Monday, July 27, 2015

The Bullpen Quandry

I was watching the Jays yesterday and thinking about the bullpen and how the use of relief pitchers has changed over the years. I was thinking about this because it is no secret that the Jays pen has been pitching poorly. There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. This includes indecision on the part of the management about who is actually supposed to do what. It includes players simply not being able to do the job they were assigned to do. But, I think it involves, most of all, a commitment to a philosophy of the bullpen, if we can call it that, that the Jays are just not equipped to implement. In other words, the Jays need to rethink how they are using their bullpen. What do I mean?

To get my point, we need a bit of backstory. Years ago, when I was a kid, managers used their bullpen differently than they do now. The role of closer was just really coming into its own and we were, perhaps, in the first great golden age of the bullpen closer: Bruce Sutter, Dan Quisenberry, Kent Tekulve, Goose Gossage, Lee Smith, Sparky Lyle. What defined these closers was their ability to get guys out. Their managers went to them when they needed to get someone out. These pitchers pitched a lot of innings. They finished a lot of games, but they pitched more innings than today's closers because their managers brought them in to get an out. They were the guys who pitched when the game was on the line. This was late in games but not necessarily the 9th inning. If you need outs in the 8th or even the 7th; if the situation was "mission critical" ... you went to your closer. The situation might be something like this: there is one out in the 8th, we have a one run lead; runners on first and second. Important need for good pitching ... now is the time to go to the closer.

Fast forward to today: this almost never happens. It is odd for a manager to bring in his closer without a lead and odd -- very odd -- for the manager to bring in their closer before the 9th. Most closers pitch one inning at a time. The normal use of the closer today is not a mission critical situation but a situation where they start with a clean slate. The bases are empty, get three outs, we have a two or three run lead. Finish off the game so we can go home.  In other words, the way in which relief pitchers are used has changed dramatically. That moment of calling for Goose Gossage with the game on the line has given way to calling for ... well ... someone else, with the game not really on the line. This has been disguised by the fact that the result is the same for each of the scenarios I laid out above. In each case, the closer gets a save. One save, however, really is a save: the closer came in and dug his team out of trouble. The other is important. Don't get me wrong on that, but its not the same level of importance.

What has happened? A big part of what has transpired is a chance in the way managers think about games. Instead of having a closer who can dig you out of trouble, the objective of bullpen management is, to use the lingo, to "short games." Thus, we don't just have a closer, we have a set up guy, as well, who also does not usually pitch more than one inning at a pop either. The goal is to win the game in less than the regulation 9 innings and then use the bullpen in such a way that the other team cannot catch up. Tony La Russa was one of the pioneers of this approach to bullpen use; Dennis Eckersley was the prototype one inning closer. And, it worked. La Russa was amazingly successful in both Oakland and St. Louis with this approach to using the bullpen. Like other successful innovations, other managers copied it. Cito Gaston used it in the Jays heyday ... not to the same degree as it is used today, but with Ward and Henke, he could go hold, save and shorten games. It worked and because it worked other did it.

Now, I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon. That is why I said twice that this strategy "worked." We should also note that it had a series of implications that affect the game and, potentially negatively if one does not have the staff to make this strategy work:

1. It requires that team's carry larger bullpens. As this strategy proved successful, managers began to extend it. They began to shorten the number of innings starters pitched. I heard Pat talking the other night about the problems some pitcher might encounter once he saw the batting order a third time. The manger -- it was the opposing team -- obviously agreed because he pulled the starter (who was pitching well) out after 65 pitches.  What one looks for from pitchers today is 6 innings. Yes, I know, everyone would like to get more than 6 innings but that is really what one looks for. Starter goes 6, Reliever #1 pitches one inning, Reliever #2 pitches one inning, Closer pitches one inning. The idea here is this: if you have not beat me inside six innings, you ain't gonna beat me. Hence, "shortening" the game. But you need more pitchers and more pitchers means bigger bullpens. Seven is the norm; some teams are now carrying eight guys in the pen.

2. Bigger bullpens means fewer bench players. Hence, the old extensive platoon systems that Earl Weaver and Bobby Cox (when he was with the Jays) used to use to advance the offence and cover over holes in the lineup have disappeared. I notice more and more teams with players hitting below the Mendoza line. I don't know for sure, but my guess is that this is the result of shorter benches. I can't platoon and work to a player's strengths. I need to keep him in their against pitchers he can't hit (say, lefties) because my bench is short.  When I was a kid a lot of teams carried five outfielders. Almost no one does that today (at least in the AL).  The effect of this is to limit the manager's ability to make in-game changes.

3. It has also increased instability. Because the bullpen is pitching only one inning at a time and then is rested, we have players going up and down to AAA all the time. The result is instability on the team. Exactly who is the Jays bullpen is not always clear.

4. It makes it very difficult to determine what closer stats (particularly saves) really mean. Bill James, I think, used to the term BS Save (which is a nifty pun) to indicate that not all saves area created equal. Thus, as the number of saves increase, we have less idea precisely what those numbers mean. They mean the pitcher is a good pitcher but how good? If the vast majority of saves occur as a result of a entering a game with good lead and the bases empty ... that is just not the same as getting one's saves from entering the game in a tight situation and pulling it out. Both skills, I'll say again, are valuable, but they are not the same skill.

