Untouchable: The Best Bullpens of 2007 (So Far)

I personally believe that one can never underestimate the power and the value of a strong bullpen.

While you often hear the saying "starting pitching always wins," the importance of an effective bullpen is something that cannot be taken for granted.  Over the history of baseball, the amount of complete games thrown by starting pitchers has decreased by the decade; making a team's bullpen just that more important.  

To many teams contending for a playoff spot, the ability to win close games can often mean the difference between reaching and not reaching the postseason.

With all of this said let's take a look at some of baseball's best bullpens of the 2007 season thus far. The following teams are ranked in descending order of the highest WXRL mark accumulated this season:

Note:  Data Updated Through May 7th, 2007

1.  San Diego Padres, 4.664 WXRL

Last season the Padres bullpen was third best in the major leagues going by WXRL and it looks likes we're going to see more of the same this season.  The surprise in the bullpen thus far into the year has to be the emergence of Heath Bell (20.2 IP, 23 K, 0.44 ERA) who's WXRL of 1.324 currently ranks eight best in the major leagues.  Scott Linebrink and Cla Meredith too have been effective placing 13th and 22nd among major league relievers in that catagory.  More interesting is Trevor Hoffman. The future Hall of Famer blew back to back saves on April 25th and 27th, the first time Hoffman blew back to back save opportunities since April of 1997, but on the season he's 9 for 11 in those opportunities.

2.  Los Angeles Dodgers, 3.846 WXRL

It was only natural to expect 37-year old Takashi Saito to regress after such an outstanding 2006 season, but so far into the year, Saito is showing no signs of slowing down.  Saito (15.0 IP, 17K, 1.80 ERA) is currently a perfect 9 for 9 in save opportunities, his WXRL of 1.540 ranking third best in the major leagues.  Jonathan Broxton, who could probably close for just about any team including these Dodgers, is also off to a strong start (16.2 IP, 16K, 1.08 ERA), his WXRL of 0.847 ranking 25th best in baseball.  In a possible "feel good story" of 2007, Chin-hui Tsao, who has missed significant time over the last three seasons with numerous injuries, is off to a hot start, while southpaw Joe Beimel has been tough against left-handed hitters.

3.  Milwaukee Brewers, 3.528 WXRL

Credit the strong Brewer bullpen as the reason as to why the club has three more actual wins than Pythagorean wins.  The two stand outs in the Brewer pen are, without a doubt, Francisco Cordero and Derrick Turnbow who might be the nastiest setup/closer combo in the bigs.  Combined the two have been flawless (28.0 IP, 43K, 0.96 ERA) with Cordero placing 2nd in the majors in WXRL (1.551) and Turnbow placing 10th (1.232).  The unsung hero in the Brewer pen has to be Carlos Villanueva, who has pitched 19.1 innings of baseball and has given up only 6 runs.  He too has been one of baseball's most effective relievers placing 14th in WXRL at 1.151.  My only concern with Milwaukee is the fact they only have one lefty in the bullpen.  Brian Shouse, who has held lefties to a .220 BAA over his career, is the only southpaw in the Brewer pen. Unless Jose Capellan makes a return back to the majors somewhere along the line, the Brewers may look elsewhere to acquire a second left-hander for the bullpen.

4.  Boston Red Sox, 3.409 WXRL

In what looked to be the teams Achilles Heel before the year began, the Boston bullpen has been one of the team's strong points.  The Jonathan Papelbon-to-Pen move is looking like a wise choice so far (12.1 IP, 16K, 1.46 ERA) as Papelbon currently sits sixth in the majors in WXRL at 1.404.  While Daisuke Matsuzaka was the most popular Japanese pitcher the Red Sox imported this offseason, southpaw Hideki Okajima, who was also acquired from Japan this winter, has excelled (16.0 IP, 19 K, 0.56 ERA) placing 16th in the majors in WXRL.  Other standouts include Brendan Donnelly and Joel Piñeiro, who have each been effective thus far into the season.

