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Is Mr. October Hiding in the Bullpen?

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Wild Card World Series kicks off tonight, with the American League’s Kansas City Royals hosting the National League’s San Francisco Giants in a matchup nobody saw coming (none of the experts at MLB.com, anyway).

Heading into the season, most chose the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers as the favorites to represent the AL and the NL, respectively. It made sense, with each team boasting superstar hitters and reigning Cy Young winners. The Tigers and the Dodgers finished the regular season atop their respective divisions. Everything was going according to plan.

And then, October baseball happened, and nothing made sense anymore. Previously untouchable aces such as the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Tigers' Max Scherzer were rocked in their starts, putting their teams en route to early exits in the divisional series. Meanwhile, the Royals and the Giants, both squeaking into the playoffs through the one-game Wild Card round, faced league leaders, stifling pitching and extra-inning contests in the divisional and championship series, and somehow, still, remain standing.

Baseball is beautiful in that it’s at once calculated and random, a game of failure wherein success is rare but richly rewarded. The old adage that “pitching and defense win championships” only really takes you as far as October. Once the season changes to fall, adages are debunked, long-held wisdom rendered moot. The only predictions worth reading are those made in hindsight.

What we’re seeing this year isn’t exactly a complete rejection of the conventionally held value of pitching in the playoffs. Rather, the Royals and Giants are demonstrating the underappreciated, often maligned arms that every championship team needs: the bullpen. Whether it be nerves or fatigue or those pesky baseball gods, starting pitchers can falter in the playoffs in ways we’d never seen during the regular season --just ask Kershaw. And in the regular season itself, the rise of injuries requiring Tommy John surgery causes managers to limit their prized starters’ innings to protect their long-term investments. The role of relievers is perhaps more valuable than ever before, even as fans largely view them as failed starters and only notice their work when they falter.

The relative value of bullpens is constantly debated among fans and experts alike. Relief pitchers’ value is often measured by sabermetricians in terms of "leverage," which measures the importance of the situation in which one is pitching. Put simply, the at-bats relievers face in later innings are higher-leverage situations than those faced by starters at the beginning of the game. This is no way means that a seventh- or eighth-inning pitcher is inherently more valuable than a starter, but it provides some context to the importance of bullpen work, especially middle relief, which tends to be devalued when compared to the job of a starter or a closer.

The Royals’ path to the World Series was paved by their formidable bullpen, featuring the arms of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland. During the regular season, they boasted miniscule earned run averages of 1.00, 1.41 and 1.44, respectively, effectively shortening each game to six innings. Typically, Herrera pitches the seventh, with Davis setting up for the closer Holland. The so-called “three-headed monster” attack has brought teams World Series success in the past, most notably the 1990 Cincinnati Reds (aka “The Nasty Boys”), the 1996 and 1998-2000 New York Yankees, and the 2002 Anaheim Angels (now known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).

But the Royals’ monster might just be the scariest of them all. The bullpen has been the Kansas City star in the absence of any real power threat or a true ace. "Big Game" James Shields performed admirably this season, finishing 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA and averaging 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings. But he’s not exactly a shut-down pitcher, especially in the playoffs. In his three starts this postseason, Shields has a 5.63 ERA and hasn’t pitched deeper than the sixth inning. In fact, only one Royals starter has pitched into the seventh this postseason -- Yordano Ventura in Game 2 of the ALDS. Thanks to their teammates in the 'pen, the starters haven’t needed to last very long; counting the regular season, the Royals are 65-4 headed into the seventh inning with a lead.

As ESPN’s Dave Schoenfeld notes, however, the Giants have a good bullpen, too, if one with fewer accolades. Though San Francisco’s previous championships were seemingly built on its starting pitching -- and this team boasts the closest thing to an ace this World Series features, in Madison Bumgarner -- the bullpen has actually been the Giants’ biggest strength. San Francisco’s relievers have the benefit of postseason experience, with Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez veterans from the team’s World Series runs in 2010 and 2012.

If everything goes as planned, the Royals will have the clear edge in relief pitching. But this being October, we should expect the unexpected. Royals manager Ned Yost has more to work with, but there’s a reason “Yosted” emerged as a derisive term for managerial mistakes this season. Giants manager Bruce Bochy, on the other hand, can seemingly do no wrong. The only thing we can truly predict is that the unsung heroes of championship bullpens may finally get their due.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net