Here are the 10 teams currently in a playoff position (plus the Orioles, who are a half-game behind the Angels) and where their bullpens ranks among all 30 teams in ERA:
Kansas City Royals: 2.42 (2nd)
New York Yankees: 3.23 (8th)
Toronto Blue Jays: 3.19 (7th)
Houston Astros: 2.69 (5th)
Los Angeles Angels: 3.46 (14th)
Baltimore Orioles: 2.68 (4th)
St. Louis Cardinals: 2.21 (1st)
Pittsburgh Pirates: 2.59 (3rd)
Chicago Cubs: 3.44 (13th)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 4.20 (22nd)
New York Mets: 3.14 (6th)
I'd say there's a pretty strong correlation between having a good bullpen and making the playoffs. Only the Dodgers have a pen that has really struggled. Of course, you might suggest there's also a strong correlation between having good starting pitching and making the playoffs. That's true, but at least in 2015, it's not quite as strong a correlation, as the Blue Jays, Royals, Yankees and Orioles all rank 14th or lower in ERA.
Anyway, all that is a simplistic way of evaluating performance, but we can all agree that strong bullpens are more important than ever, especially as we get into the stretch run and then into the postseason, when more games mean more innings than ever required from relievers.
That's why I wouldn't be surprised to see a World Series showdown between the Orioles and Cardinals, who possess maybe the best secret weapons in the game. We all know about the Royals' dominant pen, but Baltimore and St. Louis also have crews of shutdown relievers, as we saw in their wins on Wednesday. Four Orioles relievers allowed one run in four innings against the Mets as the Orioles came back from a 4-3 deficit to win on Henry Urrutia's walk-off home run. For the Cardinals, three relievers held the Giants scoreless for the final 2 2/3 innings as they rallied from a 3-2 deficit to win 4-3.
It seems like both pens have sort of flown under the radar this season (bird reference intended). The Cardinals' rotation has rightfully garnered a lot of the national attention while we seem to hear more about the lack of an ace in the Orioles' rotation than the strength of their bullpen.
Both teams start with a power closer, the reason neither has a lost a game all season it led entering the ninth inning; the Orioles are 54-0 and the Cardinals are 67-0. Baltimore's Zach Britton is amazing to watch. He throws one of the most unhittable pitches in the game, a power two-seam sinker that averages 95.7 mph. He throws it 88 percent of the time and batters still struggle to make solid contact against it. Since becoming the Baltimore closer last May, Britton is 66-for-72 in save opportunities.
Like Britton, St. Louis' Trevor Rosenthal owns a sub-2.00 ERA as he's resolved control issues that plagued him last season. Rosenthal's four-seamer averages 97.4 mph and he throws it 73 percent of the time, mixing in a changeup and slider and, very rarely, a curveball. Yes, that changeup is hard to hit when he throws it; batters are hitting .137 against. Dropping his walk rate from 5.4 to 3.0 per nine innings has helped lower his ERA from 3.20 in 2014 to 1.44.
The Orioles' primary set-up guy is sidearmer Darren O'Day, who joined Britton on the All-Star team this year. He's 5-1 with a 1.15 ERA -- he and Britton are now a combined 9-1 -- with 60 strikeouts in 47 innings even though his sinker averages just 86.6 mph. His sinker/slider repertoire once made him vulnerable to left-handed batters, but he's contained them to a .209/.295/.386 line the past two seasons.
The Cardinals have their own sidearmer in Steve Cishek, acquired from the Marlins in one of the most underappreciated trade-deadline deals. Cishek saved 73 games in 2013-2014 but struggled out of the gate in 2015, blowing four games by May 11 -- three of which were not just blown saves, but losses. Since May 16, however, he has a 1.20 ERA and has allowed just one run in his 10 appearances since joining the Cardinals. The Orioles have Brian Matusz as their primary lefty, while the Cardinals have both power-armed Kevin Siegrist (66 K's in 55 2/3 innings) and LOOGY Randy Choate from the left side.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter is a little unique in his handling of his pen. They lead the majors in relief appearances of more than one inning with 106. The Cardinals have just 58 such appearances, although both Britton and Rosenthal have gone more than three outs six times. What Showalter prefers to avoid is using a reliever on two consecutive days, let alone three. Tommy Hunter, now with the Cubs, is the only Orioles reliever to appear in three straight days this year, which he did once. Showalter has used a reliever on consecutive days just 44 times; Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has used a reliever on three or more consecutive days 26 times and two or more 84 times, leading to some concern that he'll burn out the pen by October.
We all saw last October what a bullpen can do, as both the Royals and Giants received tremendous work from their pens throughout the postseason. The Cardinals could even have the luxury of adding one of the starters to the pen in October. The big advantage to a deep pen is you don't have to tax your starters as much and quick hooks are possible and even advised. The Cards will be favored to get to the World Series; if the Orioles do make the playoffs, it will be the bullpen that might have to carry them to their first World Series since 1983.