If the season comes down to how well your bullpen performs, there are teams that can feel good and others that are in big trouble.
We’ve learned from the successes of the Royals in 2015 and the Cubs and Indians last season that dominant bullpens win pennants. That’s because it’s become harder for starting pitchers to go deep into games in the postseason. It’s just the way it is.
“It’s 100 percent the most important aspect of the game. How the bullpen is managed is extremely important,” said J.P. Ricciardi, a special assistant to Mets general manager Sandy Alderson.
The Nationals seem to be an outlier. They are pretty much entrenched atop the National League East, but their bullpen had an NL-worst 5.40 ERA entering Friday. Matt Albers (0.69 ERA), the 34-year-old former Red Sox, has served as closer recently, and Jacob Turner, a failed prospect on his fifth organization, has been one of Washington’s top relievers with a 3.07 ERA.
The Nats are successful because their starting pitchers work deep and their offense is nails, but if their bullpen continues to struggle we fully expect president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo to spring into action and bring in an experienced closer.
You can’t blame Rizzo for trying homegrown closers first. Blake Treinen (8.10 ERA, 10 walks in 16⅔ innings) was removed after four save chances. Shawn Kelley, Enny Romero, and Koda Glover all have blown a save opportunity. Rizzo wouldn’t trade prospects for White Sox closer David Robertson in the offseason, but there may come a time when he’ll have to rethink that.
We saw how important the bullpen was to the Indians’ success last season. And nothing’s changed for Cleveland. Indians relievers have a 1.92 ERA, best in the majors.
Andrew Miller has yet to give up a run this year and has a scoreless streak of 29 regular-season innings dating to Sept. 7. Cody Allen recently went 10 straight appearances without giving up a run, has a 1.32 ERA, and is 9 for 9 in save chances. Nick Goody is unscored upon in nine appearances, four of which lasted more than one inning.
There are other troubling bullpen trends around the league. Francisco Rodriguez blew four of his 11 save chances, his ERA ballooning to 8.49, before he was replaced as Tigers closer by lefty Justin Wilson.
“The bullpen is not only one of the most important aspects of managing, but it’s also the topic you hear most about from the media and the fans,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. “I think since we put Wilson in there we’ve stabilized things, so we’ll keep going with it.”
The Yankees’ bullpen has a 2.49 ERA (third best in the majors), while setup man Dellin Betances has thrown 10⅓ consecutive scoreless innings. The Yankees have had an unexpected strong start fueled by rookie sensation Aaron Judge, but the key to sustaining that success is keeping their bullpen healthy and intact.
The Astros (2.93 bullpen ERA, seventh in MLB) have ridden the coattails of Chris Devenski, who has 42 strikeouts in 23 innings, or 16.4 per nine innings.
The Red Sox have the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball (2.51). Doesn’t feel that way, does it? The major reason is the incredible start of Craig Kimbrel, who has been used to stop major threats in the eighth inning recently. Obviously the Red Sox can’t keep calling on him to do that, but for now Kimbrel is automatic.
The Red Sox are relying on hard throwers Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, and lefties Robbie Ross Jr., Fernando Abad, and Robby Scott to fill in the rest. At some point they’d love to see Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg have significant roles, but that seems in the distance. The Red Sox would likely move Abad if they could get something decent in return.
The Red Sox have also managed their bullpen workload very well — 104 innings, seventh fewest in baseball — and that’s with losing two innings-eaters in the starting rotation in David Price and Steven Wright. Conversely, the Cubs have logged the second-most bullpen innings, 132⅓ , behind the Reds (135⅔ ).
The Orioles’ bullpen has held up without Zach Britton, who has been injured most of the season. Buck Showalter is considered a master at using his bullpen, and he’ll be tested until Britton returns in 1-2 months.
To ex-teammate, lefty is an easy sell
There’s a great chance White Sox lefthander Jose Quintana will become the No. 1 target of teams seeking front-end starting pitching before the trading deadline.
Former teammate Chris Sale thinks Quintana can handle any situation in any city.
“He’s not a guy who lets outside factors bother him,” said the Red Sox ace. “I keep saying it, but it’s that consistency where the time, the effort, the work ethic, everything that goes into his process to pitch makes him not worry about that stuff and he has the confidence to do what he needs to do.
“I think he’ll be comfortable everywhere he goes because people are going to love him. You just cannot not like the guy.”
What makes Quintana so good?
“When you look at his body of work, you can count on him a pretty good chunk of the game being pretty darn good,” Sale said. “Beyond that work ethic, it’s his dedication to his craft. If you ask anyone who plays with him, he prepares as well and as diligent as anybody you’ve ever seen. Four of five days between his starts he just puts in a lot of work. On top of that, he’s just a good guy.”
Sale said he and Quintana were always discussing ideas about pitching while together in Chicago.
“We had pretty different pitching styles,” Sale said. “I think like with any teammate who’s that good, we just kind of fed off each other. He went through some pretty adverse situations.
“I think his middle name was ‘No-Decision,’ and how he handled himself through those times where he went out there seven innings, gave up two runs, and had nothing to show for it, never altered his attitude or his work ethic. And seeing that was impressive. That can be tough on you at times and he never let it get to him and he never showed it.”
Unlike Sale, Quintana, who has 59 no-decisions among 159 career starts, “doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve quite as much, but he’s competitive,” Sale said. “I don’t think he would be as good as he is if he wasn’t. I think he’s got a couple of techniques to keep things under wrap. That’s part of what makes him good. That ability where you can go to one of his starts and erase the scoreboard because he’s the same no matter what the score.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Mookie Betts, who is an excellent 10-pin bowler, said he tried candlepin bowling only once. “It was hard,” Betts said. “Got 60 or 70, pretty bad. A lot different.”
