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April 6, 2006

Prospectus Today

No Relief

by Joe Sheehan

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On Opening Day in 1978, the Yankees got a strong start from one of their best pitchers. With the game tied entering the bottom of the eighth, manager Billy Martin brought in his best relief pitcher, Rich Gossage, to try and extend the game.

On the second day of the season in 2006, the Yankees also got a strong start from one of their best pitchers. With the game tied entering the bottom of the ninth, maanger Joe Torre brought in his…we'll call it fourth-best relief pitcher, Scott Proctor, to try and extend the game.

This is progress?

Now, the Yankees lost both games by allowing ninth-inning runs, so perhaps this comparison is going to be lost on some people. Regardless of the outcome, though, it's clear that Martin was using the talent available to him in the best way possible, while Torre was allowing 28 years of increasing silliness in the use of relief pitching prevent him from doing just that.

Forget everything that we write about at Baseball Prospectus. Forget Win Expectancy and the work that people like Rany Jazayerli have done on reliever usage and the analyses by people such as James Click and Keith Woolner. Forget all of that and focus on one idea: a manager wins baseball games by getting his best players into the highest-leverage situations. That's why Martin used Gossage when he did. It's why you try and optimize your lineup to get sluggers hitting behind OBP guys, and why you put your starting pitchers in roughly descending order of ability, and for that matter, have a concept of "starters" at all. In a game in which you can't control who has the bat in their hand in critical times, you can control who throws critical pitches, so a large part of the job is matching skill sets to situations.

When it comes to the use of "closers," however, this idea has been lost. Now, the closer pitches only in situations defined by a scoring rule, or in the standard exception of when that scoring rule cannot happen (i.e., in a tie game at home, the closer will typically pitch the top of the ninth or tenth). If the closer is a proxy for "best reliever"-and whether it is varies from team to team, but it clearly is a proxy for "guy who the team thinks is its best reliever"-then this is a recipe for disaster.

Or the last two Yankee games, whatever fits.

Torre's Yankees are 1-2, and Rivera has yet to pitch in a game. Tuesday's game was 3-3 headed into the ninth, and Proctor was allowed to lose it. Last night's game was 4-4 headed into the bottom of the eighth, and Jaret Wright imploded. It's instructive to compare the stat lines for these pitchers and Rivera to see…oh, my god, do I really need to do this? Scott Proctor, Jaret Wright, Mariano Rivera. If you can't pick out the one that's different, I have to assume you were looking for the other BP, the gas company, and I commend you for getting even this far.

Rivera absolutely needed to be in Tuesday's game. He goes an inning, and if he throws 15 or fewer pitches, or close to that and the Yankees score in the tenth, he goes a second inning. Then you move down the list to the Scott Proctors of the world. And not having pitched Tuesday night, then he absolutely had to pitch Wednesday night in the eighth, rather than allowing the guy with one fluke season in the last seven years blow the game.

Now, of course, the Yankees will go into Friday's game not having used Rivera in nearly a week, so no matter what the course of the game is, he'll pitch because he needs to get his work in. That means that he could not be used in the back-to-back games with high-leverage situations, then pitch the bottom of the eighth against the Angels with the team down 7-1. (To extend this thought, he could notch a save Saturday, then be unavailable Sunday in a potential high-leverage situation because of Friday's usage.) I would point out that this is the same Mariano Rivera who threw three innings in four consecutive appearances over ten days back in the spring of 1996, allowing no runs on three hits in that span. Surely he won't break if he pitches two innings in one game.

For 50-odd years, from the advent of relief pitching as a strategy through the 1970s, teams turned to their best non-starter in almost any situation where the game was in doubt after the sixth inning. When I was working on the Jack Morris Project three years ago, I was astounded by the reliever usage from the late 1970s. Pitchers would routinely go three or more innings out of the bullpen, and sometimes five or six if they were pitching well. The best relievers were often used with the team trailing by a run, and as late as 1979, there was no automatic funneling of save situations to a single pitcher. I'm young enough that I don't remember watching this kind of usage, and I'm guessing a large percentage of the readership doesn't, either. Take an afternoon sometime and go through your favorite team's games from that period on Retrosheet (God bless Retrosheet!). It's a fascinating exercise, and an eye-opener for those of us whose awareness of baseball is largely post-Herman Franks.

I'm not necessarily advocating a return to the patterns of the '70s-pitching is a much different beast these days now that almost every player is a threat to drive a ball out of a ballpark-but the thinking behind that usage was correct. The use of a closer, the treating of the best reliever as a hothouse flower to be protected and not a weapon to be used, is routinely costing teams games, on the field, almost every single day. It's a significant reason why the Yankees are 1-2.

I'm picking on Torre today, but it's not like there's not silliness elsewhere. The Blue Jays signed B.J. Ryan to a five-year deal worth just shy of $50 million last winter, a pretty good indication that they think he's good. So Monday night, nursing a 4-3 lead with two outs in the eighth, and with the Twins' best hitter, the left-handed Joe Mauer, at the plate, the bullpen door swung open and out came…Scott Schoeneweis? What the hell? You give a guy $10 million a year and you're not going to use him against the other team's best hitter when he's the tying run in the eighth inning? How is that a winning approach?

This is where the save rule and the closer mindset have taken us, and it's a very bad place. There's a middle ground between Aurelio Lopez and Sparky Lyle going five innings out of the pen, and Mariano Rivera and B.J. Ryan being used the way they were used this week. The game will be better once that space is found and occupied.

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

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