2018 Playoff Picture: Who will win late in the game?
by Tyler Young
There has never been a better time to be a relief pitcher in Major League Baseball. Elite closers make massive salaries, teams are altering their entire approach to pitching and hitters are ill-equipped to deal with a revolving door of talent on the mound. This all sets up for a 2018 postseason that could come down to which team did the best job of stockpiling arms throughout the summer.
How a team’s arsenal of relievers will fare in the postseason can be difficult to predict. Strategy changes once the calendar flips to October. No longer are managers interested in watching their fringe middle-inning hurler try to escape a bases-loaded jam of his own creation. Instead, the skippers hone in on a handful of trusted pitchers, and utilize the postseason’s numerous built-in off days to maximize the impact of these pitchers by sending them into nearly every game.
Based on total bullpen performance, the Houston Astros and their 3.00 group ERA should slice right through the competition while the Colorado Rockies and their pedestrian 4.61 ERA may limp to their own demise. It’s not that simple. Playoff relief pitching is about top-end talent, and the ability to stack three or four impact arms on top of one another. Some postseason-bound clubs are set up to do this better than others.
It is the Oakland Athletics who can lay claim to the best individual reliever in the game (for now), Blake Treinen. His 0.79 ERA and 3.5 fWAR lead all hurlers with at least 48 innings out of the ‘pen. Oakland added depth at the deadline with the addition of Jeurys Familia from the Mets. However, Familia has struggled to a 3.56 ERA on account of 14 walks in 30.1 innings since the deal.
Milwaukee boasts the most eye-popping combination with lefty Josh Hader, who strikes out batters at a 15.95 K/9 rate, to go along with the miniscule 1.33 ERA of righty Jeremy Jeffress. The Brewers may have even found a secret weapon in 26-year-old Corey Knebel. The righty has been on fire in the month of September: 13.1 innings, 26 strikeouts, four hits, three walks, no runs, and a .095 opponent batting average.
The defending world champion Astros are an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. None of their pitchers will appear on a list of top relievers. That was the impetus for unloading Ken Giles in exchange for Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, who had been suspended for 75 games following an arrest for assault, back in July. That move deserves criticism, but it has paid off on the field. Osuna has been solid and provides another useful, albeit unspectacular, option in a deep Houston ‘pen.
Many of the other teams ready to make a run in October blend together: one standout arm surrounded by spare parts that, on their day, can shutdown opposing hitters or, just as easily, fall apart. The Red Sox have the ever-reliable Craig Kimbrel and the sporadic Joe Kelly. The Rockies have a sudden stud in Adam Ottavino and a former great in Wade Davis. Have the Dodgers already seen the best that Kenley Jansen can offer? The Indians are full of health concerns. The Braves, Cubs and Cardinals all lack a “go-to” arm.
The one team that stands above the rest are the New York Yankees. When they were unable to find a prototypical “ace” starter at the deadline, they chose to pursue one of the best relievers on the market, Orioles left-hander Zach Britton, adding to an already-impressive stable of late-inning options. This allows manager Aaron Boone to hand the ball from one of the team’s mediocre starting pitchers to Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson or Jonathan Holder; all of whom are holding opposing hitters to a .207 batting average or lower and a WHIP of no higher than 1.08. This shortens the game and allows one of the best teams in baseball to hide one of their few flaws. It’s a strategy that could lead them to their first World Series in nearly a decade.