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Unsung Heroes: Baseball's Top Set-Up Men of 2007

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When thinking of the most important member of a team's bullpen, one pitcher always seems to come to mind:  The Closer.

Closers are typically the pitchers who pitch in the highest leverage situations and rack up the gaudiest save totals.

I tend to agree with the notion that closers are the most important pitcher in a team's bullpen.  Guys like Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Francisco Rodriguez aren't great pitchers just because of their save totals; they strike hitters out, keep runs off the board and their managers use them accordingly.

A bullpen however is assembled with more than just a closer.

Enter the Set-Up Man.  These are the guys that usually don't pitch in the ninth-inning and often set the table for the closer to collect the fame in the save.

Sure, these pitchers don't rack up the save totals, but many are key parts to their bullpen.  In fact, many of these pitchers often out-produce major league closers in many metrics such as WXRL and Adjusted Runs Prevented.  

Let's take a look at baseball's best non-closers this season:

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs:

A position player turned starting pitcher turned relief pitcher, it appears Carlos Marmol has found the role that suits him best.  Ryan Dempster leads all Cub pitchers in saves with 21, but it's Marmol that's been the team's most effective and dominant pitcher out of the bullpen this season. His fastball-slider combo is very similar to that of a healthy Kerry Wood and that seems like an accurate comparison given the fact Marmol is striking out 12.27 hitters per nine innings.  To give one an idea as to why saves don't always accurately measure a pitcher's effectiveness, Marmol leads all Cub pitchers in WXRL (2.600) and ARP (26.9) despite the fact he has only one save on the year.

Rafael Betancourt, Cleveland Indians:

How good of a season is Rafael Betancourt having?  Good enough to place in the top three in WXRL.  Betancourt doesn't have a single save this season, but he's third in baseball in WXRL (4.768) and second in ARP (28.5).  His control this season has been outstanding (0.90 BB/9) and his ERA+ (294) is sixth among both qualified and unqualified pitchers.  Sure, ERA+ isn't the most effective to evaluate a pitcher with only 60 innings pitched, but there's no doubting Betancourt is having an outstanding season.

Hideki Okajima, Boston Red Sox:

Though Daisuke Matsuzaka has been Boston's most valuable Japanese import from last winter, Okajima's isn't too far behind in terms of total value.  Okajima has been nothing short of a huge success for the Red Sox this summer as he leads the team in both WXRL (4.453) and ARP (27.3).   It's quite difficult to pitch in the ninth inning of a close game when your teammate is Jonathan Papelbon, but Okajima has been just as effective, if not more effective this season.  Okajima also leads all of baseball in ERA+ (393).

Tony Pena, Arizona Diamondbacks:

A strong National League Rookie of the Year Candidate, Pena's first season in the big leagues has been exceptionally good.  He's currently third in the majors in WXRL (4.471) and eleventh in ARP (21.0) despite the fact he may be benefitting from a little good fortune.  He's striking out 6.27 hitters per nine innings, nothing special from a relief pitcher, and his BABIP of .228 is well below the league average.  Still, hats off to Pena whose probably been the team's most effective pitcher out of the bullpen.

Heath Bell, San Diego Padres:

Always long on potential, Bell has seemingly found a home in San Diego after a disappointing tenure with the Mets.  PECOTA Park can work wonders on both groundball and flyball pitchers, but Bell has been outstanding on the road (1.82 ERA in 39.2 innings) this year and he's blossomed into one of baseball's top set-up men.  His WXRL of 3.955 is ninth among major league pitchers and best among Padres hurlers while his ARP of 23.4 runs is sixth in the league and also best on the Pads.  Like the other pitchers featured on this list, Bell has rarely pitched in the ninth inning with a three-run lead or less; he has one save on the year.

Pat Neshek, Minnesota Twins:

Neshek's hardly the most overpowering pitcher in baseball, but his deceptive Chad Bradford-type delivery is yielding big-time results.  Though he's 22nd in the majors in WXRL (3.138), his ARP of 23.0 runs is seventh in the majors.  More importantly, Neshek tweaked his delivery before the year began eliminating his large-platoon split against left-handed hitters; he's holding lefties to a .145/.250/.276 line this season.

Matt Guerrier, Minnesota Twins:

To get a perspective of just how good Guerrier has been this season, take into account his VORP of 33.5 runs is a better figure than that of Carlos Zambrano, John Maine, Ian Snell, Derek Lowe, Felix Hernandez and Gil Meche.  His ARP of 23.7 is fifth among major league pitchers and he's a big reason the Twins have the seventh best bullpen according to WXRL (10.444).

Brandon Lyon, Arizona Diamondbacks:

Lyon's currently 11th in the majors in WXRL at 3.785, but like his teammate Tony Pena, he too might be benefitting from a little good fortune. Lyon's K/9 of 4.73 is well below the league average and he's stranding nearly 75% of the batters he inherits.  

The Diamondbacks have the second best record in the league thanks largely in part to the fact they're 39-22 in close games.  They're bullpen, which by the way ranks first in WXRL at 12.296, is a big reason why they've been so good in close games.  Despite what looks like good fortune riding on the side of both Pena and Lyon, they've both been getting the job done in big situations.

Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals:

Did anyone see this type of season coming from Franklin?  PECOTA certainly didn't, projecting a 5.31 ERA in 65 innings.  

Not only has the former starter been durable this season, he's already pitched 64.2 innings, he's also been surprisingly effective posting a 1.95 ERA during that tenure.  His ARP of 20.3 runs is good for 13th in the league and his VORP of 26.2 runs is higher than that of Doug Davis, Tom Glavine and other major league relievers including Takashi Saito, Bill Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon.

Other notable set-up men include set-up men performing at a high level include Kevin Cameron (21.4 ARP), Peter Moylan (20.0 ARP), C.J. Wilson (19.9 ARP), Chad Qualls (2.906 WXRL), Zack Greinke (3.112 WXRL) and Casey Janssen (2.881 WXRL).

Of the top ten leaders in WXRL this season, four of them have less than five saves on the season.

There's plenty of proof, and metrics for that matter, that while a team's closer often receives the most recognition out of a team's bullpen, other members of a bullpen are vital parts to the success of a ballclub.