“You know what your role is when your phone rings and your name is called. Go get people out. That’s your role.” This was the response by Houston Astros’ manager Bo Porter when asked to define bullpen roles by the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich last week. The Astros have started the 2014 season with a closer-by-committee bullpen where they will use a series of relief pitchers to close out games depending on the matchup. This strategy failed famously in 2003 when The Boston Red Sox, led by newly-hired GM Theo Epstein and Senior Advisor Bill James, implemented the strategy where the idea is to use the right relief pitcher in the right situation regardless of the inning or perceived role. The experiment ended six weeks later when the Red Sox traded for Arizona reliever Byung-Hyun Kim. I always believed the reason the Red Sox abandoned the tactic had more to do with the quality of their bullpen than the strategy itself. With the increasing velocity, strikeout rates, and efficiency of today’s bullpen specialists, it’s surprising the Houston Astros are the only team attempting a closer-by-committee approach this season. Here are some reasons Re-defining bullpen roles could not only improve a team’s win/loss record, but save millions in payroll as well:
Money, Money, Money
Saves mean big money for relief pitchers in free agency and arbitration cases. A relief pitcher with a surplus of saves on their resume will make considerably more in free agency or arbitration than a pitcher with similar numbers minus the saves. A pattern is developing this year of which many fantasy players all already well aware. Some teams are keeping their best young relievers out of the closer role opting to use cost-controlled veterans on a short term deal instead. Fantasy players all assumed young hard-throwing pitchers like Nate Jones, Cody Allen, Ryan Cook, and Danny Farquhar would all be transitioning to full-time closers this season. Instead, their respective teams decided to go with veterans on short-term deals with arguably inferior skill sets. It will be interesting to see if these young relievers take over closing duties down the stretch where save totals can be minimized. This new strategic blueprint is likely designed to keep saves out of the arbitration process with teams still using these pitchers in high-leverage situations earlier in the game. Billy Bean had the baseball world scratching their head after trading for Jim Johnson this offseason. Bean is well known for doing the opposite with a history of trading away his closers before they could get to arbitration. Former A’s closers Andrew Bailey, Billy Koch, and Billy Taylor were all dealt prior to arbitration with very successful returns. The A’s may have the best bullpen in baseball this season; and, by trading for Johnson, Bean ensures young studs like Sean Doolittle, Drew Pomeranz, and Ryan Cook will not be huge strains on the A’s payroll when they hit arbitration. Taking the financial hit on Johnson’s remaining one-year ten million dollar contract may be well worth the overall savings on the rest of the A’s pen. If the A’s aren’t in contention this July, you can rest assured Johnson will be a valuable trade commodity for cost-controlled prospects before his impending free agency.
Optimizing In-Game Bullpen Strategy
As an avid lifelong Strat-O-Matic lover I have always geeked out over the opportunity to manage a bullpen in a non-traditional manner. Amongst friends I have become well known for un- orthodox moves like using my “closer” in the 7th inning with a one–run lead with runners on first and second and one out, because I believed this may be the “make-or-break” moment of the game. Believe it or not the highest leverage points in a baseball game aren’t solely reserved for the ninth inning. Traditional bullpen usage has many flaws that managers like Ned Yost and Ron Washington are constantly being burned by and costing their teams victories. This week alone, the Royals lost two close games in the late innings without using one of the best relievers in baseball, Greg Holland. Why? Because there simply wasn’t a save opportunity. Perhaps it would have better served the Royals to use their best pitcher in a tie or down a run, but we will never know because Holland didn’t pitch and the Royals lost. The ability to stay in the game is often more valuable than the ability to close it out. Wouldn’t you prefer your team’s best relief pitcher to be used in the 8th inning of a tie game than with a three run lead in the 9th? The Astros’ closer-by-committee will once again attempt to negate the idea of traditional bullpen roles; and, if it works you can bet others will soon follow.
The “Closer Mindset and Mentality”
The myth of needing experience and a special mindset to close games has been frequently debunked. You often hear managers defending their bullpen usage by citing inexperience and makeup. As David Price and Trevor Rosenthal both proved in the 2008 and 2013 post seasons, you don’t need years of experience or a specific temperament to pitch in the last inning versus the other eight. There is no such thing as clutch in the major leagues. Every big league player has proved time and time again, through multiple levels, that they can perform under pressure. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be major leaguers in the first place. They would have been weeded out in high school, college, or the minors. The tough questions a manager has to answer at the end of the game are much easier deflected when the closer role is clearly defined. One specific guy for each late inning is the norm and you can bet Bo Porter will be facing tougher questions than most other managers. Luckily the expectations for the Astros are very low and the pressure and media scrutiny that the 2003 Red Sox faced won’t be as pressing. As a long-time proponent of re-defining bullpen roles, I’m excited to see how it turns out. The paradigm shift could provide a significant financial and strategic value to the teams that choose to embrace it.