April 11, 2017
Whatever Happened to Predictability?
In theory, spring training is the place to figure out what a team has become over the winter. The reality of baseball is that teams change, and the plan from last year might need some updating to reflect the new personnel. Got a couple of new faces in the bullpen this year? Well, we need to assign jobs to each of them. Otherwise, they’ll sit out there like little lost puppies, not sure what to do. But what if spring training wasn’t quite enough time to get everyone into place? What if your plans were suddenly derailed by an untimely injury?
In the early going this season, we find Angels manager Mike Scioscia talking about using a “closer by committee” and Red Sox manager John Farrell isn’t entirely sure who’s pitching the seventh and eighth innings for his team. (His job is made a little easier by having Craig Kimbrel to pencil into the ninth). For right now, things are up in the air. There’s a bit of conventional wisdom which says that this is a problem.
We live in an era of very strictly defined bullpen roles. Beyond the designated “closer” who pitches in the ninth inning, a guy who pitches in the eighth, and so on. Using innings, rather than situations, as a way to assign roles is justified in the name of relievers having “predictability” during a game. Whatever happened to predictability? And then, for some reason, this happened:
In the video, Mike Felger and Evan Drellich, both media folks who cover the Red Sox and the general Boston area, are discussing the Red Sox's bullpen. Drellich begins by making the case against a strict innings-based bullpen system, suggesting instead that the Red Sox (and by extension, most baseball teams) might consider being less rigid, and perhaps bringing in the closer in the eighth inning to face the 3-4-5 hitters and then asking the eighth-inning guy to tackle the bottom of the lineup. If both men are going to pitch anyway, why not have the better pitcher face the better hitters?
Felger countered that he didn’t think it would work, because the relievers themselves like having a set role, and that they can show up to the ballpark knowing when they will pitch. Felger states that in these situations, “That’s when you get the best performance out of relievers.”