In my chat last week, a reader asked if the Kansas City Royals' bullpen duo of Wade Davis and Greg Holland are have a historic season?
I'm not quite sure how to address the question. There's no doubt the pair has been terrific: Setup guy Davis has a 0.89 ERA in 50.1 innings while closer Holland has a 1.77 ERA in 45.2 innings with 34 saves in 36 opportunities.
That sounds impressive, especially since both have averaged 13.6 strikeout per nine innings -- a combined 145 K's in 96 innings. But just two years ago, Craig Kimbrel had a 1.01 ERA for the Braves and teammate Eric O'Flaherty a 1.73 ERA; they combined for 162 strikeouts in 120 innings (12.2 per nine innings).
Like the Royals' duo, that pair didn't pitch a lot of innings. The 2003 Dodgers had a dynamite 1-2-3 punch that pitched substantially more innings:
Eric Gagne: 1.20 ERA, 55 saves in 55 chances, 82.1 IP, 137 SO
Guillermo Mota: 1.97 ERA, 105 IP, 99 SO
Paul Quantrill: 1.75 ERA, 77.1 IP, 44 SO
Like Davis and Holland, who haven't allowed any unearned runs, those ERAs weren't boosted by too many unearned runs either -- Gagne had one, Mota zero and Quantrill three. Considering the overall level of offense was much higher in 2003 and the number of innings pitched for these, I'd argue the Gagne/Mota duo easily trumps the Royals' and Braves' pair in value, even if their strikeout rates weren't as high.
In fact, using Baseball-Reference, Gagne's WAR was 3.7 and Mota's 3.0. Is that the greatest bullpen duo? I did a search on Baseball-Reference for teams with at least two relievers who earned 3 or more WAR (at least 90 percent of appearances coming in relief); granted, this benefits periods when relievers pitched more innings, but it's also harder to keep your ERA low as you pitch more innings.
Our list, in reverse chronological order, but starting with a team that had three relievers with 3+ WAR:
1982 Red Sox: Tom Burgmeier (3.4), Mark Clear (3.0), Bob Stanley (4.5)
2011 Yankees: Mariano Rivera (3.4), David Robertson (4.0)
2004 Yankees: Tom Gordon (4.0), Rivera (4.2)
2003 Dodgers: Gagne (3.7), Mota (3.0)
1995 Rockies: Curtis Leskanic (3.8), Steve Reed (4.1)
1990 Reds: Rob Dibble (4.0), Randy Myers (3.1)
1987 Expos: Tim Burke (4.3), Andy McGaffigan (3.2)
1985 Angels: Stew Cliburn (3.1), Donnie Moore (3.6)
1983 Dodgers: Steve Howe (3.1), Tom Niedenfuer (3.6)
1982 Mariners: Bill Caudill (4.4), Ed Vande Berg (3.3)
1980 Cubs: Caudill (4.4), Bruce Sutter (3.3)
1979 Cubs: Sutter (4.9), Dick Tidrow (3.0)
1977 Cubs: Willie Hernandez (3.2), Sutter (6.5)
1976 Indians: Jim Kern (3.1), Dave LaRoche (3.4)
1968 White Sox: Hoyt Wilhelm (3.3), Wilbur Wood (5.4)
1954 Giants: Marv Grissom (4.2), Wilhelm (3.4)
This does give us a lot of teams from the late '70s/early '80s timeframe, when relievers routinely threw 100-plus innings. Entering Monday, B-R has Davis worth 2.8 WAR and Holland 2.0. But using WAR isn't the only way to answer the question.
If we set a criteria to a team that had two relievers who threw at least 50 innings with an ERA under 1.75 (Holland isn't quite there yet with his 1.77 mark) we have to go all the back to ... 2013, when Kimbrel and Luis Avilan did it for the Braves and Neal Cotts and Joe Nathan did it for the Rangers. The 2010 Rays had a great duo with closer Rafael Soriano (1.73 ERA) and setup guy Joaquin Benoit (1.34). All told, 10 teams meet this criteria, including the 1990 A's with Dennis Eckersley (0.61 ERA) and Gene Nelson (1.57), both in over 70 innings of work.
It is true that no team has had two relievers with 50 innings average at least 13 K's per nine, although Dellin Betances and Robertson are also doing that this year for the Yankees and the Rays are close with Brad Boxberger (14.5) and Jake McGee (12.1).
Davis and Holland have no doubt been awesome, a big reason Kansas City is a half-game behind the Tigers. The Royals are 51-1 when leading entering the eighth inning (the Tigers, meanwhile, are 54-5).
But keep in mind we're in the era of dominant relievers -- heck, 41 of 152 relievers with at least 35 innings have held batters to a batting average under .200 and 46 of those relievers are averaging at least 10 K's per nine. Back in 1990, when Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton each averaged over 10 K's per nine for the World Series champion Reds, only six relievers did that.
There was a reason they were called the Nasty Boys.