Thanks to advanced metrics and a decrease in starters’ innings over the last decade, relief pitching has become a much larger focal point for general managers and analysts. A successful bullpen often is the difference between a deep playoff run and heading home after game 162.
With an ERA of 2.33, the Mariners bullpen has performed the best among its counterparts in Major League Baseball. The seven, and now eight-man unit has helped lead the Seattle pitching staff to a 2.97 ERA, an American League best. Oakland’s staff ERA of 3.17 ranks second, two-tenths behind.
It’s a group that mixes experience at the back-end with hard-throwing youth in the middle and front. Closer Fernando Rodney, 37, has 33 saves, second-most in the AL. Eighth-inning candidates Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Brandon Maurer and Dominic Leone all carry opponent averages sub-.232 while toting fastballs mid-90’s or better. Lefties Joe Beimel and Charlie Furbush have been dominant against lefties, holding them to a combined .200 batting average.
But what has made this bullpen so good? Has it been the experience of Rodney and Beimel, definition of roles or just a unique combination of talent?
Manager Lloyd McClendon attributes it largely to a rotation that is No. 1 in the AL with a 3.28 ERA despite a revolving door in the fifth spot. The team has started 10 different pitchers this season, yet it hasn’t missed a beat.
“It’s extremely important. If we didn’t have any rotation, our bullpen wouldn’t be worth a damn,” McClendon said. “When you start over-exposing your bullpen, I don’t care how good you are, if those innings start to get up, and the pitch count starts to get up, you won’t be any good.
“If your starters are going out and giving you the innings that you need, and you can match up late, your bullpen is going to look really good.”
Of course, nothing helps more than talent. The numbers mentioned above as well as those you can find under the team’s pitching statistics, are all elite. One factor that McClendon wouldn’t point to as a reason is defined roles.
“It’s funny, because if you think about it, we only have one defined role — our closer,” McClendon said. “Everybody else has pitched the eighth, they’ve pitched the seventh, the sixth . . . So I don’t know what you mean by ‘defined roles’. When you come into the game, get them out. That’s your role.”
Asked to pin-point a reliever who has surprised even him, McClendon didn’t show much hesitation.
“Nobody talks about (him) because he’s the one that doesn’t throw the hardest — Joe Beimel,” said McClendon. “You look at his numbers against left-handers, they’re off the charts. He’s been pretty good down there.”
Another key has been Tom Wilhelmsen, a pitcher that has been versatile in his role, even starting a game in early July, while working multiple innings in nearly 50 percent of his outings.
Wilhelmsen has pitched 63 innings, allowing 36 hits and 27 walks for an even 1.00 WHIP and .167 opponent’s average. Those numbers, and his importance to the unit as a whole, hasn’t been lost on McClendon.
“He’s been the glue,” McClendon said. “Because time and time again, he’s pitched three innings of shutdown baseball.”
— LHP Roenis Elias, optioned to Triple-A Tacoma after winning his ninth game against Chicago on August 7th, will pitch Wednesday for the Rainiers. The move was designed to help control the rookie’s innings after throwing 130 in Double-A last season. McClendon said he will pitch three or four innings and then re-join the team in Philadelphia.
— OF Michael Saunders arrived home in Colorado to be with his family as he and his wife are expecting the family’s second child. Saunders was on minor-league