Bullpen usage debate rages!

DMZ · April 28, 2007 at 1:42 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

Geoff Baker, in the Times blog:

There were plenty of congratulations thrown Mike Hargrove’s way by his bullpen critics after he used his relievers outside their normal roles in that series finale in Oakland. Nice to see the critics try to give credit when something goes right for a guy, but I think they might have gone a little overboard in interpreting Hargrove’s willingness to cater to the “high leverage” crowd by looking at the situation rather than the inning.

I don’t think anyone interpreted that as catering to a “high leverage” crowd. But anyway, there’s some meat on what went into the decision (go check it out).

There is a reason managers do not like to use their relief pitchers outside their stated roles on too many a consecutive occasion. It isn’t simply because they are dinosaurs unwilling to try new things. It’s because they’ve seen what can happen when you get a little too cute and creative with your bullpen. Pitchers are creatures of habit and routine. Mess with that at your own peril.

I disagree that using relief pitchers means that you have to use them too frequently, which means, obviously, I disagree with the rest. In every game, no matter how you use your bullpen, some portion of them may be unavailable because of how the previous games went. Even use-restricted closers don’t pitch every night if every night is a save situation: generally they’d go two in a row and sit if there was a third (we saw this followed pretty strictly with Sasaki, for instance).

But if the spot closer blows the save, no one goes after the manager for having used the closer too often.

Every bullpen strategy will at some point result in throwing the wrong guy in. The argument for using good relievers in critical situations is that by doing, they’re able to contribute the most to the team’s success. Using them that way doesn’t mean that you have to ignore their particular talents, or use everyone multiple innings, or engage in loony, mockable behavior.

Or, to put this another way: if you use JJ Putz early in a game to snuff a rally and that means later Mateo has to pitch the ninth with a three-run lead, that’s a dramatically better situation for the M’s than Mateo losing the game and Putz pitching mop-up in the ninth. Either way, the next day both of them will have worked.

I disagree that relief pitchers are inherently creatures of habit and routine — this wasn’t the case for all of baseball’s history. If there’s a good argument for why, when the save was invented, they slowly became creatures of habit and routine for some unrelated cause, I don’t know what it is.

I’m reminded of something in Michael Lewis’ Blind Side, when he talks about how the NFL talent stream works backwards sometimes: a player like Lawrence Taylor will change how the game’s played, and then colleges will look to develop LT clones, and high schools will produce them. Once the save statistic was invented, and baseball moved towards increasingly rigid roles, with defined talents (closer must throw really fast), colleges invented relief aces, and so on. Part of why it’s so hard to manage a bullpen today is because of the constant closer controversies, and the desire of the best relievers to move into that role, because of the recognition and financial incentives.

No one, even the most vehement critics of modern role-based usage, would argue that it’s going to be easy or quick for baseball to work its way out of this.


9 Responses to “Bullpen usage debate rages!”

  1. Tek Jansen on April 28th, 2007 3:02 pm

    Thanks for the post. I am in complete agreement. I do not know why so many baseball writers seem to forget how the game was played prior to the “save.” I am amazed when I hear announcers, sometimes ex-players who played in the pre-save era, discuss how the 9th is more meaningful or magical than the 8th or the 7th and that only the proven closer has the innate quality to work that inning. I imagine that no-one talked in this manner prior to the concept of the save.

  2. Thom Jimsen on April 28th, 2007 3:19 pm

    If this can’t be changed, it will be concrete proof that Scott Boras is, in effect, the commissioner of baseball.

  3. msb on April 28th, 2007 4:06 pm

    I am reading Jonathan Eig’s book about Jackie Robinson’s rookie year:

    “Now some on the team began to wonder of [interim manager Burt] Shotten knew what he was doing. Starting pitchers had completed only five of the team’s first twenty-two games, and the Dodgers had used an average of three pitchers a game, an unusually high number by the standards of the time.”

  4. Bozo on April 28th, 2007 5:40 pm

    I found Putz’s claim that he’s just not physically used to sitting down between innings interesting; I’m sure that that’s a very different physical routine for him (as well as perhaps being psychologically different.)

    It’s true that I don’t remember Gossage or Fingers or Lyle or other dominant relievers of other eras making similar claims. But I’d also guess that an awful lot of Putz’s preparation is aimed at maximizing his modern 9th-inning-only closer’s role, and that there’s a physical aspect to pitching in different roles that he’s less perpared for, for better or worse.

    (Then again, it may just be a case of “Why am I on the mound and not warming up in the bullpen in the 8th inning ?”)

  5. Dave on April 28th, 2007 5:52 pm

    I found Putz’s claim that he’s just not physically used to sitting down between innings interesting; I’m sure that that’s a very different physical routine for him (as well as perhaps being psychologically different.)

    It’s especially interesting considering that he came through the minors as a starter, then spent his first two years in Seattle as a multi-inning reliever, and pitched more than one inning in 15 games last year.

    This isn’t some new way he’s being used. He’s on pace to pitch in the fewest multi-inning games of his career.

  6. Sammy on April 28th, 2007 6:17 pm

    I think what Baker is arguing is that closers pitch better when they know the ninth inning is theirs alone, and pitch worse when brought into the game in non-save situations. I believe there is statistical evidence to back this claim up.

  7. Dave on April 28th, 2007 8:04 pm

    I’ve never seen any evidence to support that claim, and I’ve read an awful lot on the subject.

  8. JMHawkins on April 29th, 2007 11:24 am

    I believe there is statistical evidence to back this claim up.

    Wow, coals to Newcastle. If you make a claim about statistical evidence on this site, you really ought to back it up.

  9. SequimRealEstate on April 29th, 2007 11:58 am

    May be the solution to the “Save” problem is to create a new category
    “High Leverage” you name it and pay more for those guys than the closer.

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