In the past, starting pitchers were thought to be the driving force behind a World Series title. But recent history has shown us that having an elite bullpen can mask a lackluster starting rotation, thus making the idea of needing great starting pitching to win a title obsolete and overrated.
Well, of course, it is not a bad thing to have both elite starting pitching to go with an elite bullpen, but it is not necessary on a quest to getting to and winning a championship. Last season the Cubs rode their three starters of Lester, Arrieta, and Hendricks past the Dodgers and to the World Series. But their 4th starter, John Lackey, struggled in the playoffs but there was no need to fear because of that elite bullpen. Even Kyle Hendricks was successful because of how Joe Maddon utilized him.
Maddon would pull Hendricks at even the slightest hint of trouble. He was able to remove him in the 4th or 5th inning because of how reliable his bullpen was. Their opponent in the World Series was the Cleveland Indians, who, outside of Corey Kluber, had an average starting rotation. But they managed to be one win away from a title despite their mediocre starting pitching.
The main reason for the Indians’ postseason success was the utter dominance of that bullpen. In particular, the back end of it. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller were dominant throughout the playoffs, allowing a combined three runs in 33 innings. So, if Cleveland was able to get them the ball with the lead, it was game over by the 7th inning because Miller will throw two innings and Allen would shut the door in the 9th inning.
So that brings us to the Dodgers who had a bullpen which had a 4.00 ERA in the playoffs. Not to mention they folded in Game 1 of the NLCS, allowing the Cubs to set the tone for rest of the series. Had the Dodgers won Game 1, they would’ve traveled back home with a 2-0 series lead, but the bullpen turned a 3-3 game into an 8-3 meltdown.
But let us take it back another year, where the Dodgers’ bullpen had a 4.61 ERA in the NLDS against the Mets during the 2015 playoffs. I am sure the relievers from that pen are still waking up to nightmares of Daniel Murphy because I know I sure am. How about 2014? 6.48 ERA against the Cardinals with Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter giving us the heartache.
All these bullpen debacles just continue to prove the point that starting pitching can be seen as overrated if you don’t have reliable relief pitching. The Dodgers had two of the best pitchers in the entire MLB with Greinke and Kershaw yet could not end the World Series drought that Los Angeles has experienced since 1988.
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One thing that really stands out is how, if you have a great bullpen, you don’t have to force your starter to go longer than he has too. When people point out how Kershaw has struggled in October, I am quick to defend him by saying he is consistently being left out on the bump one inning too long because the manager has slim to no faith in the bullpen.
When you have a bad bullpen, it can cause great starting pitching to become exposed due to fatigue. But, when you have a great bullpen, it can make an okay rotation look better because the starter is out there knowing that he will have help and is more willing to get sit down when he needs to be, instead of laboring on for too long and hurting the team much like Sir Clayton Kershaw.
Not only is having a dominant bullpen good for your team morale, but it can be disastrous for the opposing team. If the relievers are lights out and the opposing team is trailing, in their heads they start to doubt that they will come back. But it has the reverse effect if the bullpen is God awful. They want the bullpen to come in, and when they do, the opposing team will be licking their chops.
Besides the fact that he was just utterly dominant, one of the main reasons Eric Gagne was so successful during the early 2000’s was that intimidation factor. The moniker of “Game Over” was intimidating to other teams and lowered their morale. In a way, they were out before they even stepped into the box. In the game of baseball, morale and confidence are important, and when both are low, you might as well give yourself up as an out.
A dominant bullpen can make or break your October. If a team does not have that, then it does not matter how good your starting pitchers are. Maybe in the past starting pitching was more important than a bullpen, but with the emergence of an analytics driven game, we see teams prioritize a bullpen over the rotation. This is all because they know that having starting pitching means very little in October if your bullpen is a grease fire a can’t maintain a lead or keep a deficit close.