Walking out to the mound for the bottom of the eighth inning on Sept. 26, Royals right-handed reliever Luke Hochevar had a clear task: take on the top of the White Sox lineup, hold a one-run lead and give bullpen mate Greg Holland a chance to close out the win in the ninth. As it happened so many times during this past season, the plan was followed precisely -- Hochevar worked around a leadoff single and managed one strikeout in a scoreless inning, and then Holland appeared on the scene to demonstrably thwart Chicago's last chance, striking out two before inducing a harmless popup in foul territory with the tying run on first. With the 27th out, the Royals had their 84th win of the season, Holland had his franchise-record 46th save of the year and the Royals' bullpen inched closer toward finishing an historically stingy season.
After three more contests concluded, the 2013 Royals pitching staff could proudly gaze at its final numbers; to be sure, they were worth an extra glance or two. With a league-leading ERA of 3.45, Kansas City had turned in its lowest team ERA since 1978, while also managing its lowest batting average against since '76, its lowest OPS against since 1992 and both its highest K/9 and best K/BB ratios in team history.
Although much of the credit for this sixth-month run of excellence should be ascribed to an innings-eating starting staff (second-most innings thrown in the AL) and an exceptionally proficient defense, the eye-catching and jaw-dropping stats were plentiful in the 'pen. In setting team bullpen marks (the good kind) for ERA, WHIP, K/9, K/BB, batting average against and on-base percentage against (and posting the second-lowest OPS against), the Royals' bullpen did more than just carve out a wide and deep swath in the franchise's narrative; the relief corps also contested some of the more exceptional marks authored by any AL bullpen since the advent of the designated hitter. A survey of a few more celebrated accomplishments (all ranks are among AL clubs since 1973, with a minimum of 400 innings):
• 2.55 ERA, second lowest
• 1.133 WHIP, sixth lowest
• 9.57 K/9, second highest
• 3.07 K/BB, fourth highest
• .217 batting average against, sixth lowest
Significant contributions came from a number of arms (Kelvin Herrera fanned 11.42 batters per nine innings; Will Smith and Louis Coleman combined for a 1.53 ERA and a 0.814 WHIP, with 70 K's in 59 relief innings), but the two most eye-catching lines were turned in by the men who made the 2013 Royals the first team to have two pitchers with at least 60 innings, a strikeout rate at 10 or above and a WHIP below 0.90: Hochevar and Holland.
In Hochevar, Kansas City turned a right-hander with a career 5.39 ERA (in 132 games with 128 starts) into one who produced a 1.92 ERA, an 0.825 WHIP and 10.49 K's per nine innings. Those were numbers that, prior to 2013, had been attained by three other relief pitchers with at least 70 innings (Billy Wagner in 1999, Eric Gagne in 2003 and Aroldis Chapman in '12. On another note, one that still defies belief: Pedro Martinez did this in 29 starts in 2000). And in Holland, the Royals had the absolute pleasure of turning late-inning leads over to a man who ended up producing one of the truly elite closing seasons in the modern-day usage of the role.
After recording his 46th save on that late September night and setting a new franchise record (Dan Quisenberry and Jeff Montgomery had previously shared the high mark), Holland recorded one more for good measure, finishing with those 47 saves, a 1.21 ERA (tied for seventh lowest ever among pitchers with 40 saves), an 0.866 WHIP (14th lowest) and a K/9 rate of 13.84 (fourth highest). Bundled together, it was a line achieved by few others.
40+ Saves, ERA below 1.30, WHIP Below 0.90, K/9 of at least 13.00
Holland achieved all of this while posting the third-highest average leverage index in the AL and making the third-most high-leverage appearances in the league. As the final symbol in a declarative statement, Holland punctuated a sentence like few others before him.
When attaching an historically-exceptional closer to an historically-stingy AL bullpen, it probably still doesn't get any better than Dennis Eckersley and the 1990 Athletics. As a team, Oakland's 2.35 bullpen ERA is the lowest mark for any AL club since 1973 (minimum 400 innings). It holds up well in other categories, too: lowest WHIP (1.054), third-lowest hits/9 (6.79), fifth-lowest batting average against (.210) and the second-lowest OPS against (.577). And while pitchers like Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt played integral roles in helping the A's win 103 games and continue to help reestablish roles and efficiencies within the 'pen, the undisputed king of that relief corps was 35-year-old right-hander, Eckersley.
Even as reliever seasons have continued to stretch the limits of belief, imposing new definitions of dominance on the baseball landscape, Eck's season still looks otherworldly. He retains the second lowest ERA (0.61) and the third lowest OPS against (0.397), and remains the owner of the lowest WHIP (0.614) for any pitcher with at least 40 saves. Blowing only two save opportunities for the season (he was 48 out of 50), Eckersley allowed four of 29 inherited runners to score (the best percentage for any AL "closer" that year) and recorded at least four outs in 17 of his saves. Like Holland in 2013, Eckersley's presence at the very back of the bullpen went a long way toward making the entire 'pen worthy of many additional looks and toasts of appreciation.
Between 1990-2013, no AL bullpen has finished a season with an ERA lower than the marks produced by the Athletics in '90 or the Royals this past season. In a baseball world in which bullpen efforts have become increasingly dominant and important to a team's success, a direct line can be drawn between the Eckersley-led Oakland club during its third straight pennant campaign and the Hochevar/Holland-directed Kansas City club as it had its most successful season in two decades. And while bullpen efforts are often subject to relatively volatile swings in performance from year to year, the numbers for those two teams are in permanent ink, available for all to ponder. Indeed, such a look keeps one coming back for more and more.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.