5. Finally, I'll speculate a bit since I'm not 100% sure of this but I think that managers tend to like their pitchers to finish off the inning before bringing in the next guy. There is the platoon advantage change (the "situational lefty") but my sense is that there are more pitching changes but those those changes occur after the end of an inning; not during it. There is no doubt that many of the changes are legitimate. Our starter has thrown 100 pitches and gotten us through 6, let's get him out. But, it also simplifies managerial decision making processes. The starter is pulled only after the inning has been, as it were, won or lost. The risk of bringing in a new pitcher part-way through is not there.  I could be wrong on this one, I concede, but my sense, then is that managers intervene in innings less than they used to even though they are making more pitching changes.

Back when I was a kid, the standard bullpen configuration looked something like this:


  • long reliever/spot starter
  • middle relief 
  • middle relief
  • lefty
  • set up
  • closer 

Or, some combination of those. The long reliever could serve as a mop up man, as well. Middle relievers pitched two or three innings at a pop, as well. This, combined with a four man starting rotations, left two (or, three) more bench players. 

Today, we have bullpens that look more like this: 

  • long
  • middle
  • middle 
  • middle
  • lefty
  • set up
  • closer
But, middle is redefined as is long. Long relievers almost never spot start. If a spot start is needed a move is made and a player brought up from AAA and often sent right back down again after, thus burning options on two players (since someone else had to be sent down to make room). Middle guys pitch an inning a shot. Yesterday, against Seattle, in an effort to shorten the game, the Jays used four relief pitchers (over a ten inning game) after the starter had gone 5.2. Thus for 4.1 innings, they used four pitchers. 

My big problem is not with this strategy. If you have the tools to make it work, good for you. I will confess that I am skeptical about it, but I'll assume that those people making up their mind on pitching staffs have the data (in this day and age) to support their decisions. My problem is specific to the Jays. The Jays don't seem to have the arms to make this strategy work. It is, as  I said at the beginning of this blog, no secret that their bullpen has not been pitching well. They are losing a lot of close games (I counted five one-run loses in July so far alone). Yet, despite the manifest failure of their bullpen strategy, the Jays keep trying it and it keeps producing bad results. I'd suggest that the number one priority for the team is a manifestly good bullpen guy.

The thinking here is that all players have value but getting the most out of the value is the job of management. That is: management figures out how to use a player to good effect. It is, of course, easy to criticize after something has not worked but ... did anyone think that Brett Cecil was a closer? He had had a couple of good years as a middle/situational lefty split in the bullpen. In fact, he pitched well in that role. Moving him out of that role created two problems: (1) it left a vacancy that Loup could not fill and (2) put Cecil into a job he could not do. Thus, moving Cecil to closer created two problems, both of which persist as I write this blog. This is a  bit less of an excusable problem than one might think since it was evident near the end of the season last year and certainly over the winter when the decision was made to cut ties with Jansen. IOW, you could see this problem coming. The Jays adopted a shorten the game strategy without the tools to actually shorten the game. Thus, they were almost bound to end up losing a bunch of close games. 

How does one address this problem? Well, in the longer run, one would like the Jays to rethink their bullpen strategy. Maybe the shorten the game strategy is good, but it has a serious weakness that is magnified when you have a weak staff. The problem is that on any given game, a pitcher doesn't "have it." That is: he just does not pitch well.  A friend told me Roy Halladay said that he felt he had his A stuff only about 10% of the time. That is likely an exaggeration as a result of modesty but we all know that pitchers sometimes pitch great; sometimes they suck; sometimes they are average, etc. The more pitchers one uses, the greater the chance that one will get to a pitcher who is having a bad game or who is not quite as good as the others. In Moneyball, the Beane character says that the goal is to get deep into another team's bullpen early in the game so that they have to use their weaker pitchers as the series winds along. Exactly. This is what one should be guarding against from the other side of the coin. Using a lot of pitchers thus creates two problems: (1) it increases the chance of bad luck (a pitcher having a bad day because you are using more pitchers) and (2) it forces you to use your weaker pitchers as the series goes along. If we add these problems to the ones the Jays have already, you can see how problems magnify. A team with a weak staff -- or pitchers not working in their optimal roles -- is certainly susceptible to problems if you use a pitching strategy that puts those weak pitchers out there with increased regularity. 

In the short run, the  Jays have to address this problem by (a) getting a bullpen closer (perhaps Chapman), (b) redefining roles in their bullpen, and (c) be willing to pitch the stronger pitchers for long than one inning. A redefined bullpen might look like this:

  • good closer
  • Osuna (set up)
  • Sanchez (middle or set up, pitching longer than one inning at a time)
  • Cecil (middle, situational lefty)
  • Delabar (middle)
  • Hendricks (long)
  • Schultz or Loup  (long or lefty) 
This is not perfect but it gives the best chance that any one single change  could give to the Jays to win games. 
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