It is often said that a Major League starting pitcher needs at least three pitches to be effective, while a decent reliever only needs two. The reason behind this is simple. The reliever will usually see a given batter only once before he is removed from the game or the game is finished. The starter on the other hand needs to get through an opposing lineup multiple times, since if he is doing his job correctly, he should be pitching the majority of the game. Managers use their pitchers based on a simple formula. The modern five-man rotation works on the assumption that the starting pitcher will throw around 100 pitches, once every five days. The rest of the six, seven or eight pitchers that a ball club might roster are used in relief of the starters, with various pitchers used in specialized roles that take advantage of a particular pitchers skill set.
In the essay, “Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go To Waste?” published in “Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong,” Keith Woolner from Baseball Prospectus illustrated the folly of modern bullpen usage. The particular problem that he brings to light is that of the modern relief ace being used in what might not actually be the highest leverage game situation. For example, in the 8th inning of a 4 – 1 game, would it not be more prudent for a team to bring in it’s best relief pitcher to face say, a trio of Ludwick, Pujols and Holliday, rather than holding back the relief ace to face Rasmus, Molina and Freese in the ninth?
I believe a lot of the folly of bullpen usage can be blamed on the creation of “The Save,” back in 1969. Relievers and their agents now had a (very much flawed) counting number to tally up and show GMs when it was time to negotiate a contract at the years end. Suddenly relievers had a stat of their own to point to when trying to quantify their abilities. Not long after the creation of The Save, it has become convention to only use one’s relief ace to start the ninth inning – in a save situation. So “the fireman,” who would come into the game in a late inning, high leverage situation and stay on to finish, became “the closer,” the ninth inning guy. Illustrating this, I’ll refer to a chart found in “Baseball Between The Numbers.” In 1974, a closer made his appearance in the ninth inning in just 8.8% of games. Fast forward to 2002 and we’ll see that this number has jumped to an astounding 68.2%, due I believe in no small part to the importance of The Save, when it comes time for off-season contract negotiations. God forbid the closer of a visiting team comes into a tied ninth or in extra innings – even if this makes perfect sense, since if the home team scores the game is over. Meanwhile modern managers save their ace relievers for a Save opportunity that might never arrive.
One need only look at Mets closer and holder of the single season Saves record, Francisco Rodriguez for an interesting take on the usage of modern closers. After recording a record 63 Saves for The LA Angels two season ago, in what was clearly not his finest year, K-Rod went on to sign a $12 million deal with The Mets, making him the third highest paid closer behind only the incomparable Mariano Rivera and the rather volatile Brad Lidge. Frankie may not have even been the most effective reliever on his team during his record setting 2008 campaign. Last week the Mets closer finished a game, where he entered with the bases loaded and one out in the 8th inning of a 3 – 1 contest. He recorded his first five out save in almost five years. Another case in point: during the memorable 20 inning marathon on April 14, 2010, Rodriguez claimed to have thrown nearly 100 pitches in the bullpen while warming up for a possible appearance in just about all of the game’s 11 extra frames. Never mind that The Cardinals repeatedly threatened to score, which would have ended the game right then and there. When The Mets finally did grab a lead, Frankie entered in the 19th inning, dead tired and proceeded to blow the lead.
If we accept that the idea of modern bullpen usage is strategically flawed, than perhaps the concept of the starting pitcher could be rethought as well. Yesterday I received a link from one of my opponents in my H2H keeper league. Thanks to Sean for bringing this great piece from The NY Times Freakonomics blog to my attention. In the article, a reader wonders if there are better ways to use pitchers period, not simply the closer, but the starter as well and along the way he brings up some very interesting points. I won’t cover them all, but here a few of the key elements to the debate:
- Instead of starting the game with a starter, an “opener” is sent out to pitch the first couple of innings. The openers style would differ drastically from the following pitchers in an effort to mess up opposing batters timing. Think about how difficult it might be to hit a dancing knuckleball, after facing a fireballer.
- If a pitcher is at an advantage the first time he faces a batter and that advantage is mitigated upon the batter seeing the pitchers offerings through the course of a game, would it not stand to reason that perhaps it would be best to only use a pitcher once through the batting order? That brings me back to my opening, since the need for starting pitchers to rely on third and fourth pitches would be lessened if we follow this model. Few starting pitchers, outside of a team’s best one or two, have effective third and fourth pitches.
- As used now, a starting pitcher pitches until he fails to get batters out or succumbs to fatigue. Often the later will be the cause of the former. What if pitchers were used in a way that would see them pulled from the game before they ever lose effectiveness to fatigue?
More so than any other American sport, Baseball is a game of orthodoxies, many of which are not particularly sound from a strategic point of view. There are many factors at play when we talk about changing orthodox game strategies. Ego, money, ill-conceived statistics and downright stubbornness often stand in opposition to the path of reason. Sometimes, as in the case of bullpen usage, teams were better off sticking with the old ways of doing things. Other tried and true baseball concepts certainly deserve a rethinking. I can see the value of a reconfiguration of pitching usage – particularly in the case of teams who may not have particularly good starting pitching. While I’m not sure I’d love it from a fan’s point of view (I do so love to watch a starter fight his way through entire game) the ideas make a lot of managerial sense.
It wasn’t long ago that the importance of good ol’ On Base Percentage was under-appreciated. Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” which famously brought light to A’s GM, Billy Beane’s statistically driven model of exploiting market inefficiencies, changed that in a big way. Team defense has come under the microscope in recent years, as smaller market teams look to maximize their payrolls by exploiting new market inefficiencies. With the speed of information forming opinions within the baseball world at a faster pace than ever before, perhaps it’s time for a hard look at how pitching is handled as well.
What do you think? Would you like to see your team employ their pitchers differently? How do you think this reordering of pitching staffs would effect the game?