It is easy to categorize 2014 as a season dominated by pitching -- a stark contrast to the game we witnessed for the better part of the last two decades. The run environment changed in favor of the pitchers, as runs were at a premium, strikeouts were at an all-time high, and even coveted ‘on-base percentage' took a tumble this past season. One position that should not be overlooked is middle relief, where the top of the fWAR leaderboards show significant value, at a fraction of the price of a closer.
Starting pitchers get a significant amount of the press, and there were magnificent performances by annual aces including Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Max Scherzer, but new names joined the list of top starting pitchers as well. Pitchers such as Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker made names for themselves, and in many respects, joined the likes of the starting pitching elite. Although starters do a significant amount of the heavy lifting, and closers get big multi-year deals, the value of middle relievers continues to increase.
Relief pitching always plays a bit of a bigger role in the postseason than it does during the season-long grind. Due to off days, and travel schedules, it is possible to see the same dominant relievers in high-leverage situations throughout the playoffs. Thanks in large part to the Royals' three-armed monster of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera, the trio created a microcosm of relief pitching by watching one bullpen shut down the opposition. Kansas City's improbable playoff run brought their relief corps into the spotlight, and furthered the importance of relief pitching, in particular, middle relief.
Based on relief numbers over the past several seasons, bullpens in 2012 were the most successful over the course of the past 5 years. Aggregate relievers combined for an ERA 9% lower than league average, and relief pitchers accumulated nearly 99 fWAR and an RA9-fWAR of nearly 127. Since 2012, both the fWAR and RA9-fWAR have been declining, despite the increased dominance of middle relievers.
The numbers above show bullpens peaked in value in 2012, but the data belie the current dominance of middle relievers.
Last season's relievers had the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk and home run rate over the last five seasons. The ‘Year of the Pitcher' moniker is captured significantly in middle relief as shown in the fWAR and RA9-fWAR tables below. Pitchers in this table all had fewer than ten saves, and are categorized here as ‘middle relief'.
In looking at the most effective relief pitchers in 2014, we see significant change at the top from 2013. The only players on the middle reliever list who appear on the leaderboard in more than one season are current closers David Robertson, Sean Doolittle (who showed themselves to be dominant middle relievers) as well as Kelvin Herrera and Matt Belisle (who have stuck to the middle innings). Bullpen volatility is nothing new, and there is a reason Twitter snickers whenever a general manager signs a reliever to a multi-year deal. The names often change, but the success remains the same.
Top 10 fWAR Middle Reliever Leaders 2012-2014
Although bullpens as a whole seem to be off the pace from 2012, middle relievers are providing more value than they have in the past. Of the top ten fWAR relief pitchers, the three who accumulated the most value all were from this past season ---- including Dellin Betances and Wade Davis, who both accumulated nearly an entire win more than their closest competitor.
No middle reliever in 2013 amassed more than 2.2 fWAR, and no middle reliever in 2012 topped 2.4 fWAR.
With the increase value in middle relief, it would seem to be a wise strategy to spend more money on pitchers concentrating on the mid-late innings rather than overpaying ‘proven closers', but it is clearly difficult to identify who will stay on the list and not be converted to a closer role. The names often differ, and there are examples when someone is ‘promoted' to the Closer role, and would be in line for a huge payday.
While there is a large caveat that it is difficult to predict which middle relievers will end the season with the most value, irrespective of previous year's numbers, the front office that can identify trends and peripheral numbers that are predictive of future success should gain a significant advantage both in on-field value as well as budgetary value. Should those GMs succeed in identifying talent that stays in the middle innings, the club would be especially dangerous in the playoffs.
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Steven Martano is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.