This year's utter dominance by the bullpen makes you think one thing. Where does this one rank against the best Indians relievers of all time? So far this year the "Bullpen Mafia" has an league leading ERA of 2.99, 8 points better than the second place Yankees. This is in spite of having multiple relievers with ERAs of over 5. Since all relief corps have these mop up pitchers and call ups, I will be only comparing the best of the best on each team, the closers and set up men, to find where the 2011 bullpen ranks among the best Indians pens ever.
There are a couple parameters I am using to see which pitchers are the best. First, I'm only comparing bullpens since 1943 as this is the first time the Indians used a relief pitcher as their top closer (Joe Heving). Before this time starting pitchers did the majority of the bullpen work with the rest of the bullpen being made of the 5th-8th best pitchers rather than highly talented specialized short inning pitchers. Also, I will not be using saves, which weren't really considered relevant until the late 1980's and holds, which weren't even recorded until the 1990's. Instead I will compare pitchers using rate stats, so I don't have to extrapolate what this years bullpen will do for the rest of the season. The main stats I'm using are ERA [(ER*9)/IP], WHIP [(BB+H)/IP], batting average against [H/(IP*3+H)] and strike outs per 9 innings [(K*9)/IP].
Pitchers have been split between closers and other relievers as the closer should be the best pitcher in the bullpen. For a frame of reference, the best relief ERA for a closer in a single season was Jose Mesa in 1995 with a 1.13. In that season he gave up 8 runs, which is the same amount that Chris Perez has given up in about half a season in 2011. The top batting average against for a reliever is held by Vinnie Pestano so far this season with a .138. The top relief WHIP is held by Rafael Betancourt with his .759 in 2007. This means that during the entire season of 2007, Betancourt allowed 3 base runners every 4 innings. The top K/9 relief pitcher was George Zuverink in 1951, when he struck out 40 in 25.1 innings for a K/9 of 14.3. To make things a little more simple, I've taken the top 6 bullpens by ranking all time in these stats and will compare them to find which is the best all time. These six are 1995, 2007, 2011, 1976, 2005 and 1954.
There is no surprise that the years that had the best bullpens were some of the greatest years in Indians history. Two of these six years (1954 and 1995) ended in World Series for the Tribe, while 2007 ended one game short of the World Series. The worst season listed was 1976 when the Indians went 81-78. Every other season saw the Indians win at least 93 games and includes the top two teams in terms of winning percentage in Indians history. This goes well to illustrate the importance of a good bullpen in the modern age of baseball.
Each bullpen seems to be based around one or two fantastic pitchers, with a few other above average pitchers filling out the rest. Every pitcher listed below has a WHIP of under 1.30, a batting average against below .240, an ERA below 2.81 with the exception of Joe Borowski, who was probably the worst pitcher on the 2007 team outside of Edward Mujica and Roberto Hernandez. Of these pitchers, there were two among the top ten all time in every rate stat measured. These two pitchers are Dave LaRoche in 1976 and Vinnie Pestano in 2011. Pestano is exceptionally impressive as he ranks 3rd in ERA (1.33), 1st in BAA (.138), and 2nd in WHIP (.852) and K/9 (12.3) of all Indians non closing relievers since 1943. His numbers are so outrageous that if he maintains this pace, he will have the greatest single season of any Indians relief pitcher ever. What is most interesting about the 2011 team, is that while most of the teams in Indians history had only 2 to 4 stand out pitchers, this bullpen has 5.
The 2007 team can be thrown out of the discussion for best bullpen ever, simply because of the inclusion of Joe Borowski. While Raffy left and Raffy right may have had the best season by 2 set up men ever, Borowski ruined their nights on more than one occasion, blowing 8 saves and taking 5 losses along with an ERA of over 5. The 1954 team can also be removed because they simply did not use their pitchers enough. The 1954 team had 77 complete games, making relief pitching almost unneccessary. Their relief pitchers that are listed pitched almost the same amount of games in an entire (be it short) season as the 2011 pitchers have in less than half a season.
Unquestionably, the best closer listed and in Indians history was Jose Mesa in 1995. While both Mesa and Eric Plunk have come under scrutiny for their downfalls in the playoffs, you can't deny their performances during the regular season in 1995. Two other stand out pitchers on these teams are Bob Howry, who set the Indians record for appearances in 2005 with 79 and Rafael Perez, who is one of only two pitchers to appear on two separate great bullpens. While his 2007 effort has already been removed from contention, his numbers in 2011 are even better to this point then they were in that year. Another impressive stat about the 2011 bullpen is they have the number 1, 2 and 3 relief pitchers all time in earned run average. On this stat alone, they could be considered the best ever, as long as they can maintain for the rest of the season.
In my opinion, the 1995 team had the best bullpen of those listed. They are the only team that had a closer who was by far the best pitcher in the pen and they still had plenty of strong pitchers to fill around him. Along with Julian Tavarez and Eric Plunk, the 1995 team also had Jim Poole and lefty specialist Paul Assemacher. The pen was so deep, that Assemacher was able to be used so rarely that he averaged only 2 outs per appearance over his career, the least amount of IP/G of all Indians pitchers ever. The only other true competitor for the title is the 2011 team, but since they have only played half a season, it is unfair to really compare ERA and WHIP type stats. If they can keep it up, and Chris Perez can get himself into a few more save opportunities, this may become known as the best back-end of a bullpen in Indians history.
(The results of this discussion can be found here.)