It is September, and the reinforcements are here for the tired. The rookies are here to shake off their nerves and show they belong. For some teams, vacations are planned, tee times scheduled, and offseason training programs created. For others, it is crunch time. Every game, every out, and every pitch matters. During this heightened sense of urgency, pitchers are thrust into the spotlight even more. Here are the bullpens that have been the best this year.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay bullpen is what the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen strives to be. Not only do they have an insane amount of depth with their relievers (so much depth that they had to trade Adam Kolarek and Casey Sadlerr to L.A.) but they can also pitch in any inning of any game. The Rays’ relievers will not blow you away with any big names or contracts. But, the analytical tactics continue to get the job done. The most money the Rays are spending on a reliever this year is $1.275 million for Chaz Roe. The Rays’ bullpen ranks third in WAR with 5.2. They lead all bullpens in innings pitched (640.1) and strikeouts (665). They rank second in holds (92), fifth in saves (38), and fourth in ERA (3.88).
With all their options, it was difficult to narrow down who plays the most important role for the Rays’ bullpen. The Rays have only two relievers that are worth more than one WAR: their newly-named closer Emilio Pagan (1.2) and the just-acquired Nick Anderson (1.8), who made his MLB debut this year with the Marlins and in his first season is posting video game like numbers. Middle-reliever Diego Castillo is also lights out with 62 strikeouts and 22 walks in 54 innings pitched. Castillo is prone to making batters look silly. For reference, just ask Bryce Harper. Jose Alvarado is also known for his physic-defying fastball and knee buckling slider, but has only pitched in 30 innings this season due to injury.
With so much success coming by capitalizing on cheap depth, it will only be a matter of time before the league starts to take notice and adopt the strategy.
San Diego Padres
The San Diego Padres are one of the teams that have caught on to the young and cheap strategy developed by the Rays. They have four relief pitchers on the active roster that are 24 years of age, or younger. Five relief pitchers make less than a million dollars. The only three relief pitchers that make more are Kirby Yates ($3 million), veteran Craig Stammen ($2.250 million), and Robbie Erlin ($1.450 million). During the first half of the season, the Padres had the fifth best bullpen in the National League, in terms of WAR (3.2). Since the deadline, the Friars have the best bullpen WAR in the NL (4.8). They rank second in saves (45), fifth in K/9 (9.86), and third in BB/9 (3.00).
After the Padres traded Brad Hand to the Indians last year, many questioned if Kirby Yates would be able to handle the increased workload. This season, Yates has transformed himself to be the second-best reliever in the majors with a WAR of 3.0. Yates has a 1.29 ERA, 39 saves, 12 walks, and 92 strikeouts in 55.2 innings pitched. Yates pairs his fastball with a splitter, making it difficult for opposing hitters. In 400 pitches, his splitter has resulted in only 16 hits and 47 strikeouts.
In July, the Padres called up 20-year-old prospect Andres Munoz. In 19.1 innings pitched, the young fireballer has a 1.86 ERA with 24 strikeouts, six holds, and a save. With the youth of the team and a veteran presence, it will be interesting to see how the Padres challenge the Dodgers for the NL West title in the upcoming season.
New York Yankees
Who says money can’t buy you the best bullpen in the league? The front office has built this bullpen to face any given hitter at a moment’s notice. The New York Yankees have the best bullpen in the majors this season, with the unit totaling 7.0 WAR. The bullpen has a 4.03 ERA (ranks sixth) and 596 strikeouts (ranks fifth), pitching in 543 innings (ranks sixth). The Yankees also rank first in saves with 49 and holds with 95. Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, and Tommy Kahnle rank in the top 25 relievers in WAR. Chapman leads the team with a WAR of 2.1, sporting a 2.22 ERA, 79 strikeouts, and 36 saves in 52.2 innings. Zack Britton is dominating with a 2.15 ERA, 28 holds, and 45 strikeouts in 54.1 innings. Chapman, Ottavino, Britton, and Kahnle have pitched a combined 218.2 innings, which accounts for 40% of the Yankees’ relievers total innings pitched.
Throwing out the stats, any hitter should be afraid to face the heat of Aroldis Chapman, the spin ball of wizard Adam Ottavino, and the sinker of Zack Britton. Beyond this scary three-headed monster lies Dellin Betances, another fireballer who has yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees this season. When Betances returns, it will just give the Yankees another tool to their overstuffed shed. If Yankees starters struggle in playoff games, don’t be surprised to see manager Aaron Boone turn to his pen early. With the big names and numbers to back up performances, it easy to say the Yankees have the best bullpen in the majors.
American League relievers have stepped up their game in the second half of the season. The Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, and Oakland Athletics could have easily made this list. The Twins have received a lot of attention because of their power but their bullpen has been consistent. At the deadline, they added Sam Dyson and Sergio Romo who have been good additions for the team. The Athletics have had a steady core of relievers the last two years. But, Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino have struggled this season. The Red Sox are trying to figure out if they are still in contention. Their relievers have moved from the 10th most productive in terms of WAR, pre-deadline, into the fifth spot, post-deadline.