Back in the day, in the prehistoric pre-Devil Raysian era of 1991, aspiring hip-hop producer Robert Diggs (aka the RZA) brought together nine rappers under the banner of the Wu-Tang Clan and revolutionized the hip-hop genre. In his book “The Wu-Tang Manual”, Diggs discussed his method of utilizing each individual voice for a particular part of a song. He used certain rappers for their tenor flows, others for their bass tone, and the remainder for their soprano key.
(Note: I don’t know music terminology very well. Those are his words, not mine. So if I got the distinct sound of the voices wrong, I apologize.)
The same techniques used by the RZA are also used by Joe Maddon as he moseys along his well-beaten path to the pitcher’s mound to replace one bullpen moundsman with another.
Whereas Diggs perfected situation usage in hip-hop, Maddon’s methodology emerged on the baseball mound in the late 1980s when living legend (and Tampa native son) Tony LaRussa shattered the traditional conception of the bullpen and re-organized it in an almost Henry Ford-esque assembly line fashion, with each man filling a particular role on the line to victory.
For LaRussa and his Oakland A’s, no longer were non-starters the roamers, wanderers, nomads, and vagabonds of the baseball community. They were late-inning assassins, arms ready and willing to provide reinforcement when necessary. Under LaRussa, former starter Rick Honeycutt, who started over 200 games from 1978 to 1988, became one of the best one-inning relievers in baseball and Dennis Eckersley was transformed from 20-game winner to Hall of Fame closer.
What was once revolutionary is now the norm. To the chagrin of baseball fogies and a small segment of irrelevant traditionalists, bullpen arms are absolutely essential to victory, and hence are no longer selected haphazardly – like arrows in a quill – but are brought into the game with an almost scientific precision, like a golfer selecting a club or a military general picking a force to exploit a hole in the enemy’s line.
Whereas other sports are increasingly celebrating the multi-positional flexibility of their athletes, with small forwards playing center in basketball and quarterbacks doubling as running backs and vice versa in football, relief pitching in baseball is now one of the least free form of any sports positions and is not probably most akin to field goal kicking. And like field goal kicking and other positions of strict utility, bullpen pitching now comes with a high personnel liquidity. Whereas the greats of the position are stable in their roles and uniform, the average bullpen pitcher, like the average field goal kicker, borders so close to replaceable that with one too many errant appearances, he becomes just that – replaceable.
For all his modernity and non-conformist ways, as I mentioned earlier, Joe Maddon executes his bullpen operations similar to the other 29 managers in baseball. If anything, with the support of the Rays’ top secret hovel of sabermetric Keebler elves, Maddon is even more exaggerated in his actions than his peers – more Kasparov than Queen of Hearts.
When used properly, a modern bullpen forms together like the classic kid’s cartoon hero Voltron, with each piece combining to create an unstoppable giant sum. And the Rays’ pen is no different. With Maddon at the helm, each member of the Rays relief corps brings a unique style similar to the old kung-fu flicks of yesteryear. As the Rays are one of the best bullpens around, it is only fair to compare them to one of the most famous kung-fu classics of all-time.
Choate, Wheeler – toad style. Immensely powerful, and when properly used, almost invincible.
Sonnanstine, Cormier, Qualls – snake style. Masters of control and best when staying down.
Balfour – lizard style. The lizard relies on speed and is a fitting animal for the Australian.
Side note: One of the things I find interesting about Balfour is that usually guys who light up the radar gun on the field have eccentric personalities off the mound. Pitchers such as Rob Dibble, Joel Zuyama, and Brad “The Animal” Lesley all made throwing hard an offshoot of their overall lives. Balfour, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fit that mold. He is the quiet Dr. Jekyll off the field (wrestling experiment with Jim Hickey aside) but becomes Mr. Hyde when on the bump – as Orlando Cabrera can attest.
Benoit – centipede style. Quick and strikes fast.
Soriano – scorpion style. When bit by the scorpion, your life (or the game) is over. The scorpion is also the only style represented in the constellations, as Soriano was the only member of the bullpen represented in the Anaheim during the midsummer classic.
When working together, these styles provide an almost impenetrable security net over any lead, a force stronger and more celebrated than the assembled sum of any amalgamation of martial masters. As Madden sits back like the old kung-fu abbot, his “students” stroll in from the bullpen and eliminate their opponents one-by-one, making a night at the Trop like an afternoon at the kung-fu cinema.
If only we can get the RZA to create a dub track for Kevin Kennedy’s voice.