Watched the Rays-Mariners game on Tuesday night. Seattle scraped across a run in the first inning against David Price but then he and Hisashi Iwakuma traded zeroes, Iwakuma baffling the Rays with his splitters and sliders and moving two-seamers, Price often just blowing the Mariners away with fastballs. One of the best pitching duels I've seen so far as neither team really threatened after the first or even appeared as if they might have a chance to score.
So it's 1-0 entering the ninth inning. Iwakuma, who was making his third start after missing spring training with a tendon injury in his finger, was at 97 pitches. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon went to closer Fernando Rodney, who while often walking a tightrope had blown just one save and that was the result of an error that extended the inning.
Anyway, David DeJesus hit a 2-2 changeup for a home run and a few pitches later the Rays had another run. Price went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth, striking out Justin Smoak swinging on a 96-mph fastball.
McClendon was understandably a little defensive to reporters after the game about pulling Iwakuma, saying:
"I'm going to answer this in probably the best way I can because this is something I certainly don't think I should have to defend. First of all, Kuma is on his third start of the year. He had no spring training. He had  pitches. And I'll answer it this time. Yes, Kuma was out of gas, but I'm not going to defend that all year.
"First of all, I've got one of the best closers in the game. This guy is going to save a bunch of games for us. It just didn't go his way tonight. That's baseball, it happens. I know everybody's upset. I'm upset. I would have booed me. Heck, I'm upset, too, but that's the way it goes. We'll pick up the pieces and get ready for tomorrow."
It was a heartbreaking loss for the Mariners, to be sure. Whether Rodney is one of the best closers in the game remains to be seen -- he's allowed 19 hits and nine walks in 16.1 innings so there are questions there beyond his league-leading 11 saves. But this isn't about ripping McClendon; going to Rodney there is certainly defensible.
The Mariners are 20-19, which isn't necessarily a huge surprise until you factor in that Iwakuma missed time, James Paxton went down with an injury after two starts, Taijuan Walker is still rehabbing in the minors, Robinson Cano has one home run and the offense is last in the AL in on-base percentage and OPS.
My thought in watching Rodney implode: Do surprise teams tend to have great bullpens? If the Mariners are going to be a surprise team and stay in the playoff race, my guess is the bullpen will have to improve on those late-inning results. As we know, great bullpens can often emerge from nowhere (and often fall apart again the following season). Seattle's bullpen has been solid although not spectacular -- 10th in the majors and fourth in the AL with a 3.53 ERA, but the Mariners are just 16-5 when leading entering the eighth inning (the average team has fewer than two losses when leading entering the eighth).
Let's review some recent surprise teams and see how their bullpens stacked up.
2013 Pirates: Had the third-best bullpen ERA in the majors even after trading away closer Joel Hanrahan. Veteran Jason Grilli stepped in as closer and Mark Melancon had a lights-out year as the setup guy. The pen went 30-20 while pitching the fourth-most innings in the majors.
2013 Indians: The overall ERA doesn't impress with a 3.62 ERA that ranked 19th in the majors and closer Chris Perez even lost his job late in the season, but the relievers were at their best when the game was on the line. The Indians were 72-6 when leading after seven, 76-2 when leading after eight and 10-2 in extra innings.
2013 Royals: The Royals didn't make the postseason like Pittsburgh and Cleveland but did win 86 games, the most for the Royals since 1989. The bullpen had a 2.55 ERA, the lowest by an AL team since the 1990 A's.
2012 Orioles: Baltimore made the playoffs with its first winning season since 1997 largely because of its bullpen. The O's went an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning games. The bullpen ERA improved from 4.18 to 3.00.
2012 A's: Oakland's bullpen ERA improved from 3.74 to 2.94 and it posted an impressive 30-14 W-L record.
2011 Diamondbacks: Arizona won the NL West as it went from 65 wins to 94. The bullpen had been dreadful in 2010, with an MLB-worst 5.74 ERA and 32 losses. The D-backs basically rebuilt the entire pen, acquiring J.J. Putz and David Hernandez and the group went 23-14, 3.71.
2011 Brewers: The Brewers were 26th in bullpen ERA in 2010 but sixth in 2011 and the team improved from 77 to 96 wins. Closer John Axford blew two saves early on but then recorded 43 in a row. The next year, the bullpen regressed again as the Brewers led the majors in ninth-inning losses.
2010 Reds: The Reds improved by 13 games to win the NL Central, their first winning season since 2000. This was one case where the bullpen wasn't a big reason why, as it actually had a worse ERA than the year before (3.97 compared to 3.56). They were a solid 74-5 when leading after seven and 78-4 when leading after eight, however.
2009 Rockies: The 4.53 ERA (24th in the majors) isn't impressive, but they went 83-1 when leading after eight innings as closer Huston Street went 35-for-37 in save chances.
2008 Rays: The '07 Rays, losers of 96 games, had maybe the worst bullpen ever, with a 6.16 ERA. The team made a lot of moves that offseason, notably improving its defense, and also signed closer Troy Percival. But much of the improvement came from Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour, all members of the '07 team. The pen went 31-17, 3.55, the second-best mark in the AL. The Rays went from having the worst record in the majors to playing in the World Series.
OK, so the anecdotal evidence says that, yes, surprise teams almost always have a great bullpen, or at least a good one. It's not always the primary reason for a team's improvement, but it's certainly a key factor. Of course, most good teams tend to have pretty good bullpens. I think the point is that bullpens can play a huge role in improvement and regression from year to year, the 2011/2012 Brewers and 2012/2013 Orioles being prime examples.
So, which team fits that bill in 2014? Certainly the Brewers, where Francisco Rodriguez has been stellar as the closer so far. Their 3.03 bullpen ERA ranks seventh in the majors, although that's barely better than a year ago. The Padres are 19-21, not out of it and playing better the past week, and have an MLB-leading 2.09 relief ERA. If their offense can score some runs maybe the bullpen carries them to a wild-card spot. The Giants may not fit the idea of a surprise team but they were under .500 a year ago. Their pen is 12-3 with a 2.17 ERA although it was pretty solid a year ago (3.30 ERA). The Rockies' bullpen ERA has improved by a half a run.
On the bad side, the Blue Jays are 29th in bullpen ERA, although closer Casey Janssen just returned from the DL. I mentioned the Mariners -- who were 29th in bullpen in 2013 -- and their five late losses already. The Marlins have a solid closer in Steve Cishek although the group collectively ranks 20th in the majors with a 4.15 ERA.
So if you're looking for a correlation between a potential surprise team with a great pen, maybe the Padres are the pick.
Or maybe Rodney doesn't blow another save all season.