5.  Atlanta Braves, 2.764 WXRL

Well, that's better.  Last season the Atlanta bullpen placed 27th in the majors in WXRL at 1.243.  A long winter and a few acquisitions later, the Braves bullpen has opened the 2007 season very strong. Two of John Schuerholz' biggest acquisitions this winter, Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, have combined to pitch 28.2 innings striking out 23 hitters and yielding a 2.55 ERA.  Soriano and Gonzalez rank 4th and 47th in the majors in WXRL respectively.  Other notable arms in the Braves bullpen include Oscar Villarreal (20 K in 15.0 IP) and Peter Moylan (0.854 WXRL).

6.  Arizona Diamondbacks, 2.744 WXRL

The two players who lead the Diamondbacks in WXRL may surprise you:  Tony Peña and Brandon Lyon.  On the season the two have combined for a WXRL mark of 2.04 while pitching 33.1 innings, striking out 14 hitters and yielding a 1.63 ERA.  The very low strikeout rates causes me to believe such low ERA's from the two aren't sustainable, but they are getting the job done so far.  The best news for the D'Backs might be the return of an effective José Valverde.  Though he can get a bit control sloppy at times, Valverde is 12 for 14 in save opportunities thus far into the year.  

7.  Minnesota Twins, 2.667 WXRL

Strong bullpens have become a trademark of the Twins as they have placed second, sixth, fifth and sixth in team WXRL over the last four full seasons respectively.  It looks like we are going to see more of the same this season.  Off to a rather slow start WXRL-wise is closer Joe Nathan who currently ranks 32nd in the majors at 0.764.  On the flipside however is rookie Pat Neshek who is quietly having an awesome season (15.1 IP, 17K, 1.76 ERA), he ranks 9th in the majors in WXRL at 1.236.  Other notable standouts include starter/reliever Glen Perkins (2.70 ERA in 13.1 IP), Juan Rincon (15 K in 12.1 IP), and Matt Guerrier (2.60 ERA in 17.1 IP).

8.  St. Louis Cardinals, 2.617 WXRL

For a team having as rough of a year as the Cardinals, their bullpen has been one of the only bright spots.  Jason Isringhausen is quietly having a strong bounce-back season going 7 for his first 8 save opportunities and leading the team in WXRL at 0.896.  Also having a surprisingly solid season is the converted starting pitcher Ryan Franklin (14.0 IP, 10K, 1.29 ERA) who ranks 33rd in the league in WXRL at 0.762.  Other notables include Randy Flores (11.2 IP, 12 K, 2.31 ERA) and Tyler Johnson (0.79 ERA in 11.1 IP).

9.  Chicago White Sox, 2.302 WXRL

Before the season started, I was very excited about the ChiSox bullpen.  Kenny Williams went out of his way to acquire many young, promising, yet inexperienced arms hoping pitching coach Don Cooper could fix any potential kinks in their arms.  So far things have worked out just fine.  Closer Bobby Jenks (14.2 IP, 15 K, 3.68 ERA) has gone 9 for 10 in save opportunities this season, but there have been other notable arms that have pitched a bit more effectively out of the Chicago bullpen. Sinkerballer Mike MacDougal (11.2 IP, 12 K, 3.09 ERA) currently leads all White Sox relievers in WXRL at 1.049 followed by fireballing right-hander David Aardsma (17.2 IP, 25K, 1.53 ERA) who also has closer potential coming in with a mark of 0.795.  The White Sox have some pretty exciting young arms in their bullpen; as a fan it excites me.

10.  Cleveland Indians, 1.857 WXRL

For a team whose WXRL ranked 29th in the major leagues last season at -1.553, the Indians have been pretty darn solid in 2007.  Nobody has really stood out WXRL-wise (Rafael Betancourt leads Cleveland relievers at 0.781, good for 30th in the majors), but the Tribe have been getting contributions from a number of individuals.  Fernando Cabrera is off to a rock solid start (15.2 IP, 22 K, 2.30 ERA) and could get a chance to close games if Joe Borowski falters.  Borowski is 10 for 11 in save opportunities this season despite a 7.43 ERA.  Other than that, Aaron Fultz and Tom Mastny have each made significant contributions to the Cleveland bullpen.           

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