Home > Baseball > 10, 000 Words on the Best of the Aughts: Geez, I need some Relief…

10, 000 Words on the Best of the Aughts: Geez, I need some Relief…

I love the bullpen.  It’s where all the antics occur: it’s where you have guys bartering with fans for hotdogs or beer, guys taking naps in the afternoon sun (and who can blame them?  A good portion of my love of baseball derives from how blissful it is to doze off in the bottom of the third and wake up in the top of the sixth), and even guys occasionally touching themselves…  It’s a myriad and wonderful place, made all the more special, because the results of the bullpen are so capricious and – thus – frustrating.  Is there anything worse than watching your team build a three, four, five run lead only to see it frittered away in the eighth?  It’s infuriating.  How about watching a manager go to the bullpen to bring in a lefty, only to watch that guy walk the next batter?  You know the manager’s coming right back out again… And if you’re like me, you’re flipping channels and next thing you know you’re watching old Two and a Half Men episodes and wondering exactly what gold Charlie’s referring to?  When you finally remember to get back to the game, you find that your 3-2 lead has become a 9-3 deficit and Kyle Farnworth is walking off the mound looking like he just stepped on a flaming bag of…

The worst part of the bullpen is that – with one massive exception – the pitcher’s results bounce around more than two hyperactive kids experiecing a sugar high on a trampoline.  It’s why ESPN’s Keith Law criticizes any relief contract that runs beyond a year.  Their results are so temperamental that offering a reliever 16 million over four years is tantamount to pissing away 13.5 million.

The very best bullpens are built on hard throwing young arms who crash the strike zone and force hitters to swing and miss.  The way the compensation system works now, smart GMs (cough-AndrewFriedman-cough) utilize young power arms in their pen until those guys’ arbitration years are up.  They then allow them to walk in free agency, happily collecting a bushel of draft picks as compensation.  That’s right, I just wrote a bushel of draft picks.  Anyhow, what I’m saying is that the key with bullpens is to keep things simple.  Take hard young throwers and let them, in the words of Mr Roger Dorn,  “strike those m************ers out.”

As for the actual construction of the bullpen, you obviously want a closer*; then you have your set up man; a long relief guy, who’s usually either a fringy starter (Brian Tallet) or a young stud prospect breaking into the Bigs (?); a situational lefty, and a couple righties.  You need players of both arms, because otherwise your manager will have nothing to do in the seventh inning, but scratch himself.  Nobody needs that.

*Now, in the interests of maintaining my archaic rules from the outset, I’ve determined that I can only pick ONE closer.  That means I can pick guys who eventually became closers, but in one of the years before they were officially, regularly finishing games.  That actually isn’t that hard, as most relievers peak in their set up role and then are “promoted” to closer, at which point they regress (sometimes slightly, sometimes like BJ Ryan…).

Closer:

D’Uh.

Look if I wanted to be real cute, I could argue that (steroids or not) nobody had a better single season in relief than Eric Gagne when he had 14.98 K/9, a 1.20 ERA, an absurd 0.86 FIP and he accumulated 4.5 WAR during the 2003 season.  Over the entire decade, no reliever – not even the one you’re thinking about – had a single year close to that.  But, come on… he’s from Quebec…

I’m kidding…

I love Quebec – they take fries, add cheese curds and dump the whole thing with gravy, what’s not to love?  The real reason I can’t pick Gagne is that the only – I repeat ONLY – relief pitcher of the last twenty years who should be in the Hall of Fame was throwing from a small little locale out on the East Coast.  It’s possible you’ve never heard of him, because he was never talked about and the team he played for rarely made national telecasts, but, over our decade, this man accumulated more Wins Above Replacement than any other reliever; he also pitched in 53 post-season games, throwing 76 innings, while only giving up 6 earned runs.  Let me repeat that, because I don’t think I made myself clear: 76 innings, 6 earned runs, in the postseason.

That’s a ZERO-POINT-SEVEN ERA.

Gagne’s 2003 was stupidly good, but Mr Mariano Rivera essentially had a better year, over the course of the entire decade in the post season.  There’s absolutely no way I’m going toe to claw with Aliens over the fate of earth without Mo on my roster.  Although it should be noted that it’s a very real possibility that Rivera is himself an Alien and thus might defect in the middle of the series.  Still, as I always say, sometimes in life, it’s just a chance you gotta take…

Mariano Rivera – rhp (2008) – 6-5, 39 S, 64 G, 70.2 IP, 9.81 K/9, 0.76 BB/9, 0.51 HR/9, 1.4o ERA, 2.03 FIP, 3.1 WAR.

Set Up:

It’s fairly common for a team’s set up man to actually be their best reliever, and if they aren’t, they almost should be.  I’m not going to waste a lot of words arguing about the usefulness of having your best reliever come in to “save” the game with the bases empty simply because it’s the ninth inning.  Lets just say that it may be that the game was actually saved in the eighth when, leading by one with one out, there were runners on 2nd and 3rd, Babe Ruth at the plate and Lou Gherig on deck.  Doesn’t that seem like a situation for your best reliever?  Instead, thanks to Tony LaRussa, baseball managers now keep the pitcher they believe to be their best on the bench because it isn’t the ninth.  So, you’d better hope that your set-up guy is capable of coming in and striking Ruth out, before eliciting a cheap pop out from Gherig.

