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June 11, 1999

NL Central Notebook

Working Hard in Cincinnati

by Christina Kahrl

Working Hard in Cincinnati

Other than the teeth-gnashing fringe element of bitter Reds fans mourning the rise and fall of Jon Nunnally or Dmitri Young or Willie Greene, has anyone else noted how much Jack McKeon is using some of his relievers? Through the first 54 games of the season, side-armer Scott Sullivan is on a pace to toss 133 innings. Touted rookie Scott Williamson projects to throw 109 innings, and erstwhile co-closer Danny Graves is on his way to 123 frames.

How much of this is McKeon? All of it, of course. Even if you argue that the reason this threesome is tossing a ton of innings is the team's problems with Jason Bere or Denny Neagle, or the demonization of Brett Tomko, that all goes back to McKeon's decisions about who to use and how to use them. And for as many problems as the Reds' rotation has had, it has also reaped the benefit of the best pitching Steve Avery's done in several years, although this is coming to an end.

The important questions are, is this kind of workload historically significant, and is it dangerous?

History

How many teams have actually had three relievers toss 100 or more innings in relief? Thanks to some speedy checking by Keith Woolner and the use of Sean Lahman's outstanding database {LINK www.baseball1.com}, we can see that there have been at least five just in the last twenty-five years:

1975 Oakland A's (managed by Al Dark)
Rollie Fingers: 127 IP, 75 games
Jim Todd: 122 IP, 58 games
Paul Lindblad: 122 IP, 68 games

1977 San Diego Padres (managed by John McNamara for 48 games, and Al Dark for 114) Rollie Fingers: 132 IP, 78 games Dan Spillner: 123 IP, 76 games Dave Tomlin: 102 IP, 76 games

1978 Oakland A's (managed by Bobby Winkles for 39 games, and a gentleman by the name of Jack McKeon for the remaining 123) Dave Heaverlo: 130 IP, 69 games Bob Lacey: 120 IP, 74 games Elias Sosa: 109 IP, 68 games

1982 Boston Red Sox (managed by Ralph Houk) Bob Stanley: 168 IP, 48 games Mark Clear: 105 IP, 55 games Tom Burgmeier: 102 IP, 40 games

1992 Houston Astros (managed by Art Howe) Doug Jones: 112 IP, 80 games Joe Boever: 111 IP, 81 games Xavier Hernandez: 111 IP, 77 games

This isn't coincidence; it's particularly interesting to think about while we're meandering through the current fad of hyper-specialization a la LaRussa, in which most managers obsess over every platoon advantage possible. That may be where the game has evolved to, but that doesn't make it progress. Looking back, as workloads for starting pitchers changed after 1968, top-notch relievers filled the breech.

Impact

Looking at these workloads--for an admittedly small group--brings us to the second question: is this dangerous?

The easy answer is a qualified "no". Let's look at these examples by team:

1975 A's: Fingers and Lindblad did it again in '76, both pitching effectively. Todd tossed a mere 83 innings; today, that would put him among the league leaders in relief innings pitched. On the other hand, he would never be the same pitcher, washing out after struggling in each of the next four years.

1977 Padres: Fingers tossed more than 100 innings in '78, as he had done in every year from 1972-on. Spillner was traded to the Indians, throwing a combined 82 innings in '78. He would be a mediocre but durable fixture with the Tribe for several years, flopping back and forth between the rotation and the pen, and even tossing another 100-relief-inning campaign in 1982. Tomlin struggled for the Reds from 1978 to 1980 before returning to the minors and scraping to catch a break.

1978 A's: The Jack McKeon team. Having already thrown 99 innings in '77 for the Giants prior to his 130 innings in '78, Heaverlo fell apart in '79, but still tossed 86 innings. He pitched another 79 for the Mariners in '80, and appeared briefly for Billy Martin's '81 A's before fading away. Lacey suffered a knee injury in '79, tossed 80 good innings in '80, then didn't pitch much in the majors during the next four years. Sosa was traded to Montreal and threw 97 innings, with a 1.97 ERA, in '79. He gave the Expos two more good years, then pitched as a mediocre middle reliever through '83.

1982 Red Sox: Stanley threw another 145 innings in '83, 107 in '84 and 88 more in '85 despite an injury. Clear lost the incessant wrestling match with his breaking stuff in '83 and provided 96 ugly innings (6.28 ERA). He never topped his '82 performance. Burgmeier threw 96 innings for the A's as a 39 year-old , then faded out during '84.

1992 Astros: Hernandez tossed 96 good innings in '93 before having a Whitsonesque New York experience. Jones had one of his off years but still managed 85 innings. Pitching for Art Howe again this year, Jones may post another 100-inning season, while pitching as well as he did in his good years. Boever threw 102 innings in '93 while working for Oakland and the Tigers, another solid 81-inning campaign in '94, and hit a wall in '95 while tossing 99 for Sparky.

What can we draw from this limited sample of 100-inning relievers, other than Rollie Fingers was remarkable? It doesn't seem cut-and-dried that 100-inning workloads burn out relievers. Bob Stanley's workload is intriguing: it involved a lot of innings in relatively few games. But considering that Fingers regularly pitched in more than 70 games during those 100-inning seasons, there doesn't appear to be an easy answer as far as using games as a way of anticipating an injury. Sosa, Burgmeier, Lindblad, Hernandez and even sturdy mediocrities like Boever and Spillner all seemed to survive under this kind of workload.

Back to Cincinnati

Here's what the three Cincinnati relievers project to throw in 1999:

1999 Cincinnati Reds
Scott Sullivan: 133 innings, 78 games
Danny Graves: 123 innings, 81 games
Scott Williamson: 109 innings, 72 games

These aren't extraordinary numbers compared to the performances we've looked at. Graves' appearances are is a potential cause for concern, and that Sullivan has thrown more than 100 innings in each of the previous two seasons is also a potential warning. But in themselves, these loads don't look that dangerous. Sullivan's workload would be the most relief innings pitched since Mark Eichhorn's amazing '86 campaign.

If there's a beef with Trader Jack, it's in his moving the wrong left-hander from the pen to the rotation. I've argued for years that a fewer-appearance, longer-outing usage pattern is exactly the right role for Ron Villone. But immediately after Villone had three dominant outings in that role, he was dropped into the rotation as a "reward." The Reds would be better off putting Villone in the long-relief role he started off in, giving them a truly fearsome foursome to control the game from the fifth inning on. Meanwhile, both Gabe White and Dennis Reyes have considerable experience--and success--as starters, are being wasted as specialists, and are infinitely better options than Avery, Jason Bere or Villone.

Success breeds imitation, and while the obsessive observance of platoon advantages has been extremely popular in this decade, it remains to be demonstrated that there isn't a better way to run a bullpen. The success that some teams have had with high reliever workloads in the past suggests that teams could return to older usage patterns, which makes Jack McKeon look pretty hip, albeit in a post-modern sense of the word.

Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner are studying the issue of reliever usage and abuse for Baseball Prospectus 2000. We can look forward to some solid number-crunching that will provide a better framework to make basic judgments about what's dangerous and what isn't for relievers.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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