php8Son6LJoe 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]

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8 Comments

  1. Robert Rittner says:

    I think you are right that the issue is more complicated than Sheehan makes out, but I think he is fundamentally right.

    First, it is something of a chicken and egg question about roles. Is it that pitchers need the roles and so managers have to accomodate them or rather that managers tell them they have roles and so relievers come to expect that sort of treatment. Clearly there is no evidence in baseball history that pitchers require that sort of "coddling". Perhaps if managers establish early that pitchers are expected to get outs when needed they will be well prepared to enter when needed rather than in a specific inning.

    Second, I think the Rays have an advantage in that their closer is not their best pitcher. Seems to me that Maddon does want an established closer to finish the game, but does not need him to be the best pitcher and so has the flexibility to use Balfour as he did last night or Howell or any of the others to get the outs they are best suited to get. Rather than worrying about the psychology of closing the last 3 outs, which is probably a less stressful situation when you enter at the start of the inning than coming in with men on base earlier in the game, you allow the pitcher with the supposed closer mentality to have the honor but give the hard work to the other relievers. If Balfour were the designated closer, for example, we might well have lost last night's game.

    The key, it seems to me, is whether Maddon will relieve Percival if he gets into trouble in the 9th. He did last year only under duress and with the handy excuse that Troy was hurt. Will he do it more regularly this year as he should?

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    • you make some good points and I definetly agree with the chicken/egg thought. I liken the entire argument to why pitches need strict pitch counts these days.

      Which on a side note, I always find a bit of humor in the argument that pitchers used to be able to pitch deeper in games. This is true, but we also probably lost out on being able to watch a lot of great pitchers because their arms gave out before they became stars. If we stretched out pitchers nowadays, sure, but for every great pitcher that throws 300 innings, 10 pitches with great potential would be lost before they ever made it to the majors.

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    • Gus says:

      The sooner Percy implodes, the better the rays will be. The mix and match bullpen we saw at the end of last season and in the playoffs is the way to go in most situations. That said, if you have a Papelbon and a team that gets him lots of save situations, that can work too. The real mismanagment is when teams let a good closer rot when trying to adhere to defined roles. If Maddon didn't have the veteran Percival to deal with, he'd be able to go this route. He is the least effective pitcher on the staff, yet remains the closer because of his veteran status. But this won't last. Today's close call was the begining of the end. And the Bullpen of the Future may be brewing down the RF line at the Trop.

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  2. Dave says:

    I've read Sheehan's take on this for years. I agree the save is a silly and contrived stat, but I also think he's going down a rabbit hole with his argument. It would be nice if the perfect reliever were put in for the perfect situation in every game, but there is a human element he refuses to see in the situation. How much rest a relief pitcher has had, how many innings he's pitched for the season, in addition to the points you bring up. He's maniacal about pitch counts and innings pitched for starters, but he ignores the issue for relievers.

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  3. Joe D. says:

    If a Manager/ Club were to take Sheehan's advice, Which I think is a good idea and I wonder why more teams don't to that, I think that it's something that would have to start down in the Minors, and the whole organization would have to be on board.

    Most organizations go about their business the same way, the best pitchers are starters, until they are identified as a guy that might have something to offer out of the 'pen, seems to be something that happens around Hi A, to AA range, and I think from there on up the whole system and all of the managers need to be on the same page, where they bring in a guy for 2 1/3 innings or "'pen ace" comes in 7th inning to face the 2-3-4 hitters with a one run lead.

    Also, I'm nor sure how if only one team was doing this, what kind of free agents would they get? would K-Rod have gone to the Mets if they told him "you'll be our be our bullpen ace, and we'll use you in the toughest situations each night, but you may only get 15 saves a year." How about the first time a guy comes up for arbitration? Does the 3rd best guy in the pen that earns the saves get bigger dollars then the 'pen ace because he earned holds instead of saves?

    I do agree with the idea, and it's been state on here that Maddon does it, the he uses his best pitchers to get the toughest outs, which isn't always the save situation, even though I think Maddon kind of stumbled upon it with Balfour, and JP Howell in the tough situations, with Wheeler and Percy in the set-up and closer roles. Props to Maddon for realizing that that was his best option though and sticking with it, and setting it up that way. I guess it goes to the old saying that a 'pen can make a Manager look like a genius or a fool (or something to that effect).

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    • I also agree with sheehan and I like how Maddon uses his bullpen, I just think Sheehan makes it seem so easy. And i agree with you that it would need to be an organizational philosophy, as pitchers probably need to get used to it.

      as for things like arbitration, i think this generation of relief pitchers will suffer a bit, although relief pitches in general get much more credit now than they used to (and make much more money). So i think the trend will continue to move towards rewards for all relief pitchers, not just closers. but it will take time before the "aces" of the bullpen are fully recognized.

      last fall i looked at how historic Balfour's season was. I nitpicked the stats alittle, but it was one of the most dominating performances ever for a relief pitcher not matter how you look at it. But it was barely recognized, because the number under "saves" was not very big, even though as Rays fans, we know Balfour got many more important outs last year than Percival.

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      • Joe D. says:

        Agreed, Balfour's Durham numbers from last year are nearly unbelievable, and he didn't let up when he got called up either.

        JP Howell's work was impressive too, I remember at the All Star break being shocked that he didn't make the AL squad, and he was doing it in much in the way Sheehan is talking about, coming in middle innings, getting more innings work and bridging the gap to help the Rays get to the guys that were in those "predefined" set up and closer roles.

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  4. theraysparty says:

    Just a quick comment, I totally agree with your statement that pitchers prefer pre-defined roles (I know from experience). Any baseball manager knows which pitchers they would use in certain situations. Also agree on your take of warming up a pitcher more than once in the pen. I think this debate shouldn't be based on statistics and "common sense". It is an in game decisions using the best pitcher available to the manager who will use that pitcher that will have the highest chance of success based on mostly gut feeling.

    I see this becoming a more growing topic among the baseball world in the next few years.

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