Relievers. They’re certainly something. When we look at the amount of innings that a starting pitcher accumulates over the course of a season, and then compare it to the innings that a relief pitcher throws, assuming we’re of a sound mind, we’ll more often than not come to the conclusion that the contributions of starters outweigh that of relievers.
I wouldn’t dispute that. No one with any sense would. However, that doesn’t preclude relievers from being valuable members of a baseball team. With the recent popularity attached to looking into win probability added and measuring the leverage of situations on a game by game basis, we’ve come to understand that even though a relief pitcher is working less than a starter, his work tends to be in more stressful situations.
But maybe we’re over-thinking the situation here. Good teams have played like great teams this season specifically because of their bullpens (I’m looking at you Baltimore, Cincinnati and Oakland), and if recent transactions from what we generally consider to be smart front offices in Texas and Toronto are at all telling, maybe there is something more to assembling a bona fide relief corps than what we’ve previously believed.
Whatever your opinion, though, there’s no doubt that three relief pitchers stood out from among the herd in 2012, and put forth contributions that would be welcome on any club: Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays; Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves and Aroldis Champman of the Cincinnati Reds.
While Rodney’s resurgence, or maybe just surgance considering he’s never pitched as well as he did this year, has probably been the most celebrated – and a new record for reliever ERA is certainly a cause for celebration – and Chapman’s freakish velocity continues to turn a lot of heads, the most impressive accomplishment to come out of a bullpen this year was Kimbrel’s 50.2% strike out rate.
We see a number like this, and I wonder if we don’t properly appreciate what an achievement such a statistic is without putting it in less numeric terms. Think about it for a second: Craig Kimbrel struck out more than half of the batters he faced this season. He dominated, as best as a pitcher can, more than one of every two opposition members who came to the plate against him in 2012. No one has ever done that before. Not even close. In fact, the next closest is Eric Gagne who struck out a mere 44.8% of the batters that he faced in 2003.
Here is a partial list of the starting pitchers who didn’t strike out as many batters as Kimbrel did, despite pitching at least twice sometimes three times as many innings:
- Brandon Morrow;
- Clayton Richard;
- Rick Porcello;
- Jake Westbrook; and
- Tim Hudson.
Perhaps most impressively, the Braves closer struck out the side 15 times in 63 appearances this season, giving us all reason to henceforth refer to a pitcher getting an inning’s worth of outs via strike outs as a Kimbrel.