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Bad Bullpens & Vice Versa

"Good pitching beats good hitting, and vice versa," Yogi Berra once said.

More recently, Hawk Harrelson has claimed that the game today is a "battle of bullpens," whereas years ago it was the team's starting pitching that dictated a club's success.

The message from both of these walking antiques is that victories don't come easily without pitchers who can get outs, especially in crucial situations. Yogi no doubt meant to stop his sentence before the comma, while Hawk's proposition is arguable since the greatest bullpen in the game can't save an inept starting staff.

Take last Wednesday's game in Detroit when Hector Noesi had a miserable first inning, giving up six runs in the Tigers' 7-2 victory. One game doesn't prove Harrelson's edict wrong, but once the Sox got behind against a good team and their ace Max Scherzer, it didn't matter a bit that Noesi and the bullpen allowed just one more run the rest of the way. Hector's first-inning failure was too much to overcome.

Conversely, Saturday's 16-3 drubbing at the hands of the Twins was shocking because five Sox relievers coughed up an unbelievable 18 hits and 15 earned runs over the game's final four innings. Poor Jose Quintana, the king of no decisions, departed with a 3-1 lead. That game provided a healthy dose of credence to Hawk's proposition.

Despite the fact that a team's bullpen is responsible for far more innings than was required in Yogi and Hawk's day, the best teams need both effective starting pitching and a reliable bullpen. They go hand-in-hand.

And the Sox, at this point, have neither.

That may be a bit harsh when one considers that Chris Sale is a legitimate Cy Young candidate and that Quintana's ERA has shrunk to 3.04. John Danks has been somewhat erratic but still has shown flashes that two years after surgery he may be turning the corner in a positive direction. No one will call Noesi and Scott Carroll "dependable," but each has pitched well in certain instances.

Noesi notched his sixth win Monday night in a rain-shortened seven-inning 5-3 win over the Rangers, earning an abbreviated complete game while allowing just one earned run. Here's a guy who hadn't won a game since May 6, 2012, when he was with Seattle, and now he's got a half-dozen victories.

Noesi was claimed off waivers from Texas on April 25th and after five relief appearances, he's started 18 games. He's lasted at least six innings in 14 of those. Maybe you can't label Noesi's addition a "pleasant surprise," but he's pitched far better than Sox fans could have expected.

And then there's the ever-changing bullpen, which has sent 17 different pitchers to the mound this season if you include Leury (I Can Play Anywhere) Garcia, who pitched the 14th inning back on April 16th and was tagged with the loss as the Red Sox touched him for a couple of runs in a 6-4 outcome.

How could you blame manager Robin Ventura if he chose to use Leury again, considering how some of the relief staff have performed? Only two teams in all of baseball, the Rockies and Astros, have blown more saves than the Sox's 17. Almost half of the relief corps have ERAs above five.

The most distressing, pathetic stat is the 175 bases on balls over 335 innings belonging to the bullpen. That's an average of almost five free passes over nine innings. The cardinal sin for a relief pitcher is walking a guy after being summoned from the bullpen. Sox pitchers do it with regularity.

General manager Rick Hahn has made some master trades for the likes of Adam Eaton, Conor Gillaspie, Avisail Garcia and others. One which hasn't gone well was sending closer Addison Reed to Arizona last December for prospect Matt Davidson. Reed has 27 saves this season out of 32 opportunities, while Davidson, a 23-year-old third baseman, is wallowing at Charlotte hitting .196. The kid has power - he's smashed 18 homers - but he also strikes out about a third of his at-bats, and the Sox are already loaded with guys who can whiff.

Chances are the Sox would be better than .500 rather than three games under at 55-58 if Hahn hadn't pulled the trigger on the Reed transaction, but at the time Davidson figured to challenge Gillaspie as the team's third baseman. Who would have thought that Gillaspie would be hitting .315 at this juncture? He's also shown notable improvement defensively. Right now he appears to be the third baseman of the future.

The bullpen can't dodge the heaps of criticism, but situations tend to change rather quickly in this game. Look back no further than the wondrous season of 2005 when Cliff Politte and Neal Cotts anchored a bullpen before turning over the closer duties to Dustin Hermanson (34 saves), Shingo Takatsu (8) or Bobby Jenks (6).

(Note: Cotts is one of five players still active from the 2005 champs. The others are Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Buehrle and Juan Uribe.)

Politte appeared in 68 games and Cotts in 69 with ERAs of 2.00 and 1.94, respectively. However, the season before, when the White Sox finished 79-83, the duo looked more like, well, Ronald Belisario and Eric Surkamp. Cotts was 4-4 with a 5.65 while Politte was 0-3 with a 4.38. Obviously Ozzie Guillen and Don Cooper saw something they liked in that duo and stuck with them, and their patience paid off handsomely.

Time will tell whether history will repeat itself, but the mantra is that the experience garnered by young relievers like Jake Petricka, Daniel Webb and Zach Putnam will pay future dividends. We'll see.

As far as starting pitching is concerned, that '04 bunch looked somewhat similar to this year's group in that Buehrle and Jon Garland were the only two who went on to figure into the 2005 campaign. Esteban Loaiza and Scott Schoeneweis started that season in the rotation, but each was traded that summer as Kenny Williams brought in Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras, who figured prominently in later glory on the South Side.

Not long ago Erik Johnson and Felipe Paulino were part of this year's rotation. Maybe we'll see Johnson again, but Paulino was simply a failed experiment of a pitcher trying to rebound from arm surgery. Chances are Sale, Quintana, and Danks will be the staff leaders next season, and possibly Hahn can weave some of the past magic engineered by Williams.

In actuality, this year's pitching staff has performed better than the 2004 year in terms of ERA - 4.28 now compared to 4.91. In '05 Sox hurlers gave up just 3.61 earned run per game. As previously mentioned, rapid change is not unknown in baseball.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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