Unsung relievers play huge roles in bullpen success
Closers get most of the attention, but setup and middle men are just as important
They do everything but wear hard hats and tool kits draped around their waists. Long men and setup men form baseball's construction crews, earnestly building bridges to the familiar figure working the ninth inning to entrance music and roars.
Dramatic finishes are great, but you can't win without the hard laborers -- even if they're rarely household names, falling beneath the national media's glare.
Based on three seasons of dominance, Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel is the rightful heir to the incomparable Mariano Rivera as the game's showcase closer. But just as essential to the Braves' well-being is the shifting cast of arms presenting Kimbrel with opportunities to save games.
One of the unheralded stories of the 2013 season was how manager Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves were able to rework their bullpen with stalwarts Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters recovering from Tommy John elbow surgeries.
The 96-win National League East champions continued to excel with Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, Luis Ayala, David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro delivering in the middle-to-late innings.
The Braves fashioned a Major League-best 2.46 bullpen ERA and converted 77 percent of their save opportunities. As great as Kimbrel was, recording 50 saves and a 1.21 ERA, he didn't do it alone.
Setup-man extraordinaire Avilan made 75 appearances, had 27 holds and a 1.52 ERA, stranded 25 of 32 inherited runners and held hitters to a .478 OPS -- slightly better than Kimbrel's .487.
Koji Uehara's season-saving work -- incredibly, one earned run allowed in the final three months as Boston's replacement closer -- captured the imagination of fans well beyond Red Sox Nation. But while he may have been an overnight sensation as a closer at age 38, he wasn't unfamiliar to Orioles and Rangers loyalists who'd seen him perform in less glamorous roles for four seasons.
Uehara is the headliner of a class of pitchers who have moved seamlessly from setting up to closing the show, the others being Jim Johnson to Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Greg Holland, Jason Grilli, Grant Balfour, Sergio Romo, Ernesto Frieri, Steve Cishek, Jim Henderson, Glen Perkins, Bobby Parnell, Edward Mujica and Casey Janssen.
A few closers are carefully groomed from day one, but this progression is the natural order of things. Prove yourself by making outs 22 through 24 and you can get a shot at 25 through 27 -- and all that goes with it. Even the greatest closer of them all, Rivera, cut his teeth setting up for John Wetteland.
In Pittsburgh, Mark Melancon, once viewed as a potential successor to Rivera in the Bronx, might have been the Pirates' next-most valuable player after NL MVP Andrew McCutchen.
With his fourth organization at 28, the big right-hander was a dominant setup artist for Grilli before assuming the closer's role in late July after Grilli, already having notched 30 saves, was shelved with forearm discomfort. Melancon flourished all year, taking the Bucs home to the postseason with 26 holds, 16 saves, a 1.39 ERA and a .511 opponents' OPS.
Pittsburgh, at 2.89, had the game's third-best bullpen ERA behind the Braves and Royals (2.55). Rounding out the top 10 were the Rangers (2.91), Brewers (3.19), Athletics (3.22), Reds (3.29), Giants (3.30), Blue Jays (3.37) and Padres (3.39).
From July 1 to the end of the season, the game's best bullpen could be found in Los Angeles. The Dodgers' surge to the postseason was fueled in part by a reconstructed relief corps that put together a 2.71 ERA and held offenses to a .622 OPS, leading the Majors in those categories over the last three months.
While Jansen was brilliant after taking the closer's job, late-season acquisition Brian Wilson brought more than his feared beard. He brought the heat, 2010 Giants style, in a domineering setup role.
Looking to show the world he still has all the right stuff after Tommy John surgery, Wilson re-signed as a free agent this offseason to be part of a Dodgers bullpen that also added former Indians closer Chris Perez and retained invaluable lefty setup man J.P. Howell to complement rookies Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow.
"Brian was a huge sign," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It gave us two guys at the back end, and either one of them can close games. Obviously, we start off with Kenley back there at the end. But there are going to be days that Kenley is going to need a day off. So to have Brian there is a great feeling. The way Brian pitched last year, the last two innings, you feel like you're in good hands."
While they struggled finding the right formulas during the season, the Red Sox and Cardinals had their bullpens in order down the stretch and got enough postseason outs to forge a memorable World Series claimed by Koji and friends.
The Cards' Seth Maness and Randy Choate were popular with teammates, allowing just 12.1 and 15.3 percent of inherited runners to score, respectively. The Giants' ultra-dependable Javier Lopez led the NL at 10.5 percent, with teammate Santiago Casilla (15.6) also highly effective. Vin Mazzaro, who allowed just four of 32 inherited runners to score, was a force in the Pirates' deep bullpen.
The Majors' best in anchoring runners was Sean Doolittle of the A's. The lefty permitted just two of 32 inherited runners to score, 6.3 percent. The Yankees' Shawn Kelley (10.0) and durable Joel Peralta of the Rays (13.3) also excelled, along with the Orioles' Brian Matusz (13.5) and the Twins' Casey Fien (13.6).
The Rays' Alex Torres led AL relievers in lowest slugging percentage allowed at .224, ahead of Texas' Joe Nathan -- now with the Tigers -- and Uehara. Avilan (.219) led the NL, followed by Kimbrel, Dodgers lefties Howell and Rodriguez and a pair of Pirates, Melancon and Justin Wilson.
Will there be another Koji in 2014, meeting the challenge by wrapping his arms around the ninth inning and making it his private property?
David Robertson, Rivera's superb setup man for four seasons, had a better ERA while limiting hitters to a lower OPS than the great one in 2013. But he realizes the burden will increase dramatically in a Mariano-less 2014.
"Games can be won and lost in the seventh inning or the fifth inning," Robertson said. "The bullpen's got to do the job, to keep the momentum going.
"You keep the same mindset no matter what inning you're pitching. The only difference is in the ninth inning. There's no one else behind you."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.