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July 10, 2009

Prospectus Today

Breaking From Fashion

by Joe Sheehan

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I wasn't a real big fan of Ryan Franklin making the All-Star team, because I see his microscopic ERA as a small-sample fluke out of step with the rest of his career. The number is helped along by good fortune on two numbers-batting average on balls in play, and home runs per fly ball-that tend to bounce around and reflect luck more than skill. He has a bunch of saves because a couple of pitchers, each with stronger skill sets, either pitched poorly or were never given a full chance before the job fell to him. He's certainly qualified by the established standards, but he's far from the best available option even if we just look at short relievers.

Even more than for his 0.83 ERA, Franklin is in the game because he has 20 saves, and he has those saves because Tony La Russa has run his bullpen using the closer-centric model. Rafael Soriano, who has done everything a pitcher can do better than Franklin has, isn't in the game because Bobby Cox spent the first two months of the season innovating. Given two hard-throwing relievers, one from each side, Cox platooned the two of them in save situations in a manner that we haven't seen in more than occasional doses since the 1990 Reds featured the Nasty Boys under Lou Piniella. Through Thursday night, Soriano had finished 19 games, Mike Gonzalez 23. Soriano had 10 saves, Gonzalez nine. Soriano had faced 53 percent of his hitters in the eighth inning and 47 percent in the ninth or later; for Gonzalez, those figures were 42 percent and 58 percent.

The usage of these pitchers has been smart, even if that usage cost Soriano a spot on the All-Star team. In the first eight weeks of the season, Cox was able to get the platoon advantage in high-leverage situations late in the game because he wasn't tied to the idea of "inning" as the determinant factor for selecting his relievers. Take the second week in May: on May 9 in Philadelphia, Cox used Gonzalez to pitch the bottom of the ninth with the Braves up 6-2 because the Phillies had the top of their order up, a group that included Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. The next night, Cox went to Gonzalez to start the eighth inning as three straight left-handed batters were scheduled; he then closed the game with Soriano against two right-handed batters followed by two switch-hitters. Two nights later, Soriano was called on in the eighth to face the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran and four consecutive right-handed batters. Cox was picking between the two pitchers based on the handedness of the opposition, rather than because one guy was the team's designated saves accumulator.

This is particularly helpful when one pitcher is having a bad night. On May 23 in Atlanta, Gonzalez started the ninth with a two-run lead and two lefties scheduled in the inning, but allowed two hits and two walks to put the game in jeopardy. Cox called up Soriano, with two righties coming up, to escape the jam. That's a situation where a capital-C closer would have been left in to take bad matchups while he was struggling; by not having a designated closer, Cox was able to maximize the Braves' chance of winning the ballgame-which they did.

Of late, Cox has started moving away from this, to more of a traditional model with Gonzalez as his set-up man and Soriano as his closer. Soriano's last four appearances have come in traditional ninth-inning save situations, and eight of his last nine entrances have been in the ninth. Gonzalez hasn't appeared in the ninth inning since June 28, which is also the last time Soriano appeared in an eighth-inning set-up situation. If Cox is headed this way (and Gonzalez's recent struggles-he's allowed runs in four of his last eight outings-aren't helping matters), he'll be giving away some tactical value. There will be many games in which, as you enter the eighth inning, the opponent's lineup in terms of handedness looks something like this:

R-R-L-R-S-L-R-L-R

That's a situation where Soriano should come in to pitch the eighth, and Gonzalez given the ninth. As you look through the game logs, it's not clear whether Cox has decided on Soriano as his closer, or whether that's just the way the lineups have fallen-there are a lot of eighth innings where you could justify using Gonzalez or Soriano, particularly situations where a pitcher would be due up, clouding the issue of whether an inning sets up better for one or the other.

One complicating factor is that Cox is reluctant to use either pitcher across an inning, no doubt because both pitchers have had all kinds of problems staying healthy for an entire season. Just once all year has Gonzalez been asked to pitch, sit down, and then go back out to the mound. Soriano has been asked to do so twice. This means that the best-laid plans will often go awry.

Take June 28 against the Braves. Soriano came in to protect a two-run lead, and to face a pinch-hitter, Dustin Pedroia, and J.D. Drew, and then-if anyone reached base-Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay. Because Soriano retired the side in order, and because Cox is reluctant to bring him out again, Gonzalez entered in the ninth against Youkilis and Bay (and then David Ortiz). In last night's game in Colorado, Gonzalez put two men on in the eighth and had to face Garrett Atkins with the game tied, surrendering a game-losing double. If Cox could use Soriano across innings, that would have been a situation for him.

