- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Washington Nationals like to complain about the state of their bullpen and how even a competent staff of relief pitchers would change the club’s entire outlook.

That may be true, but here’s some news for the Nationals: You’re not alone.

Across the majors, teams are aghast at how bad their bullpens have been. It has become a pandemic sweeping across the big leagues, infecting more people than swine flu.

Consider the facts:

• Eleven clubs entered play Monday with bullpen ERAs over 5.00. Two teams (the Nationals and Los Angeles Angels) had bullpen ERAs over 6.00.

• Five clubs’ relief corps already have lost eight or more games this season, led by the Nationals’ 12.

• An astounding 19 teams have blown at least five saves, and seven of those teams have blown at least seven.

• The overall save percentage across the majors is 63 percent. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the lowest since blown saves became an official stat in 1990.

What in the name of the journeyman reliever is going on?

There are a couple of theories floating around clubhouses, and perhaps each has some merit:

The economy

Obviously, the nation’s economic downturn has had a profound impact on baseball clubs, which are bringing in less revenue and thus cut payroll entering the season.

On first glance, the biggest byproduct of payroll decreases has been the mammoth contracts handed to top-tier free agents. But there’s been a noticeable trickle-down effect, too, and that has plagued relief pitchers.

Think about it: If you’re a major league GM and you’ve got to cut back on salaries, what’s the first thing to go? Relief pitching, especially middle relief. Why spend $2 million on a 34-year-old veteran to pitch the sixth inning when you can go with a young guy out of your farm system who makes only $400,000?

Drug testing

As much as everyone wants to continue to focus on the effect steroids had on offensive power numbers, baseball’s dirty little secret is that relievers were benefiting just as much from performance-enhancing drugs.

Steroids and amphetamines don’t just increase a player’s size. They help a player’s body recover from the daily grind.

And which players need the most bounce-back ability? Again, relief pitchers who are making 80-plus appearances a season. Suddenly, some of those stalwart relievers who could be counted to come out of the bullpen three straight nights aren’t able to do it, and those who do aren’t performing to the same level.

Put it all together, and you’ve got a real problem across the sport. Teams can have great lineups, solid starting pitching and even a decent closer.

But without quality relief pitching, it’s tough to have any success these days, a fact plenty of teams are coming to grips with this season.

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