The name of the game is pitching and defense.
That's what wins baseball championships, right? If boiled down further, though, conventional wisdom says that for a team to go far in the postseason, it must have strong starting pitching. Everything else is secondary.
Look at last season, when the two teams with the lowest starters' ERA in each league - the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League and the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago White Sox in the American League - advanced to their respective league championship series.
The Detroit Tigers and Angels, both contenders, are the American League leaders, but two also-rans, the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, are tops in the NL. In fact, heading into Friday night, five of the 10 major league leaders in starters' ERA were sub.-500 teams.
Interestingly, eight of the top 10 teams in bullpen ERA this season are above .500. And the top three have among the four best records in baseball. Conversely, struggling teams own nine of the 10 worst bullpens in baseball. The only exception is the Cincinnati Reds, who rebuilt their bullpen in midsummer. Yet, of the 10 teams in the bottom third of starters' ERA, five are playing over .500.
So, are we entering an era in which the strength of a bullpen outweighs that of a starting rotation? Or is it just one of those statistical anomalies, that the best teams just so happen to have good bullpens this year?
"I think some of it is coincidence, yeah," Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "I know when I was in Atlanta it was the starting rotation every one of those years with the exception of when [John] Smoltz became the closer."
Sure, ideally a team needs a shutdown closer and two quality setup men, Mazzone said. But nothing, he said, trumps effective starting pitchers.
"The best way to build a bullpen is to build a good starting rotation, because then your starting rotation goes deep in the game," Mazzone said. "There's not a bullpen in major league baseball that can't be overexposed a little bit. Therefore, I think the starting rotation dictates how much use, how much rest and how much effectiveness [a bullpen has]. If anybody wants to argue that point, just check the track record."
But Minnesota Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson, who oversees baseball's best bullpen, has a different view.
"If you were to ask me which one would you rather have, a strong rotation or bullpen, I'd say bullpen," Anderson said. "Obviously, you need starters to set the tone of games and hopefully they get you deep in games and give you a chance to win. But if you have great starters and they give you six or seven every night, but you have nobody to finish it off, well, you are only as good as the last guy with the ball."
And how good have the Twins' last guys been? The Twins are 56-1 when leading after seven innings and 64-0 when leading after eight. Since 2003, the Twins are 254-10 when leading after seven innings. They've used just 10 relievers this year, compared with 18 used by the Orioles.
"With our 'pen, if it is rested, we are going to win a lot of games," Anderson said. "There are some teams like [the Orioles] that I read in the paper that their Achilles' heel is their bullpen. They don't know what they are getting every day."
Ten years ago, Anderson said, pitchers viewed it as a demotion if they were sent to the bullpen. Now, he said, most realize the growing importance of good relievers.
Added Mazzone: "It's just the evolution of the game, with more emphasis on matchups, setups, pitch counts and all that other [stuff] that goes with it."
Orioles closer Chris Ray, who has been by far the most effective member of a bullpen that is ranked 29th with an ERA over 5.00, began his professional career as a starter. But he was switched to the bullpen full time in 2005, and has excelled.
"With starters being limited in how many pitches they can throw, they don't throw as deep into games as they used to," Ray said. "So I think in that way it has become more and more important to have guys that can pitch the last three innings of a ballgame and keep the lead."
The status will never be the same, but a good setup man can have as much of an impact on a team as a solid mid-level starter. And closers are just one notch below aces in baseball's current pitching hierarchy. On good teams, the bullpen is no longer a place to hide struggling veterans or untested rookies. It can be a component as important as any other. And the standings this year suggest it might be even more so.
But there will always be room for Mazzone's old-school point, as well. If the rotation bleeds runs every day, baseball's best relievers are helpless.
"A bullpen doesn't do you any good unless you can get to them," he said.