The six-man bullpen

Mike Snow · May 20, 2011 at 10:16 am · Filed Under Mariners 

As you know, the six-man bullpen is something we’ve lobbied for repeatedly around here. In a way, a road trip that includes interleague play is perfect timing for it, because playing National League rules significantly increases the importance of your bench for in-game strategy. As terrifying as it sounds, there will be times when “Jack Wilson, pinch-hitter” is a better option than “ordered to keep the bat on my shoulder in spring training” Michael Pineda or “swing with my eyes closed” Felix.

Despite this logic, however, the trend in baseball has overwhelmingly favored carrying seven and sometimes even eight guys in the pen. Even National League teams who bring bats off the bench on a daily basis haven’t really resisted it. I think the overall phenomenon might be ready to move in the other direction, though, and in going to a six-man bullpen, the Mariners could become part of a reversal in this trend.

Ultimately, the real driving force is likely to be the change in the run-scoring environment, more than any difference between the leagues. It’s a product of the psychology of baseball managers as much as anything. If you’re playing 7-6 ballgames and can get offense out of your lineup from top to bottom (even from the likes of Jose Lopez), when looking for that little bit of advantage so you end up with the 7 and not the 6, you end up focusing more on who your relief options are and having enough of them, because it seems like there’s a bigger difference between them. In that setting, it seems to matter a great deal whether you’re bringing in an Arthur Rhodes or a Julio Mateo.

On the other hand, in an environment full of 3-2 scores, it stands to reason that starting pitchers will be able to go deeper into games (including underwhelming Doug Fister types; I’d say Erik Bedard, but that would just be getting greedy) and you’ll have less opportunity and need for all of those relievers. In that context, suddenly a guy like Jamey Wright can get people out in the late innings, and you’re never going to use Tom Wilhelmsen, so why bother keeping him around? As they adjust to this, managers will start focusing more on scratching out that third run with their position players, as opposed to holding the other team off with their bullpen. And it will seem to them, and in turn the front office, that having a versatile bench matters more, relatively speaking, than having lots of relief pitching options.

Now if this kind of transition happens, it will take place gradually, and managers will take time to re-learn how they want to use a fuller bench. Some of the changes may involve the re-emergence of the traditional platoon system, which had seemed to be very much in decline around baseball. Carlos Peguero and Mike Wilson aren’t the greatest left field options, but if that’s all you have they should at least be platooned, so that much the Mariners have figured out. Eventually Eric Wedge may also stop counting on sun-aided base hits from Peguero when he faces a lefthanded relief pitcher.

There are other developments we might anticipate, but will have to wait and see on. For example, having some kind of black hole in your lineup is practically inevitable these days. The Mariners have more than most because of a lousy roster, but you’re almost bound to have at least one Brendan Ryan. If you have somebody on your bench who can hit, maybe you pinch-hit for Ryan more in close games. Also, now that Franklin Gutierrez is back, hopefully Wedge figures out that Michael Saunders has by far the best glove for left field, and really should be out there as a defensive replacement with a lead in the late innings.


27 Responses to “The six-man bullpen”

  1. MrZDevotee on May 20th, 2011 10:50 am

    It would be ridiculous to do, naturally, but the M’s could probably even get away with a 5 man pen… We’re not really using (for the purposes of winning) anything more than 4 right now:

    ??? ( nobody else has over 8 innings )


    Michael Saunders has by far the best glove for left field, and really should be out there as a defensive replacement with a lead in the late innings.

    Can somebody fax this to the M’s– then maybe Saunders can stick around when Ackley comes up?

  2. scottg02 on May 20th, 2011 11:01 am

    Having starters go deep in games like we have the luxury of makes this more of a no brainer. I agree with the previous poster we could almost pull off a 5 man. I hope we can continue to see Vargas, Fister, and Bedard (!) work into the seventh inning and beyond, it provides a lot more flexibility and keeps the bullpen arms fresh.

  3. Westside guy on May 20th, 2011 11:27 am

    Thing is, Wedge doesn’t seem to believe much in defensive replacements for some reason. I don’t recall him sitting Bradley down in the eight or ninth inning, ever. I realize Bradley was probably better than Peguero in the field – but he wasn’t exactly good.

  4. Mike Snow on May 20th, 2011 11:42 am

    I’m not sure I would say that Bradley was even better than Peguero in the field, certainly not by the end. But Saunders was mostly playing center, so the potential upgrade with a defensive replacement was probably not as obvious.

  5. Westside guy on May 20th, 2011 11:46 am

    I guess it is a small sample size – but early on there were a number of games where Saunders was on the bench (Langerhans was playing center).

