On bullpen usage
The lengthy post I did on Hargrove’s reliance on roles and how it likely cost the team a game generated a lot of good discussion and some derision that I would even throw out Putz as an option in discussing Hargrove’s options. I disagree that this (or really, any strategy or move) is beyond questioning, and this is an important subject worth our consideration.
Here’s my basic point: modern bullpen usage, with its reliance on one-inning specialists, is a poor use of pitchers.
The role, and the mystique, only began with the invention of the save, and since the save statistic was kept, the role of the closer’s become narrower and narrower, until they’re now largely limited to only pitching the ninth, only if the team’s up 1-3 runs.
This is not how teams managed their pitchers for almost all of baseball history. For a long time, of course, pitchers were expected to go all game, and the pitchers in the bullpen were scraps and cast-offs, often starters who’d lost their endurance as they aged, random kids hoping for a shot.
Then we got the modern relief ace, the stopper, brought in to quench rallies, regularly throwing more than one inning.
In any event, I wanted to throw out some avenues for further reading about optimal bullpen usage, if you’re curious why there’s a huge contingent of really smart people who think the rigid adherence to roles, with 8th inning = setup man, 9th inning = closer, is not the best way to do things.
Baseball Prospectus stuff
“How to Run a Bullpen” (Me)
This is why modern bullpen usage is inefficient. It’s like saving your best pinch-hitter for when you’re behind by three runs, or only starting your best option at shortstop on days when there’s a full moon because that’s when things get crazy. Resources should always be deployed where they can do the most good, and modern closers as blood-lusting Gods of War, along with their Phobos/Deimos setup men (one lefty, one righty), are a bad use of resources.
Includes leverage chart!
Research into the value of closers and bullpen usage shows us that the best places to use your best relievers is in close games, especially games that are tied, or where you have a one-run lead. The difference in quality between the first and the third man out of the pen isn’t as great as is generally perceived, so worrying about saving the best pitcher for the highest-leverage inning in a tight game doesn’t make much sense. For all this, though, how to use your best relievers in a game will almost never be quite as clear as choosing a .080 advantage over a .059 advantage in spotting your second-best reliever in the seventh or eighth, because the game situation will never allow you enough future information to use relievers in a way that will appear optimal in retrospect
There’s also a good chapter on this in “Baseball Between the Numbers” (“Are teams letting their closers go to waste?” by Keith Woolner)
Are teams wasting their closers? Not completely, but they aren’t getting as much out of them as they could, and it’s costing them wins. This is one area where the refinement of strategy has actually taken us away from the optimum usage pattern. During the “stopper” era of the 1970s, it was common to see a relief ace such as Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage come in as early as the sixth inning to halt a nascent rally. That was the smart way to go. Focusing on situational leverage, rather than the accumulation of easy ninth-inning saves, is the best way to get the most out of the relief aces.
It’s a great essay, and I recommend it (and the book).
The Hardball Times
Which brings us to another great Tango piece, which goes into leverage and why it’s important to think about it when considering bullpens.
I really liked “The Closer and the Damage Done” (Treder) which examines the evolution of the closer and the modern bullpen.
The Closer model, with its highly specialized distinct bullpen roles, serves a purpose of greatly structuring and simplifying the in-game decision-making process for managers. Once the manager makes the determination of who his Closer is, who his primary Setup man is, who his LOOGYs are, and so on, then the decision of who to summon in various game situations becomes something close to following the recipe in a cookbook: when this happens, do that; once that’s happened, do this. Pre-1979 Bruce Sutter might be brought in during a crucial spot in the 7th inning – a tricky tradeoff decision for his manager to weigh – but a manager following the Closer model faces no such challenge. No matter what, if it’s the 7th inning, your Closer sits. One less thing to have to think about.
Those should form an excellent introduction to the topic, but please, if you think there are pieces that should be added, drop them in the comments.
All of that raises the question of “why don’t teams do this, if it’s a better way?” Treder addresses this a little, but there are several reasons:
– it’s how it’s done (institutional inertia)
– it’s the easy way to go (risk/reward for managers favors running the bullpen this way)
– it’s what players expect (fit to role, financial rewards for performing to role)
You do see teams apply some of the lessons of baseball research, but usually they only go whole hog if they’re desperate. Generally, where you see this used is on the margins: a manager will annoit someone the closer, someone else the setup man, picking veterans, and then will use their stud youngsters in the role that used to be the “stopper”.
However, the prominent failure of “bullpen by committee” experiments (and the loud, public criticism that came with those failures) makes teams even more risk-averse. Even the A’s, who generally speaking will go out on the weakest limb to test these things, and who for some time enjoyed turning out “proven closers” and then trading them while their value was inflated, gave in and now only play with roles on the margins.
When we saw the White Sox go without a traditional closer and managed the bullpen by the game demands and matchups, they called it “closer by situation” and it worked just fine.
That something exists, and the establishment believes it’s the way things have to be, doesn’t mean that it has always been so, or that it’s the best way to do things. I hope these articles will help show how we got here, and how teams can get more from their relief pitchers.