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Updated: April 26th, 2010 7:48pm
A better bullpen strategy, but could pitchers adapt?

A better bullpen strategy, but could pitchers adapt?

© AP 2010
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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
Because of the Twins' ever-fluctuating bullpen/health situation these days, questions will likely linger all season long about proper late-inning strategies.


To date, Jon Rauch has blown only one of his seven save opportunities, and the Twins wound up winning the game in extra innings anyways -- 9-7 at Kansas City last Saturday night.

Rauch will continue to be the Twins' closer until further notice, or maybe even until the end of the season.

Forget about arguing whether Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, Anthony Slama, or somebody else such as San Diego's Heath Bell would be better suited for the job.

I want to take the closer argument to the next level.

Are the Twins, and nearly every other team in baseball, hurting their chances of winning because of a flawed bullpen strategy?

This is actually a fairly sensitive topic among many baseball "insiders," as illustrated by the war of words between two esteemed writers last week (or maybe it was just one writer taking shots at another...).

A recent article by former Baseball Prospectus scribe and current Sports Illustrated contributor Joe Sheehan lit a fuse under the posterior of Fanhouse.com baseball writer Ed Price, who ripped the heck out of Sheehan for his comments about Twins manager Ron Gardenhire's bullpen management.

And the rips apply not just to Gardenhire, but to almost every manager in baseball.

Sheehan writes:

Gardenhire's decision to funnel saves to one pitcher isn't unexpected. But it isn't efficient, either. The save-centric model of bullpen assembly has been around for two decades, ever since Tony La Russa created the modern closer by using Dennis Eckersley almost exclusively in save situations for the A's in the late 1980s.

The success that Oakland enjoyed began a trend that has warped pitcher usage to today's extremes, when managers routinely let games slip away in the seventh and eighth innings because they insist on sticking to rigidly defined roles for their relief pitchers. Never mind that being tied in the eighth inning is a more critical scenario than having a three-run lead in the ninth; the best relievers in the game are routinely held out from the former situation so that they can be available for the latter.

That anomaly exists because a statistic-the save-is driving the process. When it comes to adhering to that process, Gardenhire is no better or worse than his colleagues, most of whom would have done the same thing he did.

Price then writes:

Sheehan writes that Gardenhire decided to go with a single closer "because a statistic -- the save -- is driving the process." Which shows that Sheehan doesn't understand Gardenhire, or baseball players, or the game. Sheehan knows how to analyze baseball statistics. But the game isn't played by computer printouts, it's played by players.

...

Statistics represent what the players have done; the players do not simply perform to predetermined statistics, like Strat-o-matic cards.

And players are people.

More than 10 years ago, when I was covering the Arizona Diamondbacks, I asked closer Gregg Olson about a theory I had. What if a team designated an "ace reliever" instead of a closer, and used him when the situation was most crucial -- maybe in the ninth, as a closer would, but maybe with men on in the eighth, or with the heart of the order up in the seventh?

Olson told me it wouldn't work because relievers want to know their roles. Because of the way bullpens have evolved, players expect to be a closer, or the eighth-inning pitcher, or the seventh-inning pitcher, or the long man, or the lefty specialist.

Price brings up a good point. Baseball players are humans, and humans generally perform better when they are in some sort of a comfort zone. If a pitcher doesn't necessarily know exactly when he is going to enter a ballgame, he may feel slightly (or completely) out of his comfort zone.

But as a young baseball writer who is plenty rote on the philosophies of "advanced" baseball stats (which, in reality, aren't THAT advanced, but instead just different than old-school stats), and who also spends several hours in the Twins clubhouse each week talking to players, I actually side mostly with Sheehan in this debate.

The general bullpen strategy used by most managers today is geared more toward securing a "save" than securing a team win.

In fact, if the "save" stat did not exist, managers would almost certainly utilize their bullpen pitchers in much different ways.

Two examples:

1.) Twins vs. Royals, Target Field, April 18.

The Twins trailed 7-3 to start the bottom of the seventh inning, but Royals relievers Dusty Hughes and Josh Rupe quickly combined to allow six baserunners and two runs, as the Twins loaded the bases and cut the lead to 7-5. Quite frankly, Hughes and Rupe are not good pitchers, so this Twins rally came as no surprise.

With a chance to pull in front, Gardenhire pinch hit Jim Thome for Brendan Harris. Now, the pitcher, Rupe, is right-handed. Thome is obviously left-handed, and he still mashes right-handed pitching. The Royals may or may not have had a lefty in reserve that day, I can't remember.

But I do know they had Joakim Soria, one of the best right-handed relief pitchers in baseball, sitting in the bullpen, and he is exponentially more lights out than Rupe. Of course, bringing Soria into the game in the seventh inning (thus possibly rendering him useless for the ninth, and without a save) is a modern baseball faux pas.

Well, in a make-believe world where "saves" don't exist, if Thome would have hit a 450-foot moon shot off a scrub reliever in a "high leverage," late-inning situation with Soria sitting in the bullpen, then Royals manager Trey Hillman would have looked pretty silly rolling the dice like that.

Thome wound up striking out, so chalk one up for saving closers until the ninth inning, but the ideal strategy in Sheehan's "saves-free" world would have been to insert Soria with the bases loaded in the seventh to put out the flames. Then let Soria finish off the eighth inning, and bring in a "lesser" reliever, if necessary, to start a clean ninth inning, with a two-run lead and no baserunners.

2. Mets vs. Cardinals, Busch Stadium, 20-inning marathon, April 17.

In a scoreless game, Mets manager Jerry Manuel decides to save his best relief pitcher, Francisco Rodriguez, for a save situation in the 19th inning.

In other words, when a save situation was never guaranteed to begin with, Manuel trotted out multiple inferior pitchers from innings 8-18, hoping one of them didn't get dusted for a walk-off run, while one of the best relievers in baseball sat watching.

If Albert Pujols would have smoked a game-winning bomb off Fernando Nieve, Manuel would have looked pretty silly in a world without saves.

Then again, in fairness to him, Manuel has never known anything different.

Like I said, Price brings up a valid point about pitchers feeling more comfortable when they know exactly what inning they will be called upon. But if random relief appearances eventually became the "norm" -- much like pitching strictly in the ninth inning is the current "norm" for closers -- they would adapt much quicker than Price gives them credit for.

And managers would have much more flexibility to use game-winning strategies.

For those who remain skeptical, let me leave you with this question:

If you were a Royals fan, what would make you more nervous? Kyle Farnsworth pitching in a tied game in the seventh against Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer? Or Soria pitching with a three-run lead in the ninth against Delmon Young, J.J. Hardy, and Nick Punto?

In this situation, the game is on the line in the seventh. Not the ninth.

But in a world with saves, a manager is handcuffed by baseball social pressure.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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