  6. joser on May 20th, 2011 11:48 am

    A couple of weeks ago, when Jaff wrote a short bit at LL on Wedge’s bullpen usage, a commenter claimed Wedge’s tendency with the Indians was to stick with a small subset of the bullpen, presumably because he trusted those arms more. If that’s actually his druthers (I haven’t gone back to look at the Indians’ bullpen innings distribution) he might be more open to this idea than some other managers — provided the guys he trusts don’t blow up on successive nights (and/or extra innings games) and leave him scrambling for ams.

    maybe Saunders can stick around when Ackley comes up?

    When Ackley comes up I’d expect something has to give amongst the Ryan / Wilson / Rodriguez / Kennedy quartet. With Ackley that’s five guys for two positions (though obviously Rodriquez and Kennedy are also backups for 3rd and 1st). Barring injuries, one of that group is playing for another team (in the minors or the majors, in the M’s system or another) this summer.

    But even aside from that, I don’t see Saunders going back to Tacoma unless they’re convinced Guti can play every day. And I have to think it’ll take a few weeks of him actually playing every day to convince them of that. No, I think Peguero is a better candidate for heading back to Tacoma.

  7. groundzero55 on May 20th, 2011 12:30 pm

    I don’t recall him sitting Bradley down in the eight or ninth inning, ever. I realize Bradley was probably better than Peguero in the field – but he wasn’t exactly good.

    Were we ever ahead with Bradley in the game? I can’t remember.

  8. PackBob on May 20th, 2011 12:58 pm

    Baseball seemed to overspecialize with relievers and overreact to pitch count in a manner similar to the endless sequels to hit movies. Relief specialization became so rote that managers would bring in a lefty to face Ichiro even when Ichiro was hitting better against lefties. Starting pitchers that were still going strong were pulled at a 100 pitch count like it was some sort of magic number.

    Baseball is a game of trends, some pretty nonsensical such as rating pitchers by how many wins they accumulate. The times I most dislike reliever specialization is when a pitcher is obviously on his game and doesn’t have bad splits but is pulled to get a left/left or right/right match-up and the replacement pitcher may or may not be on his game.

  9. eloomis on May 20th, 2011 1:17 pm

    “’swing with my eyes closed’ Felix”

    You actually meant “hit a grand slam off Johan Santana when eloomis was in attendance meeting his Mets fans future in-laws for the first time Felix.” Right?

  10. qwerty on May 20th, 2011 1:18 pm

    Any chance the next CBA could yield 26-man rosters?

  11. Westside guy on May 20th, 2011 1:19 pm

    eloomis – your in-laws are Mets fans? Did you gloat after Felix’s slam? 😉

  12. eloomis on May 20th, 2011 1:31 pm

    Oh there was much laughing at them. Less so when Felix rolled his ankle later in the game. But hey, no one remembers the ankle. Everyone remembers the slam.

    Other than being at the 95 playoffs, this is my favorite live Mariner moment.

  13. Mike Snow on May 20th, 2011 1:40 pm

    Why would I want to mention the grand slam when it undermines my argument? It was a classic moment, though, no doubt. Glad to hear you got to enjoy it in person. It has all the predictive usefulness of Peguero’s “single” off of Torii Hunter, of course – that’s part of what makes it so memorable.

  14. Paul B on May 20th, 2011 1:50 pm

    One reason most teams have a bigger bullpen is that many teams have a LOOGY.

    Carrying one of those guys, who usually only face one batter in a game, really takes up space on the roster.

  15. Brzeczyszczykiewicza on May 20th, 2011 1:55 pm

    I think Felix actually swung with his eyes closed when he hit the grand slam which would make you both right.

    And I’d rather have Saunders be the starting LF. Wilson and Peguero have looked like even worse hitters than Saunders to my eyes, and the small sample size stats back that up for what they’re worth, plus Saunders plays much better defense than either of them. Maybe a Mike Wilson/Saunders platoon instead.

  16. illdonk on May 20th, 2011 2:04 pm

    I was actually at that game, too. I left, crestfallen, after he got hurt…definitely among the biggest emotional swings I’ve had attending a game.

  17. msfanmike on May 20th, 2011 2:12 pm

    What goes around comes around. Earl Weaver liked to have a lot of options on offense and the use of a platoon system. He usually went with an 8 or 9 man pitching staff. That was, of course – back in the days of a 4 man starting rotation.

    I would really like to see 10 or 11 man pitching staffs become more of the rule, rather than the exception. The strategy of the game may be turning in that direction. Having a guy around in the bullpen to face 2 batters a week is silly. What’s going to happen next … is the stolen base going to become a weapon? Small ball? Baltimore chops? Flat bats? Sharpening of spikes? Double-headers on Saturdays?

    Good golly – is the game itself regressing to its mean after a 40+ year run with everything from polyester beltless pants, cookie cutter stadiums and power lifters disguised as infielders?

    I am not saying any of that was bad (okay, some of it was bad), but things change and somewhere along the way, they end up changing very little.