Strikeouts, that’s what you want from your set-up guy, because most of the time, they are going to be put in pressure situations where they getting the K is the only way out of a shitty situation.  In the last decade, the three best single season K/9 rates were:

Carlos Marmol, Cubs (2010) 15.99
Eric Gagne, Dodgers (2003) 14.98
Brad Lidge, Astros (2004) 14.93

Of course, the first two names (how insane was Marmol’s K-rate last year?  Too bad the Cubs sucked so no-one noticed) were closers the year they struck everyone out and we already know who our closer is, but Lidge?  Well, in 2004 the Astros’ closer was Octavio Dotel (more on him in minute), but their set up man was so good that they felt comfortable trading Dotel and turning the ball over to Bradley Thomas Lidge.  And really, who can blame them.  I’m not saying that my “Cosmic Team of the Aughts’ is going to trade Rivera and install Lidge as my closer, I’m just saying that in 2004 Lidge was beyond awesome.  Forgetting for a minute his 14.93 K/9 rate, Lidge appeared in 80 games, throwing 94.2 innings.  He saved 29 after Dotel’s departure and 88% of the base runners he acquired were left standing on base when the inning ended.  He was the perfect set-up man, the best of the Aughts and an easy selection to my team.

Brad Lidge – 6-5, 29 S, 80 G, 94.2 IP, 14.93 IP, 2.85 BB/9, 0.76 HR/9, 1.90 ERA, 1.97 FIP, 3.8 WAR.

Long Relief:

As I wrote above, this spot is often taken up by fringe starters who get shunted to the pen when the starting staff is healthy, but the best – or perhaps luckiest – teams use this slot to develop dominant young starters.  Guys who are too good for AAA, but who still have pitches that need development.  Being put into long relief allows them to work on their stuff, without having to be solely concerned with getting outs at all costs (which means they only throw their “out” pitch and never develop anything else).  The very best example of this over the last decade is a fairly easy choice for the team: Johan Santana.

In 2000 Santatna first broke into the majors as a 21 year old flamethrower, by 2002 he had established himself as a future star, the following year he made the transition to the rotation and the year after that he won the Cy Young.  That’s what I’m talking about.  A young guy, finding his sea legs, perfecting his pitches and then – when he’s finally promoted to a starting role – ready to dominate.

Johan Santana – lhp (2003) –  12-3, 45 G, 18 GS, 158.1 IP, 9.61 K/9, 2.67 BB/9, 0.97 HR/9, 3.07 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 4.1 WAR.

Lefty:

One of my favorite parts of this 10,000 word Best of the Aughts opus that I’ve put together is the players who surprise me when they make the team.  There is no greater example of this than BJ Ryan.  At the outset of picking relievers for the squad, I knew that Mo would be my closer and I was pretty sure that Lidge’s 2004 season would be my set-up guy.  Santana was a given for long relief and I was pretty sure that a young K-Rod would have a place (he will, just be patient), but if you had given me fifty guesses for who the lefty on my squad would have been, I would not have picked BJ Ryan.  Hell, I probably wouldn’t have picked him in a 100 guesses.  And yet, here we are.  A prime example of why long contracts for relievers are so dumb, in 2004 Ryan was the explosive, dominant set-up guy in Baltimore.  A year later he was promoted to closer and was still exceptional.  That offseason the Jays gave him 3/4 of a billion dollars and Prince Edward Island… and, well, the rest is craptastic history.  Still, look back at that 2004 season and you can see why JP Ricciardi wet himself over the chance to give a chain smoking hot head, with the nickname “BJ” 47 million dollars.

BJ Ryan – lhp (2004) – 4-6, 76 G, 87.0 IP, 12.62 K/9, 3.62 BB/9, 0.41 HR/9, 2.28 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 3.4 WAR.

The Rest:

The last two spots on my roster are going to monster flame-throwers.  Like I said at the outset, guys who are young, throw hard, and strike people out.  Before he was known for assaulting old men, Francisco Rodriguez was so known for sending batters dejectedly back to the dugout, that they gave him one of those catchy little “Rod” nicknames that all the Rodriguezes get.  Only, instead of it involving his first name (ala A-Rod), they used the letter K.  Get it?  “K-Rod”, for all the K’s he gets.

Yeah, I know… we live in an era of really lazy nicknames.  Anyhow, K-Rod burst onto the scene in the 2002 playoffs, compiling 28 K’s in 18 playoff innings (with a 1.93 ERA) for the World Champion Angels.  At that point he was 20 years old and pretty much just struck people out on pure machismo, but two years later he’d learned how to pitch and he was genuinely one of the best relievers in baseball.

Likewise, before Octavio Dotel became a traveling baseball injury, he was a phenomenal pitcher.  It’s hard to remember, because over the past seven seasons he’s played for 9 different franchises and spent more time in the Doctors office than my hemorrhoid toting grandfather, but back at the start of the decade, Dotel was beast.  A strike throwing flamethrower, he came into any situation and struck everybody out.  Sure, his control was a little wild sometimes, but there’s nothing wrong with the opposing hitters wondering whether the next pitch is going to land in their ear.  In 2001, Dotel compiled 105 innings, which makes him an incredibly valuable reliever and he did that with 12.43 K’s/9 and a 2.31 FIP.  Two years later he replaced Billy Wagner as Houston’s closer.  Of course, it was a short-lived move, as Lidge made him expendable.  Still, from 2001-2004 Dotel was one of the best relievers in baseball and he takes my final roster spot.

Francisco Rodriguez – rhp (2004) – 4-1, 12 S, 69 G, 84.0 IP, 13.18 K/9, 3.54 BB/9, 0.21 HR/9, 1.82 ERA, 1.64 FIP, 4.0 WAR.

Octavio Dotel – rhp (2001) – 7-5, 2 S, 61 G, 105.0 IP, 12.43 K/9, 4.03 BB/9, 0.43 HR/9, 2.66 ERA, 2.31 FIP, 3.5 WAR.

Ok, since 10,000 words on this project hasn’t been enough, I’ll make one more entry to wrap up my batting order, manager and what not.  I know, I know, I have problems.  Don’t worry though, because I’m going to cure myself the way Charlie Sheen cured himself, just close my eyes and…

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