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March 23, 2017

Flu-Like Symptoms

Has the Modern Bullpen Killed Late-Inning Comebacks? (Part Two)

by Rob Mains


Note: This article, and the one that preceded it this week, is based on a presentation I made at the Society for American Baseball Research Analytics Conference in Phoenix this month. You can hear the audio here, and follow along with the slides here, should you desire. Fortunately, there is no video.

Part Two: The Legacy of the Modern Bullpen

In Monday’s article, I discussed the “modern bullpen,” whose genesis dates back to Tony La Russa using Dennis Eckersley in one-inning save situations for the 1988 A’s. As one-inning saves proliferated (from 30 percent of all saves in 1988 to 83 percent last season), one-inning roles for other relievers grew. In 1988, 26 percent of all relief appearances lasted exactly one inning; that proportion was 51 percent last season. This, in turn, led to increasingly dominant bullpens, as the spread between starting pitcher and relief pitcher performance grew, imperiling late-inning comebacks:

Last April, Russell A. Carleton argued that a lower run environment was creating more opportunities for late-inning comebacks, and comebacks were therefore not endangered.

Carleton was right. As I pointed out last October, here’s what happened in 2016:

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