Hidden Relief Stars

HOUSTON : Wilton Lopez #59 of the Houston Astros pumps his fist after retiring the side in the eighth inning at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings since Opening Day in 2010 -- that's two whole seasons plus a couple of months, basically -- the three hurlers with the best strikeout-to-walk ratios are starters, and probably won't surprise you ...

1. Cliff Lee (6.8)
2. Roy Halladay (6.3)
3. Stephen Strasburg (5.5)

All three of them also go on a short list of pitchers you would consider building a rotation around, at least when they're not on the Disabled List (as all three have been, at one point or another during these last three seasons).

It's the next five guys on the K/BB list, though, that caught my eye.

4. Edward Mujica (5.4)
5. Matt Belisle (5.2)
6. Wilton López (4.9)
7. Dan Haren (4.6)
8. Jonathan Papelbon (4.6)

Haren's a starting pitcher, of course. And a fine one. But his superior strikeout-to-walk ratio comes with a significant cost: home runs. It's the home runs -- 62 in his last 555 innings -- that, more than anything else, keep Haren from reaching the heights attained by Lee, Halladay, and Strasburg.

But this isn't about the starters. This is about the relievers. So let's see them again, but this time with K/BB and home runs allowed per nine innings...

Edward Mujica (5.4 K/BB, 1.25 HR/9)
Matt Belisle (5.2 / 0.6)
Wilton López (4.9 / 0.7)
Jonathan Papelbon (4.6 / 0.75)

In this three-season span, Jonathan Papelbon has recorded 84 saves.

Mujica, Belisle and López have combined for four saves.

Papelbon is earning $11 million this season.

Mujica, Belisle and López are combining to earn $6 million this season.

Miami's Mujica does give up too many home runs (or has, anyway).

But where's the evidence that Colorado's Belisle and Houston's López aren't good enough to do what Papelbon does? Both have higher strikeout-to-walk ratios than Papelbon, and lower home-run rates.

Granted, they don't throw as hard as Papelbon. López throws around 92, Belisle closer to 90. And neither López nor Belisle spent most of these last three seasons in the cauldron of the American League East. But on a most fundamental level, those three things that a pitcher can control, López and Belisle have been every bit as good as Papelbon, without anyone really noticing.

Baseball teams aren't stupid, fundamentally. There are probably decent reasons why Papelbon's pitching ninth innings, while Belisle and López are pitching sevenths and eighths. There are probably decent reasons for Belisle and López eventually getting their chances to become at least moderately famous.

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