About half way trough the season it was obvious the Indians' Bullpen was going to be something special. At the time I wrote an article called Greatest Bullpen of all Time? The results were inconclusive so I figured I would revisit the topic again now that the season is over, comparing the final results of the 2011 season to every other Indians Bullpen of the past 68 years (as before I will start in 1943, as use of the defined relief pitchers was rare up to that point).
The Indians team relief ERA ended up much higher than it was for the last post (was 2.99, ended at 3.71), but this was partly due to a number of new pitchers and the continued use of Chad Durbin, all of whom were excluded in the original analysis and will remain so. As with last time, only the top 5 relievers for each team were considered. On the 2011 team, these pitchers were Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith and Chris Perez.
After staring at numbers for a half hour, I've concluded that the top 10 Indians bullpens of all time were 1954, 1968, 1976, 1992, 1995, 1996, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011. This is based on ERA, saves, batting average against, WHIP, K/9 and a cumulative statistic called fantasy number that combines innings pitched, hits, walks, wins, saves, earned runs and strike outs.
1968 and 2007 are the only two pens that allowed more than 3 runs per 9 innings while 1954 and 1968 were the only years with less than 30 saves and 1992 and 2007 were the only years with a BAA of over .220. All the top 10 bullpens were tremendous, but 1968 and 2007 should be removed first, as they just can hold up. On the other hand 1954 lead all teams in ERA and BAA, while 2005 lead in saves and WHIP so these teams should remain in. Of the teams that remain, 1976 is the worst in ERA, WHIP and BAA so they are out. 1995, 2001 and 2011 are the only teams left with an ERA under 2.75, a BAA under .215 and a WHIP under 1.15, so they round out the top 5 while 1992 and 1996 are the last two dropped out.
With 4 of the top 5 bullpens of all time coming in the last 20 years, it may seem that there is some prejudice, but this is actually a result of increased specialization of roles. In the past it would have been unthinkable to use a talented pitcher in only relief roles as starters throw as many as 200 more innings than relievers do in an average season, but in the recent bullpen revolution, much more emphasis has been placed on the late innings of a game.
At this point there are few enough teams left to evaluate that we can look at individual players. The player with the biggest spotlight in any bullpen is the closer and the greatest single season by a closer in Indians history was by Jose Mesa in 1995. His 46 saves are impressive, but not as impressive as his 8 runs allowed all season. For comparison, Chris Perez gave up his 8th run in a game on June 21st. Mesa pitched 64 innings with an ERA of 1.13, a BAA of .203 and a WHIP of 1.03. No other Indians closer has had this kind of dominance. I ranked the rest of the closers of the top 5 bullpens like this; Ray Narleski (1954), Bob Wickman (2001 then 2005) and finally Chris Perez in 2011.
Since there is rarely a defined "set-up" man, I'll compare the second most used pitcher of each team next. The top reliever here has to be Don Mossi from the 1954 pen. Mossi had a 1.94 ERA in 93 innings, not quite up there with Jose Mesa, but better than any number 2. His .167 BAA was far superior to any modern equivalent. A close number 2 is Joe Smith from 2011, who finished the year with a 2.01 ERA in 67 innings pitched. The rest of my rankings for #2 men are Bob Howry (2005), Julian Tavarez (1995) and Ricardo Rincon (2001).
The best of the next most used pitcher on each team was Eric Plunk in 1995. Plunk had an amazing K/9 of 9.98 along with a BAA of .200 and an ERA of 2.67. He was even able to grab up 2 saves that Mesa missed that year. The rest of the rankings are Hal Newhouser (1954), Rafael Perez (2011), David Riske (2005) and Paul Shuey (2001).
In the 4th spot of the top 5 bullpens, Vinnie Pestano dominates. In his 2011 season, Pestano lead all of the #4 relievers in ERA (2.32), holds (23), BAA (.181), WHIP (1.05) and K/9. His K/9 of 12.19 was the greatest all time of any Indian pitcher who threw more than 25 innings. Following Pestano was Danys Baez (2001), Rafael Betancourt (2005), Dave Hoskins (1954) and Jim Poole (1995).
The last spot in the bullpen that I ranked is mostly filled with left handed specialists and relievers who were effective, but not often used. All 5 pitchers had ERAs lower than 3 except Tony Sipp in 2011. Steve Karsay in 2001 tops this list with an ERA of 1.25 and a WHIP of 0.86. Second, third and fourth belong to Arthur Rhodes (2005), Paul Assemacher (1995) and Tony Sipp. Bob Chakales and his 0.84 in 1954 are being ranked last because he only pitched in 10 innings.
Back to the overall ranking of bullpens, 2001 can be eliminated because they had two pitchers ranked 5th and this is about overall bullpen effectiveness rather than individual stars. With only 4 teams left, the worst two bullpens in ERA left can be removed. These teams were equal to the other two teams in most other stats, but allowed enough more runs to be considered worse. This knocks out 2005 and 2011, the whole reason for writing this exceedingly lengthy article. Now with two teams left, 1954 and 1995, one stat that I haven't mentioned yet seems important. The top 5 pitchers in the 1995 bullpen won 28 games compared to the 18 won in 1954. Tavarez lead the pen with 10, but Jose Mesa's 3 is even more impressive when added to his 46 saves. Even though the 1954 team played more games (154 compared to 144 in 1995) the '95 pen was used much more. Every 1995 reliever pitched in more than 40 games and they accrued almost 40 more innings than the '54 pen even though the earlier bullpen had four pitchers that made at least one start.
There's no question right now that the 1995 bullpen is the greatest Indians bullpen of all time, but if you ask me tomorrow, I may change my mind. Either way, the fact is that the two greatest bullpens of all time coincide with the two most winning Indians teams of all time (.721 Winning percent in 1954 and .694 in 1995). Both teams also made it to (and lost) the World Series. There is no question that a great bullpen is an essential part of a championship team and this should give Tribe fans some hope as one of the top 5 bullpens of all time will be returning in it's entirety in 2012.