In a perfect world, Cox would have more flexibility with his hurlers, but what he's done with the two he has shows what's possible for teams that have good relievers from both sides of the plate if they're willing to set aside the idea that pitching in the ninth inning with a one- to three-run lead is a specialized skill. The Orioles' George Sherrill is having a nice year, but the team would be better if they let Danys Baez occasionally face three tough righties in the ninth. The Phillies could make Brad Lidge's life easier by letting J.C. Romero face a clutch of lefties when the situation warrants. Ron Washington seems close sometimes to turning Frank Francisco and C.J. Wilson into an AL version of Soriano and Gonzalez, and the Rangers may be the one team best set up for the practice.

Not every team has to do this, of course, but most should, and the ones that already have a top-tier closer should be aware of this approach when it comes time to pay the one they have.

In working on this piece, which has been in process for a while, I got into a great discussion with a play-by-play man about whether this kind of bullpen management could work in the long term in the real world. His argument, which I take seriously given his embrace of performance analysis and his proximity to a clubhouse, is that relievers want the comfort of roles, that closers won't accept the uncertainty of not knowing when they'll pitch. My counter is that this kind of expectation has been bred into the class. Aurelio Lopez didn't need to know when he was going to pitch; Rich Gossage didn't; Dan Quisenberry didn't. The idea of restricting a high-value pitcher to such a narrow range of situations is barely a generation old, and as quickly as we've trained relievers to think in these terms-and as quickly as we've taught managers to think in these terms-the behavior can be unlearned as well. How many closers are truly good enough to where you wouldn't mess with them? I doubt there are a dozen… Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, maybe Brian Fuentes. Francisco Rodriguez. Bobby Jenks, maybe? So 20-odd teams wouldn't be messing with anyone whose performance warranted an objection. So you piss off Kerry Wood or Heath Bell or Matt Capps. So what? The lesson of the closer era isn't that saving games is a specialized skill, it's that you can take any number of guys with one-and-a-half to two pitches, turn them loose for 65 innings a year and get a 2.00 ERA from them.

That's right now. Go back to running bullpens this way, in an optimal manner, and in five years we'll look back and see the closer era for the silliness that it is. Do this, and then you can start reversing other trends, like the reduced number of innings that great relievers throw, and the greater footprint bullpens-and bad pitchers-have on a roster.

Bobby Cox has spent more time managing baseball teams than almost any man in history. He's lead a team to 14 consecutive postseasons and he's won more than 55 percent of his games on the bench. At 68 years old, he's still looking for ways to beat you. If he sticks with his bullpen management this year, if he succeeds, he'll be emulated, and just maybe he'll end up as the antidote to the poison that has been the closer myth.

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

20 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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buffum
(458)

Tremendous. Well laid-out.

As for pissing off Kerry Wood, this would serve as quid pro quo for the times he's pissed me off as an Indians fan.

Jul 10, 2009 14:35 PM
rating: 4
 
stlpdx

Agreed, tremendous story. Great job, Joe.

Jul 11, 2009 04:32 AM
rating: 1
 
Lopecci

Great article Joe. Nice to see Bobby get a little praise once in a while.

Jul 10, 2009 14:38 PM
rating: 2
 
Evan
(47)

Except, it will be harder to teach the other way, because he explanation isn't as simple.

Simple explanations sell, and people cling to those simple explanations.

Jul 10, 2009 14:50 PM
rating: 2
 
BurrRutledge

You see, in my job, my boss needs me at the top of my game at the exact moment when my set of skills are needed most. I've got my own projects to deal with, and I pitch in on others' at no notice whatsoever. Whenever that may be. A phone call from a client at 6, and I could be on a plane to Palm Beach at 8 with nothing more than a notebook and the knowledge of my field that I've got wrapped up in my little head.

So, I want to know why a team's top relievers can't handle the same attitude with their minds and arms. The bullpen phone rings, you warm up and shut down the other team's offense. That's the skill, whenever that phone rings. It's in their arms and their knowledge of how to toss to their catcher, and has nothing to do with the inning.

Was it LaRussa with Oakland who changed the way managers approached this?

Excellent article, Joe. Maybe ya'll can expand this a bit for the next annual?

Jul 11, 2009 08:48 AM
rating: 1
 
formersd

I do love my some Bobby Cox. Unfortunately, I don't think a single season will do the trick here. Some team is going to have to have a long-term success with this tactic before the era of the Closer goes away....

Jul 10, 2009 15:19 PM
rating: 0
 
singy111
(886)

Joe,
What about the fact that by racking up high save totals with one guy, it may increase that player's value when it comes to a trade. You cite George Sherrill as an example, but his high save totals may make him more appealing in a trade. Obviously the Marlins declined to trade Stanton or Morrison for him, but what if he was offered to the Dodgers? Colletti has traded more for less (Santana and Meleon for Blake). The Dodgers need a good lefty out of the pen. Sherrill's high save totals could be tempting to trade for, and the Orioles certainly are not playing to win this year.

