We have gone through each team’s best lineup trio and rotation duo, and now we are moving on to examining each team’s most dominant bullpen duo. In recent years, teams have become heavily reliant on having a great bullpen, especially since teams more frequently go with full bullpen games.
Starting in the American League, every team has had a dominant closer at some point, but there are some names that fans may not recognize. While most of these pitchers helped their teams get to the postseason, others had great seasons on disappointing teams.
Baltimore Orioles: Darren O’Day and Zack Britton, 2015
It feels like an eternity ago, but the Orioles had one of the best bullpens in baseball in the middle of the 2010s. O’Day and Britton were close to automatic whenever they came into games, baffling hitters with their different arm angles and insane movement on their pitches.
O’Day had a career year, pitching to a 1.52 earned run average and 2.49 fielding independent pitching with a 0.934 walks plus hits per inning pitched and a career-high 82 strikeouts in 65.2 innings (11.3 K/9) while also racking up six saves. He also made his lone All-Star appearance of his career. Britton meanwhile pitched to a 1.92 ERA/2.01 FIP and a 0.990 WHIP with 79 strikeouts in 65.2 innings (10.9 K/9) and picked up 36 saves. Britton was also selected to his first All-Star Game and allowed just three homers all year. Unfortunately, the rest of the team was middle of the pack in most categories and the team finished the year at just 81-81.
Boston Red Sox: Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon, 2007
The 2007 Red Sox were electrifying in many ways, including their bullpen. Okajima and Papelbon were the best back-end duo in baseball with both making the All-Star Game. In his first season in MLB, Okajima registered a 2.22 ERA/3.33 FIP, a 0.971 WHIP, and 63 strikeouts in 69 innings (8.2 K/9). He also locked down five saves and finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.
Papelbon backed up his excellent rookie campaign with a 1.85 ERA/2.45 FIP, a 0.771 WHIP, and 84 strikeouts in 58.1 innings (13.0 K/9). He also picked up 37 saves. Thanks in part to this duo, the Red Sox had the best record in baseball at 96-66 and rode that mojo to their second World Series title in four years.
Chicago White Sox: Neal Cotts and Dustin Hermanson, 2005
On paper, the 2005 White Sox were not projected to be a major threat in the AL. Surprisingly though, they won 99 games and didn’t spend a day in second place. While their offense was middle-of-the-pack, their rotation and bullpen carried the team.
Cotts had the best season of his career, turning in a strong 1.94 ERA/2.95 FIP, a 1.110 WHIP, and 58 strikeouts in 60.1 innings (8.7 K/9). On the other hand, the journeyman righty Hermanson had a resurgence in his age-32 season. After Shingo Takatsu struggled, Hermanson took over the closer’s role and ran with the job. While he wasn’t a strikeout artist, Hermanson picked up 34 saves and pitched to a 2.04 ERA/3.72 FIP and a 1.099 WHIP. Despite Hermanson getting injured late in the season, the White Sox dominated in the postseason, only losing one game en route to their first World Series title since 1917.
Cleveland Indians: Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, 2017
We’ve written before about how great the 2017 Indians were, and they really did not have a weakness. In addition to an elite offense and a fantastic starting rotation, Cleveland had a dynamite bullpen, anchored by Miller and Allen.
Miller was arguably the best lefty reliever in baseball, turning in a sparkling 1.44 ERA/1.99 FIP, a 0.830 WHIP, and 95 strikeouts in 62.2 innings (13.6 K/9). He was an All-Star for the second straight year, picking up the save for the AL in the Midsummer Classic. Allen meanwhile pitched to a 2.94 ERA/3.19 FIP, a 1.158 WHIP, and 92 strikeouts in 67.1 innings (12.3 K/9). Allen also picked up 30 saves, giving him three consecutive seasons of 30 or more saves.
Detroit Tigers: Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde, 2011
The bullpen has been Detroit’s biggest weakness throughout this century, but it was not in 2011. Benoit turned in a strong 2.95 ERA/2.96 FIP and a 1.049 WHIP with 63 strikeouts in 61 innings (9.3 K/9) while serving as the team’s primary setup man.
Valverde meanwhile had a 2.24 ERA/3.55 FIP, a 1.189 WHIP, and 69 strikeouts in 72.1 innings (8.6 K/9). Despite his 4.2 BB/9, Valverde led the majors with 49 saves and did not blow a single save opportunity. he was an all-star for the second straight year and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. With the help of their bullpen’s performance, the Tigers made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, defeating the Yankees in the ALDS before falling to the Rangers in the ALCS.