    About 15 years ago, Sparky Anderson said that pitching will be bad for the next 20 years and then it will get worse. He was wrong. Pitching has gotten better. A lot better. Big horses throwing bullets that are hard to hit better. The small things are going to start to matter – more than they have been and much like they used to be IMO.

  18. Mike Snow on May 20th, 2011 2:16 pm

    Any chance the next CBA could yield 26-man rosters?

    The owners don’t want to pay the salaries of even more players than they do now. For the most part, I’ve only heard this suggested in the context of what the union might demand if they’re asked to give up the DH. But there doesn’t seem to be any real momentum in that direction at present, and with offense already declining across baseball, I don’t imagine that will change.

    One reason most teams have a bigger bullpen is that many teams have a LOOGY.

    Yes, one of the possible consequences of a lower-scoring environment is stepping back from some of the bullpen hyper-specialization. I certainly wouldn’t miss it.

    I think Felix actually swung with his eyes closed when he hit the grand slam which would make you both right.

    I think we both knew that, but yes. It’s one of the things that adds layers to that particular story.

  19. Celadus on May 20th, 2011 2:31 pm


    I’d guess you’re right with the pitching trends and I speculate that the downward trend in scoring will continue, up to a point.

    Bill James once claimed that attendance is directly related to run scoring–that was a long time ago and I don’t recall how much research he did.

    I think he also said something like: the American fan would rather see people doing something as opposed to seeing people keep others from doing something.

    If attendance starts trending downward, there will eventually be steps taken to help the hitters again. I was around in 1968-1969 when there were hordes of good pitchers throwing down from those skyscraper mounds leading to a host of 1-0, 2-1 games. Boring, plus at the end of many games I would think “that guy didn’t pitch all that well, he didn’t deserve to allow only one run.”

  20. msfanmike on May 20th, 2011 2:40 pm

    If attendance starts trending downward, there will eventually be steps taken to help the hitters again.

    I think you are right, Celadus. The last time non-scoring became a big issue – they first lowered the mounds and then one league eventually adopted the DH rule . I suppose they could adopt a rule to have 2 DH’s. Better yet, a DH and DW (Designated Walker). We are already halfway there in that regard. I watched Cust watch strike 3 right down the gut yesterday – in person. That was neat.

    This comment is as much a tweak for my buddy Westy as anything else. Just so he knows I still care.

  21. Westside guy on May 20th, 2011 2:48 pm

    Haha Mike.

  22. msfanmike on May 20th, 2011 2:58 pm

    ‘Sup, Westy?’

    Any predictions on how long it will be until the next online Cust OBP debate? I am guessing … in about 7 games from now.

    I could not figure out why there was no pinch runner for Cust yesterday. I knew Ryan was ailing, but Wilson was there. I was the guy yelling for a pinch runner. Oh wait, there were a lot of people yelling for one. I guess we all were wrong.

    Cust apparently had the wheels to get the job done, but Wilson could have gone in and assumed the DH/DW/D-strikeout role if the game went into extras.

    A check swing hit, no pinch runner when one made all the sense in the world, a bloop lost in the sun – and a game winner as a result. Yes, I think the lucky break-Gods probably exceeded their limit yesterday; but “That’s Baseball.”

  23. MrZDevotee on May 20th, 2011 3:50 pm


    When Saunders first came up to the bigs, after a month, he was batting .148, with a .320 OPS, 11 K’s, 0 BB’s, 1 RBI and O HR’s.

    I’m okay at least waiting until Wilson/Peguero settle in before deciding Saunders is an upgrade over them.

    Without exaggeration, having Guty back will eventually make the “zone” the LF has to cover shrink considerably. If it means we can add a late middle of the order bat to this anemic lineup, LF seems like a good place to make that trade off.

    Plus, Wilson already threw out a runner at the plate in a 1 run game that I’m not sure Saunders could have done– there’s a balance there to weigh… I’m all for using Saunders as a late inning defensive upgrade, or to spell Guty on occasion, but if we’re losing I don’t think we need the extra “d” as much as a bigger bat… (Again, this assumes they both start making better contact at the Major level…)

  24. murphy_dog on May 20th, 2011 4:25 pm

    Fastpitch softball went to the Designated Player, who essentially bats for anyone on defense; but then has the added benefit of being allowed to play defense for any of the other 8 positions as well. So, you can have a DP who bats for the pitcher; and then the DP can play defensively for the RF, but the “real” RF stays in the lineup as a batter. Of course, softball allows re-entry too.

  25. dingla on May 20th, 2011 7:36 pm

    lolz Bedard! base hit!

  26. jordan on May 20th, 2011 7:38 pm

    So much to talk about and nowhere to talk!

  27. Kazinski on May 20th, 2011 10:19 pm

    The problem is that I don’t think there is much of an argument that Felix swinging with his eyes closed is a better hitter than half the Mariners lineup.

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