Is Oakland's Bullpen The Best In The Bigs?

Doolittle plays the saddest violin for all of the hitters he retires. - Bob Levey

The Oakland A's have a dominant bullpen thanks to their core of Balfour, Doolittle, Cook, and Blevins. Is that the best 4-man squad in the Majors?

The Oakland Athletics currently have a 29-23 record, which puts them in the top 10 teams in the Majors by winning percentage. At first, they were doing it with an explosive offense, but the lineup has stagnated in May due to injuries and a bit of regression; the team ranks 24th in scoring in the month of May. At no point have they succeeded due to consistently good starting pitching (23rd in starter's ERA, 3rd in home runs allowed by starters), although Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily are starting to stabilize a bit behind the solid trio of Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, and Bartolo Colon. The defense has not been as strong as expected, with the A's ranking 25th in UZR and 28th in Defensive Runs Saved. So, what part of the team has excelled enough to make up for the underperformance of offense, defense, and starting pitching?

Here is a list of the best bullpen ERA's in the Majors, entering Tuesday:

1. San Francisco - 2.74
2. Oakland - 2.78
3. Pittsburgh - 2.83
4. Colorado - 2.96
5. Kansas City - 3.07

A dominant bullpen isn't enough to make you win all on its own, but it's enough to salvage the games where you have a chance to win. Case in point, the pen has blown only four save opportunities this year, and, since none of them have come in the 9th inning, the A's have actually come back to win three of those games. Two of the blown saves were by Jerry Blevins when he was inserted into a pair of tough 6th inning jams, and the other two came in the 8th innings of games (one each by Doolittle and Cook). Grant Balfour hasn't blown a save since last April, about 13 months ago.

While most bullpens run seven deep, there are usually a few top relievers who absorb most of the important innings. The A's are no different; the quartet of Balfour, Doolittle, Cook, and Blevins have thrown 87.2 out of Oakland's 162 relief innings. When it comes down to it, your bullpen won't be judged by the Okajima or Chavez sitting at the end of the bench. It'll be judged by the guys who are going to be coming in to nail down the last three innings of a playoff game. Here is what those four pitchers have done for the A's so far:

Name E.R.A. Innings Hits Strikeouts Walks Inherited Runners Scored
Grant Balfour 1.33 20.1 13 23 11 N/A (0/0)
Sean Doolittle 0.78 23.0 9 23 3 10% (1/10)
Ryan Cook 2.49 21.2 19 26 8 25% (1/4)
Jerry Blevins 1.99 22.2 14 20 1 31% (4/13)

Nobody is being particularly overworked. We're about a third of the way through the season, and none of these four pitchers have even reached 25 innings yet, despite the fact that they always seem to be available when their pre-determined roles come up. Nobody has enormous red flags in their peripherals, except for Doolittle's low hit total - and even if those hits start falling in and his ERA rises by a full run, he'll still look like an All-Star. Balfour's walk total seems high, but two of them have been intentional walks which at least don't speak to a lack of control. Cook hasn't allowed a home run, but he showed the ability to suppress the long-ball last year as well, so that might be a relatively sustainable skill for him. Blevins is riding a 20:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which...yeah, ok, I can't explain that one. Well played, Blevins.

With Pat Neshek pitching better of late, and Jesse Chavez settling into the mop-up role with surprising effectiveness, the A's bullpen is pretty deep right now. The best part is that the 7th man isn't some AAA scrub, but rather former All-Star Hideki Okajima. Granted, his velocity is down and he's off to a shaky start, but it's still more promising to take a flyer on a previously successful veteran like Okajima than some random journeyman or raw youngster.

It's enough for me to just look at the A's bullpen and be happy. It's good, and it's helping the team win games. However, we're going to take this a step further: Does Oakland currently have the best bullpen in the Majors?

In order to judge this, I'm going to focus primarily on the top four relievers from a handful of pens around the league. I'm not going to judge teams by their 6th and 7th relievers. What follows is a rough list of candidates for best 4-man bullpen squad in the Majors. I'm sure that I missed somebody, so feel free to reprimand me in the comments. At the end, we'll have a completely unbiased poll to determine where Oakland ranks on this list. Note that I'm mostly interested in 2013 numbers due to the inherent volatility of relief pitchers, though prior track record could play a small role. I also wrote this kind of quickly, so if I misspelled a name or messed up a stat here or there then please (gently) correct me in the comments.