Every good team in this century (save the current Rays run) has had one of your top of line closers (Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, Angels, Mets, Phillies, Dodgers). I would like to see an article like this showing how teams that missed out on the playoffs in the past few years COULD HAVE benefited from your argument here. It was be fascinating to see how teams with less than top of the line closers could have made the playoffs or made some noise in the playoffs had they been less role dynamic with their relievers. Last years Rays showed how to be successful. What if they decided not to use Price against the Red Sox?

Jul 10, 2009 15:24 PM
rating: 4
 
anderson721

On the other hand, high save totals would lead to demands for higher salaries.

Jul 11, 2009 06:33 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Cox always seems to cobble a bullpen together. I do think it is much easier for him to pull it off this year since both Soriano and Gonzalez have injury histories and thus less "established roles" to complain or get possessive about.

Jul 10, 2009 15:41 PM
rating: 1
 
steveomd

Joe, great work. What comments would you have about the rest of his bullpen usage, particularly his heavy reliance on Soriano/Gonzo/Moylan in lieu of Acosta/Medlen/O'Flahery/Logan? A frequent complaint against Cox (one that I personally don't share) is that he overuses his top relievers while the back end of his pen gathers dust. Comments?

Jul 10, 2009 15:47 PM
rating: 0
 
cbirkemeier

Then maybe the solution is to reduce the size of the back end of his bullpen...

Jul 12, 2009 14:03 PM
rating: 0
 
DavidK44

I remember when Jack McKeon was with the Reds and was running a Williamson/Graves closer platoon because Graves was the ground-ball machine and Williamson was the K guy, the articles here (and I of course agreed) talk about how, essentially, by being out of baseball during the time when the closer-centric model developed, McKeon missed that boat and was still managing "old-school". In other words, for once, being an old, crotchety veteran hesitant to change in how a baseball team should be managed/run/built actually helped a manger.

It came up again when McKeon had the guts to take one of his best starters (Willis) and turn him into a situational reliever in the World Series. Again, being a old-school anti-new development crusty old veteran made him better. It's rare, but it happens.

Jul 10, 2009 16:37 PM
rating: 4
 
Dr. Dave

"closers won’t accept the uncertainty of not knowing when they’ll pitch"

What a sad indictment of their professionalism.

Then again, what could "won't accept" mean? What, exactly, are their options? Throw games? Retire? Sulk? The last one can be lived with.

Jul 10, 2009 19:50 PM
rating: 1
 
hhbliss

The real problem with that play-by-play man's argument (is it Ken Korach?) is that such relievers would know when they are going to pitch--when the other team has a bunch of same-handed hitters due up. Or are we assuming that they are all a bunch of Lenny Dykstras?

Jul 11, 2009 00:15 AM
rating: 2
 
baserip4

The concept of "roles" is, I think, a very important one, and one that I've written a bit out in this very context. The problem is how that role is defined. Too often it's by inning when it should be by situation. If the players themselves aren't capable of keeping up with the lineup, shouldn't the bullpen coach be able to do so?

http://baltimorebirdsnest.blogspot.com/2009/04/bullpen.html

Jul 11, 2009 12:46 PM
rating: 1
 
hhbliss

Well said. I've spent several years coaching competitive high school and college water polo teams, and generally the kids know the situations when they are likely to come in off the bench. If, for whatever reason, the other team's personnel would dictate potentially different roles for individual players, we would discuss that before the game. Like I said, these were high school and college kids, and they rarely had any problem grasping the comment. It amazes me that we expect that people who play sports for a living can't figure that out.

Jul 11, 2009 16:55 PM
rating: 1
 
hhbliss

*make that concept

Jul 12, 2009 16:39 PM
rating: 0
 
jjgreen33

Great article.

One nit -- guys with 20 or more saves miss the All-Star team every year, including 2009, with Street, Cordero, and Brian Wilson missing the game. RARELY does a pitcher with less a 1.00 ERA miss the All-Star game. So I think your statement that Ryan Franklin is in the game "more" for his 20 saves than his 0.83 ERA is mistaken.

Jul 11, 2009 04:49 AM
rating: 3
 
R.A.Wagman

Great article and great way to point out a successful alternative to Closers - you could also have written about last year's Rays - especially the late-season/playoff version.
But you worry too much about the All-Star game. Regardless of who's playing, it's an exhibition game

Jul 11, 2009 07:45 AM
rating: -1
 
jliebhardt

For whatever reasons, nearly all relief pitchers are failed starters. I think that breeds a lot of insecurity toward their employment and economic situation; The chance to gather something quantifiable like "saves" is one way to guarantee some sort of stability in those areas.

However, with even mainstream media folks now speaking in terms of "whip" and "inherited runners scored," hopefully relievers can now start leveraging their solid work toward more respect, which could help free the hands of managers.

Jul 11, 2009 17:32 PM
rating: 0
 
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