The Royals took the baseball world by storm in 2014 with their shutdown bullpen. The "Big Three" became household names during the postseason but were fantastic throughout the whole year. While Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland have been with Kansas City for their entire careers, this bullpen wasn't complete until Wade Davis was brought in after being dropped from the rotation. In 2014, their first full season together, the trio posted a monster year and almost singlehandedly changed the landscape of middle relief.
Armed with these three pitchers, and a great supporting cast of other shutdown relievers, the Royals truly shortened the game. The team was 65-5 when leading after six innings, and in 214 combined innings the Big Three allowed just three home runs (all from Holland). Their playoff run was even more unbelievable, as all three posted ERAs, FIPs, and SIERAs below 2.96. Despite losing the World Series, teams quickly took notice of how valuable a dominant relief core can be and began building their own. In the 2014 offseason, a few front offices adopted the fast follower strategy and attempted to copy what the Royals have put together.
The White Sox, Yankees, and Astros all made strides to upgrade their bullpen and are having good results so far. David Robertson is having the best year of his career, while Zach Duke is doing just fine himself. Chicago's bullpen as a whole is pitching to the tune of a 3.51 ERA, an FIP of 3.70, and a SIERA of 3.47. The team has unfortunately been a disappointment all around, and the bullpen hasn't had many opportunities to preserve wins, thus negating their true purpose.
New York's core of relievers is pitching slightly better and owns an ERA of 3.23, an FIP of 3.51, and a SIERA of 3.31. Their main piece, Dellin Betances, has yet to allow a run in 20 innings this season. New addition Andrew Miller is also having his finest season yet and is on pace to set multiple career bests.
However, of the three teams, Houston has put together the best group. Newcomer Luke Gregerson isn't pitching well, but overall the bullpen has a 2.15 ERA along with an FIP of 2.89 and a SIERA of 2.43.
While the Royals were deemed the first super bullpen, the team they lost to has had a remarkably underrated group of relievers for years. The Giants offenses have been drastically different throughout their championship seasons, but their bullpen has remained consistent. Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, and Javier Lopez have been together since August 1st of 2010 and helped anchor the late innings.
In 969.2 innings, they've collectively posted a HR/9 of 0.50 and fantastic numbers in all other categories. Through 2016 the Giants will have paid just $99.31 million for 28 individual years of service. They've had to surround these four relievers with other pitchers of course, but while the front office has scrambled to put offenses together, their bullpen has been something they've rarely had to worry about.
As great as the Giants bullpen has been, their time together seems to be running out. Affeldt will be a free agent at the end of 2015, while the other three are set to be released after 2016. Casilla could return on a new contract, but Romo seems like the most realistic of the four. Now that the offense seems to be set for San Francisco, it's their pitching that needs upgrading; fortunately for the Giants, they've been preparing.
In an article by Giants insider Andrew Baggarly, he noted that they're so stacked with relievers in the minor and major leagues that they had to DFA Erik Cordier, a man who has topped out at 101.3 MPH (luckily for San Francisco none of the 29 clubs had room or felt he justified a spot on their 40-man roster). Fellow reliever Hunter Strickland, who has a similarly electric fastball, was recently promoted back to the big league club. When asked about his minor league bullpen mates, Strickland called it something special, and said that it was like a "big league bullpen in Triple-A".
|Mike Broadway (RHP)||20.0||13.95||2.70||-||1.35||1.44|
|Hunter Strickland (RHP)||21.2||10.38||1.25||-||1.66||1.89|
|Erik Cordier (RHP)||9.0||13.00||7.00||-||2.00||3.08|
|Cody Hall (RHP)||21.0||7.71||3.00||0.43||2.57||3.54|
|Ty Blach (LHP)||55.1||5.04||0.98||0.81||4.07||4.06|
|Steven Okert (LHP)||19.2||10.53||3.66||0.46||2.75||3.33|
Their AAA team plays in the Pacific Coast League, which is notorious for being an extreme hitters league. Despite that fact, six of their pitchers with the River Cats have a HR/9 below 0.81, with five of them possessing ERAs below 2.75 and FIPs below 3.54. According to Baggarly, "Mike Broadway is the filthiest reliever you've probably barely heard of. Cody Hall pumps mid-90s gas. Lefty Steven Okert is looking like the next Affeldt, with the heavy and hard stuff to get both right-handers and left-handers out."
It's impossible to know for sure, but it seems clear that the Giants planned for this to happen. Hall, Blach, Okert, Biangini, Osich, and Crick were all signed or drafted before 2011; Strickland was brought aboard in 2013 after being DFA'd by Pittsburgh. In total, the Giants have 11 legitimate bullpen prospects to help replace their current configuration. While they'll still have to acquire a few relievers externally, San Francisco's minor leagues are stacked with baseball's newest commodity, the middle reliever. As Mugatu would say "Relievers, they're so hot right now". The Giants will have a cost-controlled bullpen, primed with young flame throwers for years to come. If they're lucky, they'll even have relievers to deal in potential trades to acquire talent.
The Giants have won three of the last five World Series and been the most successful team since the 1998-2000 Yankees, but the franchise may be in its best position yet with its combination of younger talent (Buster Posey, Brandons Belt and Crawford) and a good bullpen. Neither San Francisco nor Kansas City was given much credit for its 2014 season, and both were projected to fall short of the playoffs in 2015. However with homegrown talent, both clubs are succeeding and look like contenders for October at this moment.
With stellar bullpens, and above average hitting, they each have solid foundations to take and hold leads. However no team may be as best positioned as the Giants. They've been fortunate enough to have one of the best bullpens over the past five seasons and with what they have in the minor leagues may not regress a bit.
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Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.