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Heresy You Say to My Bullpen Theory
2008-04-11 21:48
by Scott Long

When it comes to baseball, I believe the tenets of the sabermetrical approach are holy...except for relief pitching. I have watched enough guys blow leads in the 8th and 9th innings to realize that the last 2 frames of a game are the toughest to have success. I know many sabermetricians believe that you can run a bullpen by committee and it can be successful. I don't. Some guys have the sack to do it and others don't. Losing a lead and then the game in the last 2 innings are worse than losing them in the first 7. I know mathematically this makes little sense, as a computer sees a loss as a loss. Well in my time watching the dynamics of a team, blowing games at the end wrecks a team's confidence faster than anything else. There have been plenty of great hitting teams who couldn't get over the .500 mark. While it is less the case, the same could be said for teams who had a better than an average starting pitching, I would argue that over the past decade, if you had a top-notch bullpen, you were going to be a playoff competitive team at worst and most likely a division winner or better.

The 2 top bullpens in the AL are the Red Sox and Angels, which I believe to also be the best 2 teams in baseball. Sure they have excellent starting pitching and hitting, as well, but it is their ability to close-out the last 2 or 3 innings that put them ahead of their competitors. The Indians went from being underachievers to nearly winning the AL Championship because their bullpen had an inspired year in 2007. I think the Indians are the best team in baseball, if you don't include the bullpen, but a team which counts on Joe Borowski to get them through the 9th inning is insane.. Another bullpen that pitched out of their minds in 2007 was the Mariners. I suspect they will come back down to earth this year, which will make them a team who struggles to be much more than a .500 club.

When you judge teams over the past decade on the category of who has had the most results on a cost/production scale, the A's and Twins battle each other for the top spot. While they have used very different approaches on building competitive clubs, the one thing they have shared is possessing excellent bullpens. Sure they've had good starting pitching and defense, but it was the consistency of their relief pitching that was their unsung hero. The Angels have also been lights out from the 7th inning on, givng them a leg up on every team the past few years. I would argue that the MVP of the Yankees over the past decade has been Mariano Rivera. Having the greatest closer in baseball history has been the stabilizing force for the Bronx Bombers, when the rest of franchise was going through one media-hyped crisis after another.
Many touted the Tigers as being right there with the Red Sox and Angels, but their bully was a huge question mark. Remember the days when Todd Jones was the 3rd or 4th best option for Detroit, even though he was their closer? Not anymore, as he is the best healthy relief pitcher they have.

Name me a American League team that was a playoff team without a good bullpen during this decade? The only one I could find was the 2003 Red Sox. Remember them, the team that followed the idea that closer by committee would work? Even with Bill James in the front office, the Red Sox quit that idea after one year, bringing in Keith Foulke the following season. I know that you can't make a concrete conclsion off of one example, especially by a team that had Byung-Hyun Kim as their top save leader, but I'm telling you closer by committee won't work. Some guys can't handle the final 3 outs, some can. You can say it is BS, but ask major league relievers if they don't perform better when they know what their roles are in the pen.

Put this last statement under the category of please do the research for me, but my guess would be that teams that strongly under perform or over perform their Pythagorean record are almost always most affected by their bullpen. If you look at my pre-season picks, you will notice that bullpen performance is the biggest factor why I think a team will have final success. This is why the optimistic predictions of a winning season by the Rays I find very unlikely. That's all I have for now.

2008-04-11 22:15:09
1.   jeffpico
I definitely agree with this. It takes a special kind of player to deal with the 9th espicially. LaTroy Hawkins was a good 8th inning pitcher for the Twins but a failure closing with the Cubs.
2008-04-11 22:38:54
2.   StolenMonkey86
In the first place, the Angels and Bosox have two of the best rotations in the AL too.

Also, I don't think it's mental so much as it needs to be your best reliever. And here's my criteria:

WHIP: ideally under 1.00
HR/9: as low as possible, definitely under 1
K/9: definitely at least 9, ideally 10 or higher
BB/9: again low, under 3

This is why I don't like Chad Cordero, Danys Baez, etc as closers.