Giants

May as well start here, since they have the top bullpen ERA in the Majors. The top four, with ERA and K/BB, and percentage of inherited runners scored

Sergio Romo - 3.00, 24/3, 0%
Jeremy Affeldt - 2.35, 9/8, 71%
Javier Lopez - 2.08, 15/4, 8%
Chad Guadin - 1.95, 26/12, 17%

It was tough to pick a top four, because there are three other relievers with ERA's below 2.00: Santiago Casilla (on the DL), Jose Mijares (16 K's in 15 innings), and Jean Machi (13 K's to 3 BB's). Both Mijares and Machi have been better than Affeldt this year, but the veteran got the nod here based on track record. However you slice it, the Giants pen is awesome from top to bottom with the lone exception of George Kontos (who was pretty awesome in 2012).

Pirates

Jason Grilli - 1.19, 34/5, 0% (out of 2)
Mark Melancon - 1.00, 27/1, N/A (no inherited runners)
Justin Wilson - 1.55, 28/14, 31%
Vin Mazzaro - 2.25, 13/4, 0% (out of 7)

No, seriously, Vin Mazzaro is there. This bullpen has been absurd. They haven't been tested too much in terms of inherited runners, but it could be because none of them are allowing baserunners at all.

Braves

Craig Kimbrel - 2.33, 29/4, 100% (but it was only one runner)
Eric O'Flaherty - 2.50, 11/5, 33%
Anthony Varvaro - 2.33, 20/6, 50%
Cory Gearrin - 2.05, 16/6, 27%

This squad is still good, but it just doesn't look the same without Jonny Venters. Kimbrel is still on the short list for best reliever in the Majors, though.

Rockies

Rafael Betancourt - 2.55, 18/9, 0% (out of 2)
Edgmer Escalona - 2.89, 22/5, 0% (out of 5)
Matt Belisle - 3.29, 22/7, 13%
Rex Brothers - 0.39, 22/11, 40%

It's impressive that they're succeeding in Coors Field, but it's also hard to bet on them based on their home park.

Tigers

Jose Valverde - 0.75, 11/4, 0% (out of 2)
Joaquin Benoit - 1.64, 27/8, 0% (out of 5)
Drew Smyly - 2.30, 32/9, 0% (out of 5)
Al Alburquerque - 3.14, 26/13, 36%

This doesn't even include Darren Downs, who is having a fantastic year, or Phil Coke, who is having a bad start but has a good track record. It should also be noted that former starting pitcher Smyly has thrown 31.1 innings already. Detroit is a strong contender here.

Yankees

Mariano Rivera - 1.40, 16/2, 50% (out of 2)
David Robertson - 3.00, 28/6, 25%
Shawn Kelley - 5.49 , 33/5, 0% (out of 9; also, K/BB trumped ERA here, in 19.2 innings)
Adam Warren - 1.14, 17/6, 100% (4 out of 4)

Boone Logan has also been fantastic as a LOOGY.

Rangers

Joe Nathan - 2.21, 19/7, 75% (6 out of 8!)
Tanner Scheppers - 0.71, 16/7, 0% (out of 5)
Robbie Ross - 0.39, 17/6, 10%
Jason Frasor - 3.86, 15/6, 38%

This bullpen is really only three-deep, and Nathan has lost a step at age 38. However, they've only blown two saves, which is the best in the Majors.

Conclusion

In my opinion, this comes down to the A's, Giants, Tigers, and Pirates. I have to objectively cut the Pirates based on the fact that too many of those guys have no track record to speak of, and I'm going to cut the Tigers because I don't trust Valverde after last year's meltdown and I've never been a fan of Benoit's. It comes down to A's and Giants.

I'm not here to tell you what to think. Of course I want to choose the A's over the Giants because they're my favorites, and of course I want to pick the Giants over the A's just to be devil's advocate and start a big argument. Honestly, I'm too close to this one to pick with an unbiased eye. A's or Giants. Giants or A's. I'll leave it up to you in the poll. Then, the two teams will go head to head to find out once and for all.

(Note: The results of these games will absolutely not determine who has the better bullpen, because baseball doesn't work like that.)

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