Laying the Foundation
September 7, 2007; Page W9C
As the MLB postseason approaches, the outcome of every game is of pivotal importance to a contending team. That tends to make the closers for those teams the center of attention. But a detailed look shows that their setup men deserve just as big a place in the spotlight.
The first thing to notice is that these days closers are usually brought in to start an inning, so they don't often have to start out by working their way out of a jam. New York Mets closer Billy Wagner has faced just three inherited runners all season, while San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman has faced nine. Compare that to the 27 inherited runners faced by middle relievers Aaron Heilman of the Mets and Heath Bell of the Padres.
This trial by fire may be part of the reason why setup men tend to play such important roles in October. The trend began with New York Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera's dominating eighth-inning performances that set the stage for closer John Wetteland in 1996, and continued through last season, when hard-throwing Joel Zumaya helped the Detroit Tigers advance to the World Series.
To determine which setup men have been most effective this season, we'll use off-base percentage (OFB). OFB shows how often a pitcher retires the batter he faces. The higher the number, the better his performance.
This season features some interesting new setup men. For example, the Yankee bullpen added strength by calling Joba Chamberlain up from the minors. In limited work, he's posted a .786 OFB, well above Mr. Rivera's .711. (All OFBs are through games of Tuesday.) Expect Mr. Chamberlain, not Kyle Farnsworth (.657 OFB), to get the call in the eighth inning if the Yankees make the playoffs.
The Cleveland Indians also have an intriguing bullpen situation. Their closer Joe Borowski leads the American League with 40 saves, but his .656 OFB tells another tale. A big reason for the Tribe's success: Rafael Betancourt, whose .803 OFB has been the stingiest in baseball, with Rafael Perez (.760) not far back.
While Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon (.775) has been superb, Eric Gagne, acquired by the BoSox in a trade-deadline deal, has disappointed with a .685 OFB, and is currently sidelined with arm trouble. But expect the stat heads in Boston to notice how effective Hideki Okajima (.760) has been and use him accordingly. For the AL West-leading Angels. Justin Speier (.727) has proved even more effective than Francisco Rodriguez (.702).
In the National League, the closers on the contenders each have a setup man who's equally adept at retiring batters. For the Mets, Messrs. Heilman and Wagner posted identical .711 OFBs, while in San Diego, Messrs. Hoffman and Bell sit at .731 and .736 respectively. That puts them just ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks best tandem of closer Jose Valverde (.721) and Tony Pena (.714)
In the NL Central, Francisco Cordero of the Milwaukee Brewers has 40 saves but his .719 OFB isn't as stellar, and Derrick Turnbow (.695) and Scott Linebrink (.681) have been less than lights-out. On the Chicago Cubs, Carlos Marmol (.719) and Bobby Howry (.701) have been every bit as strong as closer Ryan Dempster (.703). But if relief pitching decides this division, the edge should go to the St. Louis Cardinals. Jason Isringhausen is having a great season with a .747 OFB, and his setup man Troy Percival (.760) has returned to form. Ironically, Mr. Percival collected the save that won the 2002 World Series for the Angels, with the support of Mr. Rodriguez. More than anyone, he understands that down the stretch closers get the glory, but it's the setup men who do the heavy lifting.
Which relievers are earning their pay this year? According to Off-Base Percentage (OFB), which shows the percentage of batters that each reliever retires, such setup men as Cleveland's Rafael Betancourt and New York's Joba Chamberlain have been better than their closers at sending opposing hitters back to the dugout.+
PITCHER TEAM OFB
Rafael Betancourt Cleveland .803
J.J. Putz Seattle .797
Takashi Saito L.A. Dodgers .794
Joba Chamberlain N.Y. Yankees .786
Jonathan Papelbon Boston .775
Hideki Okajima Boston .760
Rafael Perez Cleveland .760
Troy Percival St. Louis .760
Jason Isringhausen St. Louis .747
Ryan Franklin St. Louis .746