2008-04-11 23:25:08
3.   Eric Enders
"Some guys have the sack to do it and others don't."

It sure is amazing, then, how often guys seem to acquire or lose their "sack" at the same time they acquire or lose their good stuff.

I can buy the notion that there might be isolated instances of a pitcher who pyschs himself out and isn't mentally capable of being a good closer. Key word being isolated. 99% of the time, though, I think it's hogwash. Superstitious, unprovable mumbo-jumbo which announcers, sportswriters, and managers like to talk about in order to make themselves feel smart.

2008-04-12 06:21:32
4.   Smed
Hm, so "The Nasty Boys" concept didn't work? How about some teams with great bullpens in the past that had a lefty and a righty closer. Sure, it was the 70's, but in 1976 along there was Mingori and Littell in KC, and LaRoche and Kern (and Stan Thomas) in Cleveland.

Then, of course, the A's in the 70's had Fingers but also pitchers like Knowles and Linblad.

Face it, every bullpen is a committee. The term "bullpen by committee" was first done to describe how Whitey Herzog ran the Cards pen.

If you can't hold a 3-run lead in the 9th, you belong in AAA or selling insurance. Same with a 2-run lead.

Your best relievers should get the toughest outs to keep your team in the game. The notion of 'saves' and 'finishing games' is pure media and LaRussization hype.

2008-04-12 07:53:34
5.   Josh Wilker
Whatever happened to relievers being called "firemen"? When that term started to vanish is when things started to wrong. The best relievers should storm into late-inning crises like firemen storming into a burning building.

My (unresearched) feeling is that one big reason Cleveland did so well last year was that they had a couple ferocious middle relief firemen and were able to stash a lesser arm, Boroski, in the role of the guy who saunters onto the scene with the fire reduced to cooling embers.

2008-04-12 08:13:49
6.   Scott Long
Offense strategy has been improved since the 80's by more teams realizing how OBP is the most important stat in baseball. 4 man rotations don't exist anymore. What was going on in the 80's isn't very relevant for today.

The way the bullpen is used is very different than 2 decades ago. Things have changed a lot since the 18 years ago when the Nasty Boys won a championship, I can see how that could work, though. If you can get 3 young relievers who are in their pre-arbitration stage with great stuff and makeup like the Nasty Boys, it could work for a couple of years. Pretty low chance of all those factors happening though.

The math seems great by bringing in your best relievers at high leverage times, but I don't think you can expect a pitcher to sit in the bullpen and try to be focused on coming in at any time of the game, day after day. It's too mentally taxing. I think Relievers need some structure to their jobs.

I have seen many times a good closer struggle when they are brought in with a big lead or down by a few runs, just because they need to get their work in. Just like shooting free throws at the end of the game, some guys get better and some get worse. I'm not sure about clutch hitting, but I do believe in clutch pitching.

2008-04-12 08:15:11
7.   Suffering Bruin
5 Nice piece of writing, that. Cool because it piggy-backed a great post by Scott.

I have long believed that the best pitchers should be pitching in close games. That means pitching while ahead, tied or behind. It's why the '94 Expos remain one of my favorite teams of all time. They had the best record in baseball before the season was stopped and part of their remarkable success was a bullpen that had, IIRC, 3 closers and two other damn good pitchers; Rojas, Wetteland (sp?), Shaw, Heredia and one other guy I can't remember. They were all right-handed and they all were used often in the 7th and 8th innings to close out games. Felipe Alou was getting his "closer" in the game earlier than most and it was working. They were 74-40 before the strike.

You know what's funny? All season long, I kept hearing experts saying what a shame it was that Alou didn't have a left-hander in the bullpen.

2008-04-12 08:17:55
8.   Suffering Bruin
6 "I'm not sure about clutch hitting, but I do believe in clutch pitching."

That's it in a nutshell.

2008-04-12 09:14:17
9.   Ken Arneson
My biggest problem with the "use the best reliever in the highest leverage situation" theory is that the pitchers have to warm up. You have to predict several batters in advance whether or not there will be a high leverage situation or not.

