The Magic Behind the Curtains: The Major League Bullpen
A bullpen, put in simple, broken down terms, is where the relief pitchers get warmed up. Typically located on the backside of the outfield fence, although there are four that are within play, on the sides of each foul territory. But the bullpen is also the core of relief pitchers who come in towards the latter of a game. These relief pitchers specialize in coming into a game which was started by another pitcher. Relievers are called on daily to pitch as few as a couple of pitches, to a handful of innings. Managers play chess against one another once they call upon the bullpen. They are always trying to find the best matchup against a hitter versus one of their relievers
The bullpen is made up of long relievers, middle relievers, left handed specialists, set up men, and a closer. In baseball today, the bullpen is one of the most important aspects of the whole team. Teams now build their bullpen to relieve starters of innings and anchor them as well.
In this article, we’ll take a look at each piece the bullpen is composed of, discuss and analyze it, and look at some of the best relievers in today’s game at each stop along the way.
The Long Reliever
The long reliever is exactly what it sounds like. These pitchers enter a game when the starters outing is a short one. At some point in their career, these pitchers were a starter themselves but were moved to the bullpen due to an injury, or because they were a better fit, or they were ineffective as a starter. However, they can also be employed from time to time to start for a pitcher who was injured or is skipping a start. They typically enter the game within the first three or four innings to replace the starter who either got injured or just didn’t have a good start, or was perhaps ejected.
Long relievers serve the purpose to keep the game close. Or to keep the game under control, and not allow it to slip away anymore. They’re known as the “mop” or “mop up man” because they clean up the mess from the starting pitcher.
A good long reliever can be a game manager for the time he’s in the game. Their team is likely losing when they enter the game, so it’s their job to not make matters worse and limit the damage.
Yusmeiro Petit of the Washington Nationals has made his career in the Majors as a long reliever. This season he’s thrown 37.1 innings (40th most of all relievers), and holds an ERA of 2.70. The ten year vet has a career strikeout per nine innings ratio of 7.78. He’s made 21 appearances for Washington in 2016 and also has one start.
Mike Montgomery of the Seattle Mariners is another serviceable long relief pitcher in the game. Although he’s just in his second year and is already 27, Montgomery has been superb this season. In 29 appearances, he’s allowed just one home run, has three holds, and has 42 K’s. He’s 2-3 on the year, but has a 2.33 ERA. Opposing batters are hitting just .210 against him. He’s also pitched 46.1 innings this season, third most among all relievers. He’s a big reason why the Mariners have 43 wins this season.
The Middle Relievers
Middle relievers are fairly similar to long relievers, however they pitch later in the game, typically the 5th, 6th, or 7th inning. They enter the game usually in the middle of an inning, and commonly inherit runners on board. Sometimes, they are used in blowouts later in the game. Often times they’ll enter the game with a pinch hitter upcoming.
Middle relievers are replaced by a left handed specialist, or a set-up man. They will throw usually one inning, but sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on the situation.
Trevor Cahill of the Chicago Cubs is one of the better middle relievers in the game. Since his arrival to the North Side, the 28 year old has an ERA of 2.24. He’s thrown 38 innings this season, 34th most of all relievers. He has a K/9 innings of 9.71 and a batting average against of just .200.
Baltimore Oriole Brad Brach isn’t a household name. But his ERA certainly says otherwise. Brach has a 1.01 ERA thus far, and at the age of 30, Brach has been pitching the best baseball in his career. On the road, he has a 0.92 ERA in 19.2 innings pitched away from Camden Yards. He has thrown 44.2 innings, sixth most in the game among relievers. He’s allowed just three home runs, and a mere five earned runs. He has a strikeout percentage of nearly 30% and opposing hitters are hitting a whopping .149 against him.
The Left Handed Specialist
A left handed specialist is a left handed pitcher, who comes into a game based on situational circumstances. They are used to get usually only one or two critical outs against opponents’ best left handed batters. This is because the pitcher has the advantage when the hitter has the same hand. They virtually always enter the game with runners on base. They will from time to time, face right handed batters, but this is a rarity.
Left handed specialists sometimes go by the term Lefty One Out Guy, or LOOGY’s. Sometimes, these lefties will be brought in to pitch against switch hitters who predominantly hit left handed, or are weak right handed batters.
Javier Lopez of the Giants has been a left handed specialist for years now. And although he has a 5.27 ERA in 2016, he’s been a big piece for the Giants three World Series Championships over the last six years. Last season, in 77 appearances for the Giants, he had a 1.60 ERA and a left on base percentage of 80%. Meaning he stranded runners on base 80% of the time.
The Set-Up Man
The setup man is the pitcher who regularly pitches right before the closer. They typically pitch the seventh and eighth innings, paving the way for the closer. The hold statistic was developed to help acknowledge a setup man’s effectiveness, although it is not an official Major League Baseball statistic. They bridge the gap between the other relievers and the closer. They throw in close games, and sometimes blowouts too.
Setup men have become much more essential over the last 20 years or so. They are the staple of a great bullpen. Most often, they are the second best relief pitcher behind the closer. While many times they can’t win the game for the team, they certainly can blow it. It’s not a very recognized position but sure is one of the most important.
Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller of the New York Yankees are by far the two best setup men in the game right now. Betances (28 years old) and Miller (31 years old) have a combined ERA in 2016 of 2.05. Betances has pitched 41 innings, has 74 strikeouts, and has walked just nine batters all season. Miller has a swing and miss rate just shy of 50% and a walk rate of 3.7%, fifth in baseball. At home, Betances has an ERA of 0.44 and has allowed just one single run. Betances and Miller are hands down two of the best in the business, making it very difficult to score runs of these two late in games.
Seung Hwan Oh of the Cardinals has really made a name for himself here in 2016. Oh has pitched in 41 games (12th most among relievers,) throwing 42 innings and allowing just one home run. He’s allowed just eight earned runs all season and has an ERA of 1.71. He’s 33 and is a rookie in the Majors but could have a very good foreseeable future as a setup man. He has a strikeout rate of 34.1%, which ranks 12th of all relievers in baseball.
Perhaps the most exciting position in baseball, the closer is also one of the highest stress positions. Their goal is to close out games, they pitch the ninth inning with a 1-3 run lead. He’s the best relief pitcher on the team, and faces the highest stakes too. Everytime he takes the mound, there’s a giant monkey on his shoulders.
A small number of closers have won the Cy Young Award, including Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage. He rarely enters the game if the team is losing, and will occasionally take the mound if it is tied. The role has grown over the years, and these days some closers get paid as much as starting pitchers do.
Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers has been a top three closer for multiple years now. In 2016, he is 3-2 with a 1.30 ERA and 25 saves, second most in all of baseball. He’s allowed just five earned runs all season, and only two in the month of June. Versus lefties, Jansen has an insane 39% strikeout rate. In 2016, with men on base, Jansen has allowed just six hits and has an opposing average of .150.
Pittsburgh Pirates closer, Mark Melancon has the third most saves in baseball at 24. The veteran 31 year old Melancon has been the talk of the league as of late. Trade rumors circulate around the Pirates, and Melancon is one of their best players so it does make sense. He’s appeared in 36 games in 2016 and has an ERA of 1.35. Melancon has given up just five earned runs, and one home run this season. Any team in need of a door shutting closer would be lucky to have him for a deep postseason run.