipop. Much to the surprise of, well, everybody, the Minnesota Twins entered Friday with a 2.5 game lead for the final spot in the wild card and appear headed for a spot in the October tournament. Their 4.43 bullpen ERA over the last month is ninth-best and their 20.6% strikeout rate is only tenth.
Belisle has just three saves of the last 30 days, but they've gotten excellent work from three anonymous names, Alan Busenitz, Trevor Hildenberger, and Taylor Rogers. And remember, this was a team that was a seller at the trade deadline, dealing Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals.
To but it bluntly, the Houston Astros bullpen has been pretty bad over the last month. Their 6.02 ERA is worst among all AL clubs during that stretch, and they lead the league with 6 blown saves in the last 30 days. They have moved Francisco Liriano to the 'pen to be their top left-hander, and Ken Giles and Joe Musgrove have been solid all season, so they have that going for them.
Houston also has the not-so-secret weapon of Chris Devenski, their own Andrew Miller-like, multi-inning weapon, who will certainly be unleashed on the rest of the AL playoff field next month. So the talent is there, but they've gone cold at precisely the wrong time.
Like the Angels, the Texas Rangers are 2.5 games out of the second wild card spot, but they're not going to be helped by their 'pen, which has posted a 6.00 ERA over the last month. Their relievers have walked a league-low 14.4% of hitters over that stretch and a league-high 12.4%, a combination that runs counter to, you know, winning baseball games.
Opponents are hitting .273 against them, and only the Tigers (.321) have a higher opponents' batting average against. If the Rangers do somehow sneak in -- and do somehow manage to win the wild card game -- the odds of their relieving corps carrying through October are slim to none.