So you could warm him up in case there's trouble, and not use him if there isn't, but then you've warmed him up for nothing. If you do that all year long, you're going to have a burned-out bullpen by August, and you've wasted all that pitcher energy without getting any payoff in actual games.

So you go to the ninth with a three run lead, and you don't put your best pitcher in because it's not technically "high leverage", and then the first two runners get on. Now the tying run is at the plate. Do you bring your closer in now? Only if you had him warming up to start the inning to begin with. And if he was warming up to begin with, why not just bring your closer in to start the inning, and only use the energy of one pitcher instead of two?

2008-04-12 10:18:29
10.   Scott Long
I would like to add Ken's point to my argument.

Mentally and physically a bullpen needs to have certain roles to be at their sharpest. If you put situations into a computer program, it might seem like putting your best reliever in at the highest leverage times is the answer, but that doesn't measure the mental and physical toll it brings. It also doesn't solve the issue of do you then have someopne who can close out the game. The Latroy Hawkins/kyle Farnsworth types who look great in the 7th and 8th, but can't succeed in the 9th are no more rare than guys who are dominant closers.

In the off-season, I saw many sabermatricians knock the white sox for overpaying for linebrink and dotel. The 2007 sox bullpen was atrocious outside of Jenks, so I thought the money spent for these 2 was worth it. The money they spent for these 2 was half of what they would have spent for tori hunter or aaron rowand and I think will help them win more games. If you can develop bullpen help from your farm system that is better, but the white sox have no track record of doing it.

Relievers have been the last players in baseball to see their salaries escalate, so it is hard for many to see a cordero or gagne get so much money. Some of them will be bad signings or busts, but I suspect less so than starting pitchers have been in free agency.

2008-04-12 11:14:51
11.   joyofsox
The 2003 Red Sox DID NOT in any way, shape or form use a "bullpen by committee" or employ any Jamesian theory.

Their manager was too much of a dolt to understand the concept on any level. All he did was run different guys out there with no rhyme or reason or any logic to the situation.

It was a disaster. But not because the ideas were bad.

2008-04-12 11:28:31
12.   Eric Enders
"So you go to the ninth with a three run lead, and you don't put your best pitcher in because it's not technically "high leverage", and then the first two runners get on. Now the tying run is at the plate. Do you bring your closer in now?"

Well, no. You let the other pitcher work out of it. Which he usually will do. And the one or two times a year somebody manages to blow a three-run lead in the ninth inning, you live with it. You'll make it up through more efficient use of the bullpen elsewhere.

"I don't think you can expect a pitcher to sit in the bullpen and try to be focused on coming in at any time of the game, day after day. It's too mentally taxing. ... I think Relievers need some structure to their jobs. Mentally and physically a bullpen needs to have certain roles to be at their sharpest."

See, it's all well and good to believe that, but there is no objective reason whatsoever to believe it's true. No disrespect, but it's an opinion manufactured out of thin air with not a shred of evidence, either statistical or anecdotal, to support it. While you've got a right to that opinion, certainly, it's a little much to ask others to believe it in light of the overwhelming lack of evidence.

I do believe that pitchers like structure, that they prefer structured roles, that a defined role makes them more comfortable, and that they think it helps them perform better. But what a pitcher likes, and what he thinks, are irrelevant to the discussion. Athletes, with their lack of perspective, are notoriously bad at being able to judge their own performance. So while pitchers may feel that structure helps their pitching, the real question is whether, statistically, it actually helps their pitching. And if there is any evidence at all that it does, I'm not aware of it.

Baseball history has shown that it's possible for relievers to thrive even without structure. The not-so-structured fireman role existed for many more years than the structured closer's role has. Now, you've tried to dismiss all but the last 10 years of baseball history -- 120 years -- as wholly irrevelant to this discussion, but I'm not going to let you do that. It's not irrelevant. And there's no valid reason to dismiss it. What it shows us is that, yes, human beings do possess the ability to still excel when used in fairly unpredictable relief roles. I'm not saying that you can drop J.J. Putz into that role cold and have him succeed, but certainly it's still possible to create an atmosphere in which a pitcher could succeed in such a role today. Heck, as recently as five years ago, Huston Street was pitching in an unpredictable, high-leverage fireman-type role, complete with multiple-inning appearances -- and won a College World Series MVP award doing it. You're telling me he's now mentally incapable of doing that? Phooey.

