If you are a fan of sports cliches, or even if you aren't, you've heard the tried and true statement, "Defense wins championships." You can bring credence to that statement with the current hardware sitting at the facilities of the Seattle Seahawks, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Kings, and Boston Red Sox. Now I am aware some of you are already scratching your heads as to why I am talking about defense when the header picture is of a pitcher leaving the mound and not some infielder booting a ground ball. The majority of baseball talk surrounding defense involves the fielders surrounding the pitcher. I always have said though that the first line of defense in baseball is the pitcher. Just like a hot goalkeeper or shrewd secondary can atone for the sins of their compatriots, a competent starting staff and solid bullpen can mask the most error laden of defenses. However, while starting pitching has grown stronger through the 2000's, the bullpens have become progressively worse.
Constructing a bullpen is by no means an exact science. The fluctuation from year to year of pitchers moved from different roles in different cities makes it more of a crap shoot than any other roster construction in professional sports. It is no longer your grandfather's, or even your father's, baseball. The starters are lauded for going five innings and complete games are outliers on a pitcher's performance chart. A reliable bullpen is the key to a championship. Why then don't more teams do more to address their deficiencies in the late innings? It is a puzzling query with a varying array of answers, or should I say, excuses.
In my preseason baseball preview, I picked the Tigers and Dodgers to be the first and third best teams in the Majors. I had lofty expectations for both teams due to their respective lineups and prodigal starting staffs. They had both spent astronomical sums to construct said units. Pre-Opening Day, the Dodgers payroll was an ungodly $235 million while Detroit had just a shade over $162 million committed for 2014. After both of their unceremonious exits from the postseason, I bet both organizations regret not allocating more of those ridiculous bank rolls to their pens.
If you read this blog and check my Twitter feed (@TREVORutley) with any regularity, you should know the nature of my "relationship" with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series was one of my earliest sports memories. Since then it has been very much a "waiting for the other shoe to drop" kind of kinship. The Dodgers have never truly bottomed out in my lifetime, but they always have a fatal flaw that they can never cover up when it matters. It always crops up at the most inopportune times and always leaves me feeling like Wile E. Coyote after he just chased the Roadrunner off of a cliff. That wart this year was the middle relief.
They had arguably one of the, if not the best, staff in the National League. Even if it was Clayton Kershaw, who had his own postseason woes that I'll address at another time, and four jabronis they would still be quite formidable. They had a tremendous closer in Kenley Jansen. He posted 44 saves and put to bed the notion that his health issues would suppress his full pitching potential. Getting from Point A to Point B though was no easy task. Kershaw imploded in a 10-9 Game One loss to St. Louis, I know that. I am not enough of a Kershaw apologist to not be able to admit that the Cardinals have his number and then some. I am enough of one to say that when a massive hemorrhage starts you don't put a children's band-aid on it. Even with the best pitcher in the world, you have to pull him when he gives up hits to five of the first six batters of an inning, right? You just have to do it. Don Mattingly didn't. He sat in the dugout and let a 6-2 lead evaporate into thin air because he couldn't trust anybody to come in and be a tourniquet instead of a Sponge Bob bandage. Pedro Baez came in after Kershaw exited and promptly issued a walk and gave up a three run home run ending the game in just seven pitches. Would Clayton have stayed in for as long as he did in Games 1 or 4 if the bullpen could be trusted? I say no.
The sad thing is, outside of bringing in Jansen in the seventh inning, Baez was the best option at their disposal. And the even sadder thing is that the majority of these guys will be back in the Dodger bullpen in 2015. It has proven many times throughout recent history that taking players who closed for other teams and putting them into the middle innings rarely works. Just ask the 2007 Red Sox and their fans about their heart rate spike when Eric Gagne would come in for the end of the sixth inning. They at least got a title. For all the spending the Dodgers have done in the past two seasons, Ned Colletti's inability to assemble a working bullpen instead of a gaggle of former closers will be his ultimate undoing for a team that has had raised prospects. He won't be the only person taking the heat for neglecting the seventh and eighth innings.
Dave Dombrowski drew praise from everybody, including myself, for his work as general manager this year. Turning Prince Fielder's albatross contract into Ian Kinsler and acquiring David Price at the deadline for thirty cents on the dollar were both tremendous moves. It was a classic case of all style and no substance though. The bullpen's big moves in the offseason were Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan. On the surface, those looked to be good moves. They would turn out to be quite the opposite. I can't pile all the blame on Dombrowski for the Tigers' failings like I could on Colletti in Los Angeles. A great deal of the blame for the bullpen blunders of the AL Central Champions can be attributed to first year manager Brad Ausmus.
Ausmus anointed Joe Nathan "the guy" at the start of the season and never wavered from that decision. As closers around baseball lost their jobs due to futility, Nathan continued to blow saves and give Tigers fans liver damage in the ones he converted. When the Tigers acquired Joakim Soria from Texas, I thought he would give the Tigers a nice second option in the ninth inning. Soria could challenge for the closer's role as he showed his capability as Nathan's replacement in the Lone Star State. Instead, Ausmus utilized the former closer as a seventh inning guy and predictably it didn't work. The trade deadline came and went and though they picked up Price, there were no worthwhile additions to a sieve-like pen. They paid for it dearly in a sweep in the ALDS at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles.
Could these two teams have done more? Of course they could. Andrew Miller was had by Baltimore for a Double-A pitcher with a near 5.00 ERA at the time of his trade. That player, Eduardo Rodriguez, was Baltimore's third rated prospect. So many more non-closers were available, such as Joaquin Benoit, or every member of the Philadelphia Phillies, that would not even need a "haul" like that to make a deal. I guess Detroit thought the pitcher formerly known as Jim Johnson was a better option.
Like I said before, there is no consistent formula to assembling a pen. The thing that kills me year to year is the loyalty shown to players not carrying their weight. If you look at a team like the St. Louis Cardinals, they have zero tolerance when it comes to their relief arms. I can bet you if Trevor Rosenthal would have blown Game One against Los Angeles, Mike Matheny would have thought twice about bringing him in to protect the lead again in the NLDS. Fernando Salas was given a short leash in 2011 and when he began to slip up, Jason Motte was reinstated as closer. Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain's jobs in Detroit were never in jeopardy despite their constant torpedoing of leads.
The four teams left in the playoffs all have good bullpens. They also have managers that will not hesitate to make drastic changes if need be to secure themselves passage to the World Series. The two non-Missouri teams, San Francisco and Baltimore, have already uprooted their closers during the regular season and have juggled roles until they stuck. Brad Ausmus's ship caught fire and he just let it burn. Donnie Baseball's went up in flames but his GM only gave him faulty, expired fire extinguishers. The four teams left are there because they had the foresight to make a plan if the heat started to rise. While a tiny grease blaze took out arguably the top two teams in the sport, it is going to take a five alarm special to take out the Royals, Orioles, Giants, or Cardinals. I can assure you they aren't going to just roll over and burn to death either.
Image Credit: Joba Chamberlain (mlive.com)