Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus takes some time to vent about how managers consistently misuse their bullpens (thanks Scot).
…it’s time for this nonsense to end. There shouldn’t be “eighth-inning” and “ninth-inning” relievers. Partitioning relievers by how many outs are left in the game was stupid when managers started doing it, and it’s even moreso now, as we find every bullpen in the game set up this way.
To all 30 managers, I issue this directive: Figure out who your best pitchers are, or more accurately, who your best pitchers are for various situations. For when you need a complete inning against the middle of the lineup; for when you need multiple innings; for when you need a ground ball; for when you need a strikeout; for when you need to get Jim Thome out. Then use them accordingly regardless of what time it is. Stop relying on the crutch of which inning you’re in to make these decisions for you. Your pitchers want roles? Their role is to get guys out.
These are not difficult concepts. Facing the middle of the lineup in the eighth is harder than facing the bottom of the order in the ninth, no matter how many ex-players who are invested in the myth of “closer” say otherwise. Stop using your better pitchers in lower-leverage spots. Getting four outs instead of three isn’t going to break anything that wasn’t going to break anyway, so stop losing games without getting your best pitcher into them.
Sheehan then follows this up with a telling directive to Joe Maddon.
Bullpen management is horribly broken in today’s game, and the first manager to fix it—Joe Maddon, I’m looking at you—is going to the Hall of Fame.
We agree that Maddon uses his bullpen better than most managers, but Maddon still defines specific roles for the relief pitchers. And while we agree that many managers are too rigid in how they use their bullpen, it is still more complicated than just “best pitcher for the biggest outs.”
Despite Sheehan’s missive, pitchers do prefer predefined roles. Coddling the mental well-being of an athlete is nothing new and not something to be ignored no matter how silly one thinks it is. Mariano Rivera has a very defined routine in which he spends the first 5-6 innings of the game in the clubhouse. It is part of his mental preparation to start getting prepared for the game in the 7th inning. It is not a stretch to think that Rivera would be less effective in the 6th inning if he was suddenly called into the game without a chance to prepare.
There is also the more direct physical impact on a pitcher from having to warm up multiple times in the same game. Let’s say a team has a predefined “ace” in the bullpen, but he is not necessarily assigned to the 9th inning. Now let’s say that team has a 4-run lead in the 7th and the other team starts a rally. Now the manager has the “ace” warm up in the bullpen, only to have the current pitcher kill the rally. If the other team starts another rally in the 8th, does the manager warm up that pitcher again? What about the 9th inning if he has already warmed up twice and wasn’t needed? That can be very damaging on an arm and not something Dr. James Andrews would recommend.
Finally, Sheehan also slams relief pitchers for not being able to get more than three outs. This is something that Maddon values very highly in a relief pitcher, but Maddon will also be the first to tell you that few relief pitchers are capable of working one inning, sitting down for 20 minutes and then going back out to the mound. Today’s relief pitchers are not programmed that way any more than starters are programmed to complete games.
Yes, Maddon is very smart with his bullpen and to an extent he uses his best relievers in the most important situations and he uses some of his relievers for more than three outs. But Maddon still assigns roles for each reliever (Troy Percival will start the 9th with a lead of 3 or less) and he only rarely deviates from that.
Prospectus Today [Baseball Prospectus]