Even if it WERE true that structure helps a reliever's performance, there are ways one can structure bullpen roles to better maximize efficiency. Instead of telling your best reliever "I'm going to bring you in whenever we're up by one, two, or three runs in the ninth," tell him "I'm going to bring you in whenever it's a tie or one-run game in the eighth or ninth." I think pitchers could handle that. Even if one accepts that there's a need for some type of defined roles, the WAY those roles are currently structured is due 100% to the way the save rule is written.

2008-04-12 13:58:34
13.   joejoejoe
I've seen psychological studies that show people react far worse to losing one of something than gaining one of the same. I think that is why a blown save hurts a team worse than a blown 6th inning. The human beings in the uniforms see losing a lead in the 6th as part of the game but losing in the 9th as being cheated. One result has no effect moving forward, the other sews doubt which has real effects on performance.
2008-04-12 14:38:31
14.   Scott Long
Huston street is great wxample, but not using his college stats. Streer has played his career for the A's, the team you would most believe would use him in the high-leverage style you feel will work. They haven't. I don't think that it is any coincidence that no one has attempted the closer by committee during a time when so many front office's are being run by sabermetrical leaning execs.

Why I don't think anything before the 1990's is particularly relevant is that the financial structure ofthe game is very different. The financial benefits of being the closer versus will cause conflict, unless you've got a young crew like dibble, myers, charlton. I don't see that on any current roster.

2008-04-12 14:59:04
15.   Eric Enders
If you're arguing that it couldn't work for reasons like agents and salaries, I'd partially agree with that--but only partially. I'm simply maintaining that there's no baseball reason it couldn't work.

Players like to make so much noise about being a team player, the good of the team is all that matters, blah, blah, blah. All it would take is one team ballsy enough to challenge them to put their money where their mouth is. Either they comply with the team-first concept, or they come off publicly looking like selfish phonies.

2008-04-12 18:29:57
16.   spudrph
Excellent discussion, gents.

I second the thought that the 2003 Red Sox did not use CBC. CBC, really, is just another way of saying "high leverage"-use the best pitcher at the key point in the game, without any particular thought as to who gets the saves. Saves are a peripherally meaningful stat, but they are the only stat a lot of people can handle when applied to relievers.

I don't think CBC will ever work, but only because of external pressures, not because the fragile pitchers can't handle the strain.
Every blown save, if it's Rivera being taken into the bullpen by Ortiz, has a certain amount of stress to it. But it would be a hundred times worse if it's Hawkins being taken into the bullpen-"Why didn't you save Rivera for later?" "Do you think LaTroy can't handle the pressure of the ninth?" The outcry that would erupt when a non certified closer blew a save would torpedo an honest attempt to try CBC.

2008-04-12 18:39:57
17.   Eric Enders
Again, though, that's only if you let the media manage your team for you.

Any team willing to do this would have to have some stones, because there would definitely be an outcry, at least at first, from people either incapable of understanding the strategy or unwilling to understand it. But fortunately, Dan Shaughnessy isn't the manager of the Red Sox and Bill Plaschke is not the manager of the Dodgers.

2008-04-13 14:43:47
18.   joejoejoe
17 The flip side of that is something like the Joba Rules (1 day of rest for each relief IP) last year where Joe Torre chafed a bit at being told how to use the players on his roster. The media wasn't commenting on Joba's usage as the relationship between the Cashman and Torre. It's not just players egos here, it's the manager.

I think it's a good idea for an entire bullpen to follow the Joba Rules. If that kind of rest helps premium arms it should help the less talented back end of the bullpen even more. Who needs that extra mph on his fastball more, the stud closer or the journeyman long relief guy?

I can see a bullpen-by-committee working if the team sets out something like Joba Rules for the entire bullpen. That way the lack of save opportunities happen in a context of protecting the player not in use, not skipping the player not in use.

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