On bullpen usage

DMZ · April 20, 2007 at 8:58 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

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!

Optimal Bullpen Usage, Continued” (Me)

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 Book
The Tango/Lichtman/Dolphin “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball” has a lot on this. Helpfully, this is excerpted in Sports Illustrated for your enjoyment.

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.

It’s a great read. Treder also wrote on the evolution of the lefty specialist in “A History of the LOOGY”: Part One and Part Two

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.


58 Responses to “On bullpen usage”

  1. Baker rumors, other nonsense on April 21st, 2007 6:03 pm

    I don’t think the closer tag is here to stay. Rivera retiring will help, since there don’t seem to be as many “name brand” closers.

    IMHO, what will change this is when closers become the generally accepted “best relief pitcher” (many times the case now), and thus a “rally killer.” This will end up replacing the closer and the save concept. Think “men left on base” (from a previous pitcher.)

  2. Tuomas on April 21st, 2007 6:54 pm

    In addition to the Braves and Tigers, I’d like to throw the Padres into the mix. Cla Meredith may be the best non-Jake-Peavy pitcher they have. Also, what about the Indians?

  3. carcinogen on April 22nd, 2007 1:20 am

    Check it,

    This from a Bill Simmons chat session:

    Craig (Kalamazoo, Michigan):: As a Tiger fan, how long do I have to wait untill I get to see Zumaya with the closing job?

    Bill Simmons: It’s completely illogical. It makes no sense. He’s the best reliever on the team, but the 3rd-best reliever (Jones) closes games. My buddy Hench and I whine about this all the time because we have Zumaya on our AL team — when Jones blew the KC game this week, we were going nuts. If you’re the Royals, who would you rather face in the 9th — 103 MPH throwing unhittable Zumaya, or a guy who looks like he was just signed from a semi-pro beer league? It makes no sense.

    Could this be the example of giving the “closer” job to a veteran just to have a name attached, but then using your relief ace (Zumaya) as your real stopper…hmm….

  4. joser on April 22nd, 2007 2:43 am

    I honestly think Hargrove doesn’t know the groundball/flyball numbers for his relievers — or he knows but he just doesn’t believe they’re meaningful, because he thinks a pitcher can induce a groundball in a given situation just by trying. I mean, we have that quote from last year where he said he brought Mateo in to get a groundball, when Mateo was the least likely pitcher in all of baseball to achieve that. Now, it could be he thinks the GB/FB stats are bunk and reflect random variation when the pitcher isn’t “trying” one way or the other… but if that’s the case, then he shouldn’t be looking at matchups either because the same reasoning applies (especially since the sample size on matchups is smaller). Honestly, I don’t know what (if anything) he’s thinking, and I’m sick of trying.

    IMHO, what will change this is when closers become the generally accepted “best relief pitcher” (many times the case now), and thus a “rally killer.” This will end up replacing the closer and the save concept. Think “men left on base” (from a previous pitcher.)

    Yeah, this kills me. Theoretically you could have a guy come in every game with three men on, give up an XBH so all three score, then get the remaining out(s) — and he could do this every game, all season, losing game after game, and still end up with an ERA of 0.00. Yeah, I know ERA is bogus as a predictive stat but here it completely blows as a performance measurement altogether. Sure, there are other stats that would capture what Mateo-esque suckitude this represents, but still — what number factors into contract talks and fan conversation (and the thinking of managers like Hargrove)?

    Getting back to the original discussion, I will note that if you look at the Fangraphs leaderboard and sort by pLI, the top of the list is heavily dominated by “closers.” Which — I think — suggests they generally are being used correctly, even if it’s by accident. (In this regard it’s interesting to compare Jones and Zumaya: though Jones has a higher ERA, he is also higher in pLI and WPA). And what Mariner reliever has the most negative WPA? (The astonishing thing is that he’s only the 13th worst).

  5. tangotiger on April 22nd, 2007 8:23 am

    Thanks for the links!

    I also recommend the Fangraphs leaderboards for LI, as noted in the above comment. In The Book, I showed how the LI for the closer should be in the 2.1 to 2.3 range, not the 1.7-1.9 that is the norm. Percival was the only one used close to optimal in 99-02. (Of course, just looking at a few games in 2007 won’t be enough.) The basic thing is to stop the 3+ run lead appearances in the 9th, and introduce 8th inning situations. If we’re looking for LI situations of 2.0 or higher, then there are plenty of situations where the LI is 3.0 and above for your ace to come into:

    As well, Mike’s Baseball Rants had a great series on reliever usage. I’ll look for it tonight, but you can try finding it on baseballtoaster.com .

  6. joser on April 22nd, 2007 12:50 pm

    Yeah, it’s early in the season and when you look at who is sitting at 3rd worst WPA on that list, you know you’re dealing with Small Sample Theater. But looking at past years, there’s a fair smattering of “closers” high on the leverage list… and in fact, there’s a pretty strong correlation between that and teams that are perceived to be well-managed in general.

    The trouble with using a stat like this is that it’s way too computation-intensive for any manager sitting in a dugout. Until we reach an era when there’s a guy with a laptop sitting next to him (or whispering into his headset), LI just isn’t going to be used in real time in a game situation. However, even as casual fans we instinctively recognize high leverage situations, and they should be obvious to a good/experienced manager even without supporting calculations. In fact, you could argue that LI is a way for those of us with less experience to arrive at the same conclusion that any “smart old baseball guy” gets from his gut. So when we see a manager apparently oblivious to these situations, or reacting to them inappropriately, we can conclude his gut, however large it may be, is failing him. When he does this repeatedly, we can conclude he’s incapable of managing a pitching staff effectively in game situations. We might even be able to come up with a numerical ranking of managers according to how well they use relievers in high leverage situations. And I think we all know who would be dwelling near the bottom of such a list.

  7. tangotiger on April 23rd, 2007 7:05 am

    I think it would take about 5 minutes to learn the redzones by heart, or heck, put them up in the bullpen. Get the darn relievers excited about how important they are treated.

    They are no different to learn than NFL coaches looking at their charts as to when to go for 1 or 2 points.

    The tougher part is the warmup. It takes 2-3 batters to warm up, so you can be in a blue zone, the ace warms up, it’s now a redzone, and by the time he is ready, it’s a no-leverage situation.

    What would be nice to know is how often Goose and Rollie were warmed up in the 7th/8th innings, only to never enter the game. Those games are not “on the books”, but the 9th inning 4-run lead that Rivera enters are accounted for.

  8. tangotiger on April 23rd, 2007 8:16 am

    Mike’s history of relief can be found in his archives:
    (and probably earlier).

    Unfortunately, all his links are broken. He used to blog at all-baseball.com, and now blogs at baseballtoaster.com . His URLs did not remap.

    It’s a great series if you want to take the time to read them (and if someone wants to post the actually URLs).

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