Houston Astros: Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge, 2005
This duo actually comes from Houston was in the National League, but they will still be included in this list. The 2005 Astros had the second-best ERA in the NL and had three Cy Young candidates in their rotation. Their bullpen had arguably the best back-end duo in Major League Baseball with Wheeler and Lidge.
In his first full season in Houston, Wheeler turned in a 2.21 ERA/3.28 FIP, a 0.982 WHIP, and 69 strikeouts in 73.1 innings (8.5 K/9). He also racked up three saves and lowered his ERA by a full two runs from the year prior. Lidge was the best closer in baseball, pitching to a 2.21 ERA/2.13 FIP and a 1.149 WHIP with 103 strikeouts in 70.2 innings (13.1 K/9), while also racking up 42 saves. Lidge was an All-Star and even received some down-ballot MVP votes.
Thanks to their strong pitching, the Astros recovered from a 15-30 start to win the NL Wild Card spot. They made it all the way to the World Series before falling to the White Sox.
Kansas City Royals: Wade Davis and Greg Holland, 2014
Between Kelvin Herrera, Davis, and Holland, the Royals had some of the deadliest bullpen weapons in MLB history. Davis and Holland were the eighth and ninth-inning guys and were as close to automatic as you can get. Davis was converted to being a reliever full time, and he turned in a dazzling 1.00 ERA/1.19 FIP and a 0.847 WHIP to go with 109 strikeouts in 72 innings (13.6 K/9). Davis also didn’t allow a home run all season. While he was not an All-Star, Davis finished eighth in AL Cy Young voting.
Holland turned his second straight stellar, pitching to a 1.44 ERA/1.83 FIP and a 0.914 WHIP with 90 strikeouts in 62.1 innings (13.0 K/9) while going 46-for-48 in save opportunities. Holland was an All-Star for the second time while finishing ninth in Cy Young voting and 16th in MVP voting. Holland was given the Mariano Rivera award for his excellence.
Thanks in large part to their bullpen, the Royals were able to snap their 29-year-long playoff drought, grabbing the top AL Wild Card spot. Holland and Davis combined to allow just two runs in 19.1 innings in the postseason, with Holland racking up seven saves. The Royals made it all the way to the World Series before falling to the Giants in seven games.
Los Angeles Angels: Brendan Donnelly and Troy Percival, 2002
The Angels entered 2002 having missed the playoffs every season since 1986. While they maintained their hitting core of years past, their pitching staff tended to be their weakness. That changed in the ’02 season, especially in the bullpen.
After getting cut by six different organizations, Brendan Donnelly finally found a home in Anaheim at the age of 30. He became one of the team’s primary setup men, pitching to a 2.17 ERA/2.58 FIP and a 1.027 WHIP with 54 strikeouts in 49.2 innings (9.8 K/9). Percival meanwhile continued to cement his status as the greatest closer in franchise history. He turned in a 1.92 ERA/3.03 FIP and a 1.118 WHIP with 68 strikeouts in 56.1 innings (10.9 K/9) while recording 40 saves. While he wasn’t an All-Star, Percival finished 15th in MVP voting.
The Angels broke their playoff drought with a 99-win season, snagging the AL Wild Card spot. They defeated the Yankees and Twins on their way to the World Series. Percival allowed three runs in 10.1 postseason innings while racking seven saves, while Donnelly did not allow a run in 7.2 World Series innings. The Angels won their first World Series, defeating the Giants in seven games.
Minnesota Twins: Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan, 2004
The Twins struck gold after watching Eddie Guardado sign with the Mariners in free agency. They received much-improved results from Juan Rincon and inserted Joe Nathan into the closer’s role after acquiring him in a trade with the Giants.
Rincon registered a 2.63 ERA/2.50 FIP and a 1.024 WHIP with 106 strikeouts in 82 innings (11.6 K/9). Rincon also led the team with 77 appearances. Nathan on the other hand excelled in the closer’s role, turning in a stellar 1.62 ERA/2.16 FIP and a 0.982 WHIP with 89 strikeouts in 72.1 innings (11.1 K/9) while racking up 44 saves. Nathan was an All-Star for the first time, finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, and finished 12th in MVP voting. The Twins won the AL Central for the third straight year, but they were sent packing by the Yankees in the American League Division Series.
