Bullpen usage debate rages!
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.