During the 2018 season, the San Diego Padres bullpen was dominant. In fact, the group had a historic year in relief and could very well be in store for another great season in 2019.
In what ended up being a losing year for the San Diego Padres, a key part of the team came out of the blue to turn in a historic season.
Many of the pitchers that were on the opening day roster would eventually find themselves playing in different cities at some point during the season. From the top of the pitching staff to the bottom, there were a lot of question marks heading into the season that only time could answer.
Would Brad Hand own the closer post and relish the role of being “the guy”? Would Kirby Yates be open to operating as the closer if Hand was to be traded? Would 34-year-old Craig Stammen stay healthy after a career of injury-riddled seasons? Outside of that group, would a hodgepodge group of free agents and under the radar picks be difference makers or even placeholders until more “hot talent lava” matriculated up the rungs of this talented farm system?
Adding to the bullpen on a two-year deal, the Padres inked “Kaz” Makita, a low velocity, high movement pitch specialist from Japan. Former top prospect of the Rockies and Astros Jordan Lyles found his way into the bullpen as a reclamation project of Daren Balsley. Joining him were even less heralded Padre minor leaguers Kyle McGrath and Adam Cimber. Robbie Erlin, the longest tenured Padre pitcher on the roster would serve as the long man, filling in for the occasional start when called upon.
While at first glance, this bullpen didn’t necessarily strike fear into opposing dugouts, they would grow to exceed all expectations in what would become a historic season of relief work.
Yates put up a career year in which he claimed the closer mantle after Hand’s departure and dominated in the role to the tune of a 12.86 K/9 and stingy 2.14 ERA. Even more impressive was the fact that over 63 innings pitched, he surrendered a paltry .181 opposing batting average.
Stammen played the “Robin” to Yates’ “Batman” and excelled in his 79 innings of work, ending the season with a 2.73 ERA. He was “old reliable” as Padres manager Andy Green called upon him in a team-high 73 games. After this core of veteran relievers, a surprising young group would emerge for the Padres, adding their own unflappable relief work to the mix.
A rehabbing LHP Matt Strahm would join the team on May 7th and lay claim to a roster spot immediately. He scorched his way through 2018 with a K/9 at 10.13 and only a 2.05 ERA, while opposing hitters claimed a minuscule .178 average against him.
The Padres paired Strahm with another devastating LHP when Jose Castillo was called up on June 2nd. In his first game, he gave San Diego a taste of his potential when he struck out Cincinnati All-Stars’ Eugenio Suarez, Joey Votto, as well as Adam Duvall. Castillo would close the year with an even more impressive 12.21 K/9 rate, while limiting opposing batters to a .170 average against. Like thoroughbred horses racing towards the finish line, Castillo and Strahm dueled all season for supremacy as the best lefty in the pen.
By the end of the season, the Padres pen had quietly made history, posting an incredible 8.7 WAR (stat according to Fangraphs). In terms of the National League, this is the second highest mark ever, behind only the 2003 Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen which included Eric Gagne and Cal Quantrill‘s dad Paul.
For context, that season also saw Gagne earn the Cy Young, where he claimed an almost impossible 55/55 in save opportunities to go along with a 3.7 WAR. Take it as you will, but in Eric Gagne’s autobiography released in 2012, he openly admits to using steroids during that award-winning season. Considering that fact alone, it might be fair to call the Padres pen in 2018, the best bullpen in National League history.