Ever notice the short shelf life of World Series closers? I was thinking about this while watching Greg Holland of the Kansas City Royals struggle lately. After sub-1.50 ERAs in 2013 and 2014, his ERA is 3.48 this season and his walk rate has soared to 4.9 per nine innings. His fastball velocity in recent outings has been down around 90 mph, down from his usual 94 or so, and this after sitting for 10 days with a "cranky" arm. For now, Ned Yost says, Holland will remain his closer.
Consider what happened to some other World Series closers:
Santiago Castilla, Giants: He's been reliable this year, although his ERA has increased from 1.70 to 2.96 as his hit rate normalized a bit.
Koji Uehara, Red Sox: This is actually one of the success stories. After an unhittable 2013 season, when he had a 1.09 ERA, he's posted a 2.41 ERA the past two seasons, although 2015 ended early when he broke his wrist. Considering he turns 41 next April, the Red Sox might want to consider a backup plan at closer anyway.
Edward Mujica, Cardinals: I cheated a bit here. Mujica had 37 saves, but he lost his job to Trevor Rosenthal late in the season. Rosenthal saved 45 games in 2014 but was shaky at times and has had a terrific 2015.
Sergio Romo, Giants: He held his job in 2013, although he lost eight games before losing the gig to Casilla in 2014.
Jose Valverde, Tigers: He saved 35 games in 2012 but was so shaky in the playoffs he lost his job to Phil Coke (!). Only 11 saves after, and didn't pitch in the majors in 2015.
Jason Motte, Cardinals: He assumed closer duties late in 2011, saved 43 games in 2012 but then blew out his elbow. Now a middle reliever with the Cubs.
Neftali Feliz, Rangers: His career hasn't been the same after blowing Game 6. He blew out his elbow, has a 3.99 ERA since then -- including 6.86 this year -- and was shuffled off to the Tigers.
Brian Wilson, Giants: He had a monster 2010 with 48 saves, plus six more in the postseason, but he wasn't as effective in 2011 and in early 2012 became our third guy on this list to have Tommy John surgery.
Feliz, Rangers: He'd been AL Rookie of the Year in 2010. The Rangers made it back to the World Series in 2011 even though Feliz's numbers weren't as good, with a higher walk rate and lower K rate than 2010.
Mariano Rivera, Yankees: There's a reason he's going to the Hall of Fame.
Brad Lidge, Phillies: Charlie Manuel kept going to him even though he finished 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA. It finally came back to bite the Phillies when he lost Game 4. Pitched parts of three more seasons, recording 30 saves.
Lidge, Phillies: The perfect season. He didn't blow a save or lose a game all year. Then came 2009.
Troy Percival, Rays: He led the team in saves, although was injured by the postseason. He pitched just 11 more innings in the majors.
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: Our first non-Rivera closer to have extended success after his World Series season.
Manny Corpas, Rockies: Had a 2.08 ERA in his rookie season. And was never heard from again.
You get the idea. I could go on: Todd Jones, Keith Foulke ... rookie Adam Wainwright actually ended up closing for the Cardinals in 2006 after Jason Isringhausen got hurt in September. Wainwright turned out OK.
The point here: We know the importance of bullpens and closers. The Royals rode their bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. But it's also about catching lightning in a bottle. Yost might end up sticking with Holland, and he could blow a crucial game that knocks the Royals out of the playoffs.
In the bigger picture, it's a reminder of the volatility of relief pitchers, even good ones, and thus the difficulty of building a bullpen that is great year after year.
And in the postseason, it's all about getting hot at the right time. The Royals and Giants had excellent bullpens in the regular season in 2014, although the Royals' strength was mostly the trio of Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera (they were 10th in regular-season ERA). The 2013 Red Sox, however, were just 21st in the majors in bullpen ERA during the regular season. During the postseason, however, the pen had a 1.28 ERA over 49⅓ innings. The 2012 Giants had a 2.35 postseason ERA after a mediocre 3.43 in the regular season. The 2011 Cardinals were just 21st in bullpen ERA, but the group had an excellent playoff run, especially considering Tony La Russa was quick to pull his starters that October.
In the video above, Eric Karabell and I rank the bullpens of the potential playoff teams. I put the Yankees first, even though they're 13th overall in bullpen ERA. My reasoning is they'll be able to concentrate a higher percentage of innings in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, plus they have Justin Wilson, Chasen Shreve and Adam Warren, all solid. That's deep enough. Of course, all that is contingent on getting past the wild-card game they'll likely play in. Holland's struggles leave some doubt about Kansas City's pen. The Cardinals have a deep pen and lead the majors in bullpen ERA.
But who knows what will happen? The Dodgers' bullpen, for example, has been an issue all season outside of closer Kenley Jansen, ranking 21st in bullpen ERA.
All it takes, however, is 11 (or 12) good games.