As the second half begins in earnest, the biggest surprise to date comes from The Land of Staying Classy - San Diego. The Padres, dismissed as a lost cause and a rebuilding team prior to the start of the season as analysts imagined Adrian Gonzalez in Fenway, currently hold a 2 game lead in the NL West with the 2nd best record in the NL and the 4th best record in all of baseball.
Their success is unquestionably tied to their pitching staff, as the staff leads all of MLB in ERA (3.27), FIP (3.74), WHIP (1.23...tied with the Rays) as their arms have led the way to the top of the NL West. Looking deeper into what San Diego's pitching staff is doing however, reveals that a good portion of their success is coming from the area of their team that is usually the most volatile component of any team, good or bad - middle relief.
It's no great revelation that relievers, and specifically middle relievers, find success of varying degrees from year to year as pitchers generally end up in the bullpen because of their inability to master enough pitches to remain starters or because they lack the talent to factor into rotational plans more than being organizational depth. Every year, middle relievers are cycled through the waiver wire and teams perpetually attempt to find lightning in a bottle by identifying the pitcher that's about to pitch well (perhaps above his head) for a short period of time to augment the bullpen.
Nearly universally, relievers are unpredictable creatures, prone to hot and cold stretches in their career like few others. Generally, a team is able to find a few reliable arms to (usually) overwork over the course of a season as they attempt to bridge that chasm between the end of a starter's outing and the entrance of the closer. Rare is the bullpen that boasts more than a couple of decent arms that aren't specifically designated for the 8th and 9th innings in games with a lead.
All of which makes what the San Diego bullpen is doing all the more remarkable. In the season of watching rate stats, what with Carlos Marmol chasing the highest K/9 number ever and CP Lee going after Bret Saberhagen's "record" of posting the best K/BB ratio in history, the Padres' bullpen is chasing history on their own...and they're doing it as a group.
Go ahead, start up the caveat, "Sure, but they play in Petco...if a pitcher can't succeed in Petco, they're not far removed from pulling on a Long Island Ducks' uniform..."
Perhaps that has some merit to it, but given the fact that the obvious aspects of what a pitcher can control outside of what park they're pitching in, namely strikeouts and walks, provide a harbinger for success or lack thereof, check these numbers out for the San Diego bullpen:
9.74 K/9 (highest in MLB)
2.62 BB/9 (2nd lowest in MLB)
3.73K/BB (best in MLB)
Petco's not a factor in those issues at all and while those numbers are great for an individual pitcher (specifically with the whiffs, as only Weaver, Morrow, Kershaw, Gallardo, Liriano, and Lincecum have higher K/9 among starters this season), the fact that the San Diego bullpen is putting up those totals collectively is tremendous and, in fact, potentially historically significant.
What that means is that the following bullpens have posted K/BB over 3.00 since 1970:
Expos 1994 - 3.41
Twins 2006 - 3.28
Dodgers 2003 - 3.15
That's it, and if you see where the Padres' bullpen sits in their K/BB ratio, they have the potential to post the highest number (for a rate stat that is a good indicator of success, particularly for relievers) in the last 40 years...at least.
Collectively, the relievers have dubbed themselves as "The Pen-itentiary" and (lucky for them) they pitch better than they bestow nicknames upon themselves, if you look at the K/BB numbers for the current bullpen:
Eddie Mujica - 10.75 K/BB
Luke Gregerson - 5.89 K/BB
Joe Thatcher - 5.50 K/BB
Tim Stauffer - 5.00 K/BB
Mike Adams - 4.18 K/BB
Heath Bell - 3.33 K/BB
Ryan Webb - 2.86 K/BB
Notice where the closer and the pitcher who has logged the most 8th inning appearances sit on the list?
Bell and Adams (42 8th inning appearances) fall further down this list than one would assume and while the K/BB for both of them is more than respectable, it speaks to the idea that the sum is greater than its parts in the San Diego bullpen, particularly in middle relief.
Whether they can continue this pace into the second half remains to be seen, as the 275 1/3 IP logged by Padres' relievers represent the 6th highest total in MLB. But it bears watching as we've known for some time that a bad bullpen can make a good team look bad. Now, perhaps we're seeing the answer to the question of what an historically excellent bullpen do can do as the Padres attempt to weather the storm in the NL West and make the playoffs, seemingly against all odds and thanks to their relievers.