If good pitching beats good hitting, the Indians go into this postseason with a distinct advantage over the competition. Even over those yummy young Yankees. And if good hitting beats good pitching, a few postseason bullpens have key vulnerabilities. Rather than bore you with why I think everyone else can just hurry up and wait for the Indians to claim this year what they nearly did last, let’s expand upon those two thoughts.
* The Indians finished the season with a 3.30 team earned run average and a 3.33 team fielding-independent pitching average. Their ERA is 28 points lower than the next-lowest among the postseason entrants, the Dodgers (3.58 ERA); their FIP, 34 points lower than the next-lowest among the postseason staffs. (The Dodgers, again: 3.67.)
For the record, here are the other postseason teams’ ERAs:
And, their team FIPs:
But the Indians also walked the fewest batters (406) of any team in the Show this season while striking out the most. (1,614.) They also had only one equal for the lowest walks and hits per inning pitched rate (1.16), the Dodgers.
The Indians’ pitching staff had the game’s best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.98) while surrendering the fewest home runs (163) in a year in which the Show hit the most home runs in its history. (6,105.) They also surrendered the fewest runs (564) and earned runs (529), while only the Yankees’ and the Dodgers’ pitching staffs allowed fewer hits.
That’s one way to help go 32-4 down the stretch including that extraterrestrial 22-game winning streak. And that was without Andrew Miller, when he missed significant August and September time with knee tendinitis.
* Speaking of Miller Time, now we come to the running of the bulls. Whom among the postseason contenders has the biggest bullpen vulnerabilities?
Astros—Closer Ken Giles was lights out in the second half with that 1.19 ERA and a 44-to-8 strikeout-to-walk rate over 30.3 innings pitched. The rest of the Astros’ pen that should cause Astros fans worries, alas; consistency wasn’t exactly their trademark. Luke Gregerson was the weak link with his 4.57 ERA; Michael Feliz’s 5.63 ERA is belied by his 3.58 FIP, until you throw in his 1.56 WHIP.
It’s not unrealistic to assume manager A.J. Hinch will ask Giles for more than a few saves or more than three or even four outs for as long as the Astros last. Which makes the key question how long can Giles last before he’s gassed at the worst possible moment?
Cubs—The good news: Wade Davis blew only one save all year, and that was last week, when he surrendered a pair of ninth and tenth inning homers to the Brewers. The bad news: his walk rate is up over previous seasons, and the six bombs he surrendered all year were the most of his career. The best news: Davis included, the Cub bullpen put up a 3.01 ERA (Hector Rondon’s 4.24 kept it from coming under 3.00). And their FIP was 3.34.
Manager Joe Maddon may not have to ask anyone for longer distance pitching, but none of the Cubs’ top five relievers have more innings pitched than games in which they appeared. They may be able to go more than an inning if needed. May.
Diamondbacks—Their best relief pitcher isn’t their closer. With ancient Fernando Rodney bagging 39 saves despite his 4.23 ERA (fair disclosure: he did have a little hard luck, as his 3.03 FIP would indicate to a certain extent), manager Torey Lovullo may want to think about using Archie Bradley to close in certain situations, never mind bringing him in earlier than the eighth or even the seventh: 1.73 ERA; 2.61 FIP; 1.06 WHIP, and he’s pitched ten more innings than he has appearances.
Bradley could turn up as the Snakes’ Andrew Miller. Even if he’s not quite in Miller’s league, he’s good enough to give Lovullo a secret weapon out of the pen. Because nobody really trusts Fernando Rodney—including maybe Fernando Rodney.
Dodgers—Kenley Jansen had another stellar season. ERA: 1.32. FIP: 1.31. WHIP: 0.74. And that, believe it or not, is why the Dodgers might be vulnerable if the other guys get into their bullpen, which is a somewhat mixed bag who have flaws enough that manager Dave Roberts must resist the temptation to overuse Jansen.
His bullpen workhorse: Ross Stripling, who pitched 25 more innings than he had appearances, but is slightly prone to the long ball compared to other relievers. His sleeper: Luis Avilan. Avilan has a 2.93 ERA and a 2.96 FIP, suggesting he knows what he’s doing out there even if his 1.39 WHIP is slightly on the alarm side.
If Roberts needs a stopper early enough in a game, Avilan could be his short-range Miller. I say short range because he threw only 46 innings in 61 gigs, but he could go longer considering his best pitch is a non-taxing changeup that made him more than a one-out lefty specialist.
Indians—The bullpen ERA: 2.71. The bullpen FIP: 3.04. Which might have been even lower if not for Dan Otero’s 3.64 FIP. The bottom line: With apologies to Casey Stengel*, get your runs now—Miller Time is coming. And with that overall team 3.30 ERA, good luck getting the runs now. Or then, for that matter.
Nationals—Bringing in Sean Doolittle and then Ryan Madson, both from whatever passes for the Athletics these days, pulled the Nats’ pen together when they married to Matt Albers. And a bloody good thing, too, because without Doolittle and Madson the Nats’ bullpen would be hauled up on arson charges.
In fact, Madson as a Nat pulled down a 1.37 ERA and a 1.07 FIP to go with his 0.84 WHIP. Madson could end up being a lot more valuable to manager Dusty Baker than people think. And he’s been tested and then some in postseason pitching, with the 2008-11 Phillies and the 2015 Royals. Lifetime postseason ERA: 2.91.
Red Sox—They have a top of the line closer, Craig Kimbrel. Shifting David Price from the rotation to the pen in the last month has people thinking the Red Sox may now have their Miller. It’s the rest of the Red Sox bullpen that may be a question mark. That is not good considering Rick Porcello’s down year and that only Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz are the most reliable starters.
Playing a division series against the Astros, the Red Sox may find themselves wondering just whose between the two bullpens will be the most vulnerable if the games get tight early.
Rockies—Greg Holland was impossible to touch in the first half, sputtered in August, re-horsed in September. The rest of the Rockies’ pen? Don’t ask. This does not look good for them surviving the National League wild card game. And if they manage to survive it, it may take enough out of them to leave them prone in a division set against the Dodgers.
Twins—Compared to the Twins’ bullpen, the Rockies’ pen looks like that of last year’s Indians. As if the Twins don’t have enough of a handicap having to face the Yankees in the wild card game? Their survival in that game may mean even less in a division series in which their opponent would be the Indians. Pen ERA: 3.90. Pen FIP: 3.98.
Yankees—The good news: Closer Aroldis Chapman re-claimed his job with a small flourish down the September stretch. The better news: the Yankee pen ERA is 2.80. The equal news: the pen’s FIP is 3.02. If the Yankees club the Twins early in the wild card game, it’s no contest.
Which means that getting to a division series against the Indians is liable to be a battle of the bullpens, assuming the Indians’ starters can keep those frisky young Yankee bats at bay long enough to go to the pen. The Indians went 4-2 against the Yankees on the season. That’s not an unrealistic thought for how they’d do in a division series, either.
* Once upon a time, when Satchel Paige made the majors to become an effective relief pitcher, and Casey Stengel managed the Yankees, the Ol’ Perfesser would admonish his men at the moment he saw Paige warming up in the bullpen, “Get your runs now—Father Time is coming!”