The beginning of the MLB playoffs means teams will begin to rely more heavily on their respective bullpens, and the increase in bullpen reliance also means an increase in opportunities for relievers to shine on baseball’s brightest stage. We know all the big names we’ll see in the late innings, but there will be plenty of opportunities for less-heralded relievers to seize the spotlight with some clutch performances in high-leverage situations.
So who might those relievers be? Glad you asked! Let’s take a look at a potential impact reliever from each playoff team, a reliever other than a team’s main closer that has the potential to swing a series in his team’s favor.
Chad Green, RHP, New York Yankees
Green would be the best reliever on, what, ten teams? Maybe more? Yet in the Yankees stacked bullpen he assumes the role of fifth or sixth inning guy, the guy Joe Girardi uses to bridge the gap between his five-and-dive starters and the back end of the bullpen. (Or, in the case of the Wild Card game, his one-third-and-dive starter.)
Yet Green is so much more than that. Green’s 34 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate is third among pitchers with 50 or more innings behind Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen. But what makes Green especially dangerous to opposing teams is that he thrives in multi-inning stints. Seventeen of Green’s 40 big league appearances have gone two innings or more. It’s Green’s emergence, not the resurgence of Aroldis Chapman or the acquisition of David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, which gives the Yankees the aura of invincibility. Expect Girardi to lean on Green early and often this postseason, now that the Yankees have gotten past the Twins.
Trevor Hildenberger, RHP, Minnesota Twins
(This was written before Minnesota was eliminated last night, so on the one hand, this section is a bit outdated. On the other hand, Hildenberger had not such a great night — 1 1⁄3 innings, with two walks and a run — but we’ll include it anyway, for posterity.)
Strikeouts are all the rage these days, but short of that, a groundball isn’t a terrible outcome either. And for a Minnesota Twins team bereft of elite relievers, Hildenberger and his 58.8 percent groundball rate is often their best option for a critical spot.
That’s not to say Hildenberger can’t notch the occasional strikeout; his 25.9 percent strikeout rate is nothing to sneeze at. And like Green, Hildenberger has shown he can go multiple innings at a time. He may not be a dominating fireballer like some of the other guys on this list, but expect Hildenberg to get the call when the Twins find themselves in a tight spot.
Chris Rusin, LHP, Colorado Rockies
Rusin is not high up on the Rockies reliever depth chart, but he does two vital things for their bullpen: he generates a lot of ground balls (58.5 percent) and he often pitches multiple innings (85 innings pitched in 60 appearances).
Groundballs and multiple innings are nice, but they are especially useful for the Rockies, who feature what may be the weakest starting rotation of any playoff team and play their home games at Coors Field. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs goes into more detail regarding Rusin’s performance this season here, but suffice to say, Rusin will have an important role as Bud Black’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.
Whichever Starting Pitcher Moves To The Bullpen, R/LHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Fernando Rodney and Archie Bradley are the Alpha and Omega of the Diamondbacks bullpen, and no one else there stands out as an especially intriguing option alongside the duo, except for whichever starter slides into the bullpen if the Diamondbacks make it through to the divisional round.
The Diamondbacks have not announced who will move to the bullpen should they advance, but Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley, and Taijuan Walker are the candidates to make the transition. Corbin and Godley are the more intriguing options, Corbin because he could be used as a matchup lefty or as a multi-inning guy, and Godley because he’s just really good (9.58 strikeouts-per-nine, 55.3 percent groundball rate). But whichever one of the three that does get moved could serve a critical role in getting leads to Bradley and Rodney.
David Price, LHP, Red Sox
This selection cheats the “less-heralded” requirement of the list, but no other non-Kimbrel Red Sox reliever carries similar upside as Price. At his best, Price is a far better pitcher than Addison Reed or Matt Barnes, and even if he can’t go multiple innings at a time, he is the Red Sox’s best option to match up against lefties. Price’s recent performances have been encouraging (five September appearances, zero runs, thirteen strikeouts), and replicating those performances in October would be a huge boost to Boston’s playoff hopes.
Joe Musgrove, RHP, Houston Astros
Musgrove underwhelmed as a starter early this season, posting a 6.12 ERA over 72 innings. But a move to the bullpen has invigorated Musgrove, as he’s posted a 1.44 ERA with a 21.7 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate in 31.1 relief innings.
Struggling starter turned shutdown reliever: it’s a story seemingly as old as time itself. But just because this is a trite tale doesn’t make it any less impactful. The reliever version of Musgrove is adept at getting strikeouts and groundballs, posting a 51.9 percent groundball rate as a reliever. And, you guessed it, can do it over multiple-inning stints.
The Astros bullpen is one of the best ones remaining, despite their inability to find a reliable left-hander. Having an option like Musgrove to pitch in front of Chris Devenski and Ken Giles makes the Astros bullpen a formidable one, lefty or no lefty.
Mike Clevinger, RHP, Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians have one of the best pitching staffs ever, and during the playoffs Clevinger will have the opportunity to bolster what is already one of the best bullpens in baseball.
What Clevinger can offer Cleveland out of the bullpen is a mystery. His 3.11 ERA as a starter looks nice, but his 4.44 walks per nine show the variability here. There’s no doubt Clevinger has the stuff to dominate in a multi-inning relief role, but there’s no way to know if or when a bout of wildness could prove costly.
However, because Cleveland will have to monitor Andre Miller’s workload as he continues working his way back from a knee injury, Clevinger’s bullpen conversion takes on a little more importance. Cleveland has a great bullpen with or without an effective Mike Clevinger, but his inclusion would certainly help the cause.
Justin Wilson, LHP, Chicago Cubs
Wilson was excellent with the Tigers this season, posting a 2.68 ERA with 55 strikeouts and 16 walks in 40.1 innings. But as good as Wilson was in Detroit, he’s been equally poor with the Cubs, posting a 5.09 ERA with 25 strikeouts and 19 walks in 17.2 post-trade innings.
Like the Astros, the Cubs have a solid bullpen despite missing a solid lefty. Wilson and Mike Montgomery are the two candidates to fill the role, but when he’s going right Wilson is the superior late-inning. The Cubs are set to square off against the Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy-led Nationals, and being able to deploy an effective Wilson would go a long way towards handing that lineup.
Enny Romero, LHP, Washington Nationals
The Nationals do not have a ton of intrigue in their bullpen. If it were up to Dusty Baker, he’d be able to go with his starter for six innings before turning things over to the Brandon Kintzler-Ryan Madson-Sean Doolittle triumvirate.
Of course, things will not always go according to that formula, which means at some point Baker will have to turn to a left-handed reliever other than Doolittle. This entry could have gone to Oliver Perez, but Romero is the Nationals’ lefty with the big fastball with the upside to dominate in his short stints, provided Baker gives him the opportunity to do so.
Brandon Morrow, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
This spot on the list belongs to Alex Wood if the Dodgers decide to use him out of the bullpen. But if they don’t, Morrow becomes the most important non-Kenley Jansen reliever on the Dodgers. After years of wandering the injury wilderness, Morrow has found his way back as a high strikeout reliever, and he’s been good enough for Dave Roberts to elevate him to the setup role.
Morrow’s talent is unquestionable, and his poor health history is hardly relevant during the one-month race to the finish. The interesting thing to look out for is if Morrow will be able to throw more than one inning per appearance, something he has not done since June 27. Either way, Morrow’s rise within the Dodgers’ bullpen makes him a key cog in the team’s title bid.
Jeremy Klein is a writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @papabearjere.