A pitch has yet to be thrown in the 2014 World Series and there’s already been a winner — free-agent relievers.
Bullpens are the common denominator between the two participants, and never mind — or maybe because of — the narrowness of most of their victories, there has to be more to the Royals and Giants in the Series than randomness. Because 100 years or more of cliches tells us so.
That there’s not won’t stop a lot of teams this offseason from looking at Kelvin Herrera-Wade Davis-Greg Holland in the seventh-eighth-ninth innings for the Royals and trying to duplicate it. They’ll be more likely to duplicate the Royals’ 29 years without if they do.
The Royals have won with defense, speed, bunts and bullpen (and extra-inning home runs) because that’s where their attributes are, just as the Red Sox won last year with power, defense, starting pitching and the best closer in baseball, their ordinary middle relief aside. Build your team to win with the strengths you have, not the ones you wish you had. Donald Rumsfeld might have made a better general manager than Secretary of Defense.
There’s no one way to win, and good, deep bullpens are certainly a way to do it. But they’re no guarantee, as the 2011 Yankees of Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano can attest — not when Ivan Nova starts the deciding game of your playoff series, or when Alex Rodriguez, your $32 million player, strikes out every third at-bat. Robertson had a 1.08 ERA as the seventh-inning pitcher; Soriano missed six weeks of the season and had a 4.12 ERA, but just a .581 OPS against after returning, mostly in the eighth; Rivera had a 1.91 ERA in the ninth. The Yankees lost in five to Detroit despite outscoring the Tigers 28-17.
The Royals, as has been duly noted, aren’t a great team from innings 1-6, but they are from the seventh on. There’s a line of thinking that says the Royals’ defense and bullpen were built for the postseason, as if in October the rules are different. They’re not, and the Royals aren’t, but they’ve benefited from the games being close; i.e., Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas aren’t getting hit (even if James Shields is. Shields is the Royals’ alleged ace, and his nickname is “Big Game James.” The Big Game must refer to Shields’ opponents, given his career 5.19 postseason ERA and his 5.62 2014 postseason ERA in three starts. Of the 26 runs the Royals have allowed in the postseason, Shields has yielded 10 in his three starts).
In their eight playoff games, a Royals starter (Yordano Ventura) has reached the seventh inning only once, and Royals relievers have pitched 31 of the 32 innings post-seventh, allowing just 13 hits, 11 walks and three runs for an 0.87 ERA. And two of the runs were allowed only once the Royals had a lead of multiple runs. The Royals’ bullpen has pitched 16 innings with the score tied from the seventh on, and allowed just a single run.
The Giants haven’t been as good, and it’s not just Hunter Strickland. The Giants’ bullpen has allowed seven seventh-inning-and-later runs this postseason, all by home runs (four by Strickland, two by Jean Machi, one by Sergei Romo).
If the Royals win the Series, the bullpen will be a big reason, and other teams will try to duplicate their success, just as on-base percentage was the rage following the Atheletics’ success a decade ago and defense after the Rays made it in 2008.
Robertson, who can pitch like the Royals’ triumvirate, is a free agent at the right time, is certain to double and may even triple his $5 million 2014 salary. The Yankees may rethink letting him leave so Delin Betances can close.
Andrew Miller is starting to see a contract as big as he is, and at 6-foot-7, that’s a lot of zeroes. Of course, the Orioles gave up two good prospects for Miller in a midseason trade and Miller did his part, allowing one hit and one walk in 7.1 postseason innings, fanning eight. But we’re not talking about Miller being the postseason difference because Orioles starters had a 5.59 ERA in the ALCS.
There’s a lesson there, although there will be a GM or two this winter that won’t heed it. A great bullpen isn’t a complete panacea for an underperforming rotation.
And, somewhere, Scott Eyre, who already made $11 million in three years from the Cubs in a previous relief panic, is trying to stretch his left arm. Just in case.