The A’s, the Giants, and the Importance of Middle Relief

Last year’s playoffs were seen as a win not only for the Cubs and their fans, but also for proponents of the relief ace. On a national stage, Terry Francona used Andrew Miller early and often to put out fires almost regardless of inning. He’d been doing it ever since Cleveland acquired Miller in the summer, of course, but here was a manager deploying the strategy on the game’s largest stage.

Not every team can be blessed with having both Miller and Cody Allen on their roster, though, nor can every team have both Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. Most teams are lucky enough to have a good closer, and most of those teams employ the traditional strategy of waiting until the ninth inning to use their best reliever. Much has been made of the strategic merit of that, but it’s a system that helps players know their roles on the team, and that has value, too. But if a team isn’t blessed with a Miller-type player, then they need a sturdy bridge to arrive at that closer. Even Cleveland and New York need help from guys without well-known names.

We’ve been fixated on the idea of the relief ace. The idea is so tantalizing and so intoxicating. Not only is it awesome to see Miller jump in and melt faces whenever Tito desires, but it’s a bit of a high for sabermetric types to see something for which they’ve argued so strenuously actually getting implemented in games. And this isn’t to say that the relief ace is a bad idea! It’s an exceedingly good idea, if the usage of the pitcher is properly managed. But the relief ace, and the closer, don’t matter a ton if the rest of the guys in the bullpen aren’t effective.

Take the Giants’ opener on Sunday, for instance. Madison Bumgarner went seven innings. Bruce Bochy needed just two innings from his bullpen to hold a one-run lead. A lot of teams have a setup man to serve as an opening act for the closer, and indeed, the Giants were supposed to have Will Smith out there. He’s out for the year with Tommy John surgery, though. So the duty fell to Derek Law, who promptly coughed up the lead, and the Diamondbacks walked it off against Mark Melancon in the ninth.

San Francisco’s bullpen, outside of  Melancon, looks almost entirely the same as it did last year. They appeared in the bottom half of our bullpen power rankings for a reason. There just isn’t enough firepower there, even if they likely aren’t as disastrously bad as they were down the stretch last year, from a true talent perspective. They may have replaced Santiago Casilla with Melancon, but the relief corps isn’t strong enough to compensate when a starter only goes five.

We saw it again on Monday when the Braves bullpen vomited all over Julio Teheran’s good start. We saw it all of last year with the Reds. The back end of a bullpen only matters so much if the middle part is mediocre.

We may find the converse of that in Oakland this year. The A’s are rolling with a fascinating bullpen that’s full of sturdy pitchers. They’ll have a solid option in pretty much every inning. They don’t have Miller or Zach Britton, but they don’t really have anybody bad, either. They’re the anti-Giants.

Oakland’s bullpen appeared at 13th in our power rankings, but as Jeff Sullivan noted, it could turn out to be a very good group. Liam Hendriks, who will pitch middle innings, is better than some teams’ closers. Frankie Montas can throw 100 mph and isn’t far removed from having been a notable starting pitching prospect. Ryan Dull can do this.

Of course, he can also blow games in the bottom of the ninth as he did last night. Such is life in this business.

You already know what Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle can do. And for what it’s worth, Casilla posted the highest strikeout rate of his career while having his blowups last year. If the Giants swapped bullpens with the A’s, San Francisco would be absolutely terrifying.

Meanwhile, Cleveland may already have Miller, but they needs guys like Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw to make things work, too. It’s not enough to have just one or two really good arms in the bullpen. You can get by that way (look at the Yankees in 2014 and 2015), but there’s a lot of value in having a full set of competitive and competent pitchers who can all be called upon at any time.

Is this why the Rockies dished out so much for Mike Dunn? Is it why Brett Cecil got so much from the Cardinals?  Do we give the Yankees enough credit for constantly churning out a steady supply of usable big-league relief arms, even if they haven’t developed an exceptionally noteworthy starter in some time?

There’s a reason teams continue to use a set closer, even if they have an Andrew Miller. It puts the players in the bullpen at ease. But if the starter only goes five or six innings, someone’s got to hold the line. You can’t always be Cleveland. You can be Atlanta and San Francisco, or you can be Oakland.

The choice is a pretty clear one to me.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

My sense from watching the playoffs from the last few years is that in October specifically you want at least four relievers that you feel fully confident in. Any fewer and you risk running into situations where your starter is tiring but you feel the need to stick with them because you don’t have a viable alternative, and then things can get very very bad in a hurry.

Of course in the regular season you need more than four relievers, but the quality threshold isn’t as high. So something like four very good relievers at the back end and then a bunch of perfectly acceptable ones to round things out feels about right to me. (Obviously more is always better but having seven excellent relievers will often not be feasible.)

7 years ago
Reply to  hurricanexyz

I see you’ve watched some recent Dodgers postseason games.