2. Travis Shaw raves about Miller Park in Milwaukee as a place to hit. “Incredible place for a lefthanded hitter,” said the Brewers third baseman. “The ball really carries, especially when the roof is closed.” The Brewers entered Friday with 55 homers, tied with Washington for the major league lead.
3. I enjoy seeing exit velocity and pitch speed numbers, but in terms of their significance, I see none. The harder a pitcher throws, the harder the ball is hit.
4. Folks in the Phillies organization rave about the trades Ruben Amaro Jr. made before he was unceremoniously bounced and became Boston’s first base coach last season. Amaro’s young pickups are starting to blossom in Philadelphia. The humble Stanford grad has said very little about his success in Philly and the great recommendations made by his scouting staff.
5. There were a few complaints about the lighting at Miller Park during the Red Sox-Brewers series, but it’s almost become an advantage for the home team.
6. The 10-day disabled list has allowed teams to manipulate their rosters and recall fresh players from the minors. But roster changes need to be made. I still promote deactivating the four starting pitchers who won’t pitch that game and using those 25-man roster spots on relievers or positional players.
7. I never understood the hoopla surrounding the Mike Aviles incident in spring training in 2012. If you were there, you saw Bobby Valentine telling the team on the popup drill that the guy coming in makes the call and the guy going out keeps his mouth shut. Seems clear and simple, right? Aviles kept going out and making the call. After three times, Valentine threw out a few profanities and admonished Aviles. Sox veterans were put out by it and asked Valentine to apologize to Aviles. A manager can’t get mad when a player screws up? Football coaches dress down players in every practice. David Ortiz details the incident in his new book, and as Valentine appropriately said on CBS Radio, when did Ortiz become an expert on defense? You could blame Valentine for a lot of things, but that wasn’t one of them.
8. Dana LeVangie is one of the more underrated Red Sox coaches. Look at the job he’s done with the catchers and look at the job he does with the bullpen. He also did a good job as Torey Lovullo’s bench coach during John Farrell’s absence two years ago.
9. Overheard, David Price to Kyle Kendrick: “Hey, do you ever face Kyle Hendricks? Kyle Kendrick vs. Kyle Hendricks.”
Updates on nine
1. Khris Davis, LF, Atheltics — Davis had struck out in 21 straight games heading into the weekend, a franchise record for a position player. Davis was batting .164 (12 of 73) with 33 strikeouts in that span.
2. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays — Bautista’s approach and setup have been very good, but his rhythm remains off. One scout won’t buy into the belief that Bautista’s bat has slowed. “Not from what I saw,” said the scout. “His swing is so tied into his timing mechanism and I think that’s what’s off.” Bautista leads the majors in pitches per at-bat (4.58).
3. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Phillies — Phillies personnel have made it known they’ll listen on Hellickson in trade talks. Philadelphia re-signed Hellickson (4-1, 3.49 ERA) with the idea of using him to acquire more prospects before the trading deadline.
4. Nick Francona, former Dodgers executive — This was one of the more shocking stories of the week. Terry Francona’s son worked in baseball operations for the Dodgers, was fired, and is now suing the team for discrimination on the grounds that the Dodgers dismissed him based on Francona seeking help as a result of his war duty in Afghanistan, where the former Marine sniper served. Nick has turned down two settlement offers. It’s reported that Nick had a falling out with Dodgers farm director Gabe Kapler, who played under Terry Francona in Boston. The Dodgers deny the claim.
5. Sam Travis, 1B, Red Sox — We’re wondering whether we’ll see Travis soon if Hanley Ramirez’s shoulder issues persist. If Ramirez can’t play first base, then Mitch Moreland has to play there every game, and that’s not what John Farrell intended. Travis has come on after a slow start at Triple A Pawtucket, and his righthanded bat could be needed soon in Boston.
6. Jharel Cotton, RHP, Athletics — He was sent back to Triple A Nashville for more seasoning, but the A’s really believe they have a future front-line starter after acquiring Cotton from the Dodgers last season in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick deal. In five starts last season he had a 2.15 ERA. Cotton allowed five homers in his last two starts before he was demoted last week. With Sean Manaea (shoulder) coming off the DL soon, Cotton was the obvious roster move.
7. Jordan Humphreys, RHP, Mets — Don’t look now, but the Mets have another pitching prospect wowing everyone. Humphreys, an 18th-round pick by New York in 2015, was 6-0 in his first six starts this year for Single A Columbia (S.C.), with 49 strikeouts in 38⅔ innings to lead the South Atlantic League. He really knows how to pitch and has refined his curveball.
8. Ron Gardenhire, bench coach, Diamondbacks — It’ll be a big day Sunday when Gardenhire returns to the team after undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Manager Torey Lovullo said the team will work out a transitional plan for Gardenhire, who had been replaced by Jerry Narron.
9. Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Rangers — Middlebrooks remains in a holding pattern after breaking his left hand April 17 when he was hit by a pitch. He was looking like the player he was in his first year with the Red Sox, hitting .313 with four homers and 14 RBIs in 48 at-bats with Triple A Round Rock. Middlebrooks, 28, hopes to return by mid- to late June.
From the Bill Chuck files — “White Sox pitchers have held the opposition to a .095 average (2 of 21) with the bases loaded.” . . . Also, “From 2013-17, there have been 213 batters who have had a minimum 750 plate appearances while playing away from home. Danny Espinosa, hitting .198, has the lowest road batting average, followed by Jackie Bradley Jr. at .208.” . . . Happy birthday, Tony Perez (75).
Sticking it to ’em
The Nationals have opened a big lead in the NL East behind an explosive offense led by its dynamic duo of Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper. Where the Nationals and their two big bats rank in the majors entering play Friday, including the margin over the team that’s second in the category.