New York Yankees: David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, 2011
While Mariano Rivera was a constant at the back end of the Yankees bullpen, his setup men often changed every few seasons. In 2011, David Robertson assumed that role and became one of the best relievers in baseball. The Alabama native turned in a sparkling 1.08 ERA/1.82 FIP and a 1.125 WHIP with an even 100 strikeouts in 66.2 innings (13.5 K/9). Robertson was an All-Star, finished 11th in Cy Young voting, and even earned a few MVP votes. Mo, steady as always, delivered another fantastic year in his age-41 season. He had a 1.91 ERA/2.19 FIP, a 0.897 WHIP, 44 saves, and 60 strikeouts in 61.1 innings (8.8 K/9). On September 19th of that year, Rivera became the game’s all-time saves leader. He was an All-Star for the 12th time and finished eighth in Cy Young voting. The Yankees won the AL East but were ousted by the Tigers in the ALDS.
Oakland A’s: Justin Duchscherer and Huston Street, 2005
The A’s cycled through four different closers between 2001-2004, and they had to go to yet another new closer in 2005 after Octavio Dotel got injured early in the season. Justin Duchscherer was locked in as the team’s setup man, turning in a 2.21 ERA/2.83 FIP and a 1.004 WHIP with 85 strikeouts in 85.1 innings (8.9 K/9). Duchscherer also racked up five saves and made the All-Star Game.
The A’s inserted Street into the closer’s role after Dotel’s injury and he solidified himself in that role. Street pitched to a 1.72 ERA/2.75 FIP and a 1.009 WHIP with 23 saves and 72 strikeouts in 78.1 innings (8.3 K/9). Street won the AL Rookie of the Year award and earned some down-ballot MVP votes. Unfortunately, the A’s were not able to undo an ugly 7-20 month of May and missed the playoffs with an 88-74 record.
Seattle Mariners: Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki, 2001
We have talked about how amazing the 2001 Mariners were, as they were the best team in baseball in every way, shape, and form during the regular season. Their bullpen was as magnificent as the rest of the team, with Rhodes and Sasaki at the back end. Rhodes was the team’s most dependable southpaw, turning in a strong 1.72 ERA/2.14 FIP and a 0.853 WHIP with 83 strikeouts in 68 innings (11.0 K/9). Sasaki backed up his strong rookie campaign with a 3.24 ERA/3.03 FIP and 0.885 WHIP along with 45 saves and 62 strikeouts in 66.2 innings (8.4 K/9). Sasaki was an All-Star and finished 19th in MVP voting. Unfortunately, both Rhodes and Sasaki fell apart along with the rest of the team as they were sent packing in the ALCS by the Yankees.
Tampa Bay Rays: Jake McGee and Fernando Rodney, 2012
The 2012 Rays paced the AL with a 3.19 team ERA, and their bullpen was a big reason why. The ‘pen sported an AL-best 2.88 ERA, anchored by McGee and a resurgent Fernando Rodney. In his first full season, McGee turned in a pristine 1.95 ERA/1.81 FIP and 0.795 WHIP with 73 strikeouts in 55.1 innings (11.9 K/9). Rodney meanwhile had a generational year in his age-35 season. He registered a minuscule 0.60 ERA/2.13 FIP (just five earned runs all season) and a 0.777 WHIP with 76 strikeouts in 74.2 innings (9.2 K/9). Rodney also went 48-for-50 in save opportunities, made his first All-Star Game, and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. The Rays won 90 games, but that was not enough to make the playoffs in a tough AL.
Texas Rangers: Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz, 2010
This is the only duo in either league that is made up of two rookies. Ogando became the team’s setup man after he was called up in June, and he ran with the role. He turned in a sterling 1.30 ERA/3.06 FIP and a 1.128 WHIP with 39 strikeouts in 41.2 innings (8.4 K/9). Feliz meanwhile won the closer’s role out of Spring Training and rewarded the club with a 2.73 ERA/2.96 FIP, a 0.880 WHIP, 40 saves, and 71 strikeouts in 69.1 innings (9.2 K/9). Feliz was an all-star and won the AL Rookie of the Year award. Feliz also stood on the mound when the Rangers won their first AL pennant that October. Unfortunately, they fell to the Giants in the World Series.
Toronto Blue Jays: Scott Downs and B.J. Ryan, 2008
Downs and Ryan had teamed up before, but this was the year where both players had great years. Serving as the setup man, Downs had the best season of his career with a 1.78 ERA/3.39 FIP, a 1.146 WHIP, and 57 strikeouts in 70.2 innings (7.3 K/9). After missing almost of 2007, Ryan had a bounceback season, turning in a 2.95 ERA/3.68 FIP, a 1.276 WHIP, 32 saves, and 58 strikeouts in 58 innings (9.0 K/9). Unfortunately, the Jays did not come close to the playoffs, as their offense ranked just like 11th in runs scored.
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