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May 10, 2012

Inside The Park

Can Teams Protect Their Pitchers?

by Bradford Doolittle

Thanks to Jerome Holtzman, inventor of the save, and Bruce Sutter, the first fireman used like a 21st-century closer, Chicago is quite literally the birthplace of the modern reliever. So it seems almost tiresome that in the Windy City, baseball news over the last week has been dominated by the vagaries of relief pitching.

Before last Friday's game against the Dodgers, Carlos Marmol sat hunched over in the folding chair in front of his locker, all by himself. No one was talking to the normally happy-go-lucky reliever, or even sitting nearby. We soon learned that Marmol was processing some bad news.

"I called (Marmol) in today and told him he's no longer the closer right now," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "We'll wing that situation in the ninth inning right now. … I just told him to be ready to pitch. It got to the point to where, we've got to get him productive in some role."

Marmol couldn't have been too surprised. He had walked three batters in an inning in two out of his three previous appearances. Just 54 percent of his pitches this season have been thrown for strikes. In his last appearance as a closer, he threw just six strikes in 18 pitches, almost all of them ineffective sliders. The two-seam fastball he developed in spring training with pitching coach Chris Bosio had been all but abandoned.

One reporter passed by Marmol and patted him on the shoulder. His head was down. The $16.8 million he's earning this year and next was, at the moment, little consolation.

Directly across from him was a gaggle of media gathered around James Russell. Russell was talking about possibly inheriting Marmol's job, or at least part of it. It was a weird dynamic—Marmol was 10 feet away, crestfallen, yet forced to listen to the excited musings of his teammate.

"I think we're going to do kind of a committee deal, according to matchups," Russell said. "Whoever gets the save, gets the save. Hopefully that will work until Carlos comes back and fixes some things. I don't see it playing out the whole year by any means.

"They say that the last three outs are the hardest to get. We'll burn that bridge when we get there."

I'm not sure if Russell was trying to be clever with that bridge comment, but it's pretty good nonetheless. Russell is the son of a closer. His father, Jeff, saved 186 games in the big leagues.

"He liked to say closers are a little bit screwy in the head," Russell said. "Maybe he passed that down to me."

Despite all his wisdom about the job of closing, Russell entered the game against the Dodgers that day in the seventh inning in his usual set-up role. Two innings and two pitchers later, Rafael Dolis came on for the save. Dolis throws his sinker almost exclusively, and while he's not as wild as Marmol, he doesn't strike anybody out either. He got the job done that day, getting Bobby Abreu to line out to right to end the game.

Still, Marmol is probably going to get his job back at some point. It's what he's paid to do. If Marmol doesn't string together a few saves, the chances of unloading some portion of his remaining contract are pretty much nil. But if Marmol goes on an unlikely hot streak, it wouldn't be shocking to see a contender pick him up to close or fill a set-up role.

How is that possible? Because baseball as an industry still doesn't have a firm grasp on a number of key questions regarding its relief pitchers, especially those at the back end of the bullpen.

Tom Verducci wrote a through-provoking piece a couple of weeks ago in which he declared the modern bullpen experiment to be a failure. It's hard to disagree. Much of Verducci's article was about baseball's inability to make progress in pitcher-related injury prevention, which is a worthy topic in itself. However, it's when he pointed out the amazing attrition rate of closers that my curiosity was piqued.

Verducci listed the closers who have turned up injured just this season: Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, Andrew Bailey, Kyle Farnsworth and Drew Storen. To that list we can now add Mariano Rivera, though his mishap was a freak occurrence, and Sergio Santos. That's over a quarter of the projected Opening Day closers. Going by a preseason magazine that I purchased before spring training, 14 of the 30 projected closers aren't currently filling that role for their teams, whether through injury or poor performance. We're not even six weeks into the season.

In Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, Ben Lindbergh noted that from 2001-2010, teams spent $4.33 for one WARP of relief pitching, making the position by far the most inefficient of any on a modern baseball roster. In the next chapter, Colin Wyers noted that for all of this investment, it takes today's bullpen model two to three seasons to garner an extra win from the hyper-specialization that is supposed to result in so many more protected leads. Yet, teams still invest in relievers as if there were some of certainty about their performance. There are 38 relief pitchers who will earn $4 million or more this season.

If there was any doubt that baseball, as an industry, was still flailing in the dark about how to structure and valuate its pitching staffs, we got a stark reminder on the very same day Marmol lost his job as the Cubs' closer. Ironically enough, it involved Chicago's other team. After Dolis finished off the Dodgers, we began seeing Tweets from our friends out on the road covering the White Sox: Chris Sale had turned up with a tender elbow and, as a result, was being moved to the bullpen … as a closer.

The Sale news struck me as wrong-headed on just about every level I could conceive. Sore elbow? Then he shouldn't be pitching at all, right? (Indeed, now he's scheduled to have an MRI.) But if he was healthy enough to pitch, then you're putting a major dent in his value by shifting him from the role he'd spent the entire offseason preparing to fill. As a starter, Sale was terrific, ranking 14th in VORP among pitchers. The White Sox have had some trouble closing out games, but Addison Reed is on the staff, hasn't allowed a run all year, and was developed to be a closer. The pen also includes rookie Hector Santiago, veteran Matt Thornton and, once he's back from his own injury problems, Jesse Crain. Not only does Sale just become another arm in that mix, his spot in the rotation will be filled by the likes of Eric Stults and Dylan Axelrod. You do the math, because the White Sox certainly didn't.

Ah, but there's the elbow.

"Chris is going to be fine," pitching coach Don Cooper told reporters. "He was upset. He wanted to continue to (start). But again, sometimes we have to make decisions based on what we feel is best for that individual, and that's what we did."

Fine. But when I read the comments from Cooper—perhaps baseball's finest pitching coach—and first-year skipper Robin Ventura about trying to "protect" Sale, I immediately flashed back to Verducci's article and the list of closers that have gone down. And, remember, this was the day after Mariano Rivera's injury in Kansas City. The White Sox's intentions were pure. Of that, I'm convinced. But there is a crucial question that seemed to have gotten lost in the bullpen shuffle.

Is closing really the best thing for the arm of a young pitcher you're trying to coddle?

We've seen anecdotal evidence that it's not, but that doesn't mean it's any more grueling than being in a team's rotation. Still, the set routine of starting—pitch, rest, throw day, etc.—seems like it would make for easier arm management. And of course starting pitchers don't employ maximum effort on their throws as current relievers seem to do with every pitch.

Over the last few days, I discussed this with a few different people I encountered at Wrigley Field. I never asked anybody about Sale, but just in general about whether closing is better than starting for a pitcher's arm.

Don Mattingly, who recently switched his own closer from Javy Guerra to Kenley Jansen, sort of grimaced when I asked him about relief pitching. He'd rather talk hitting. But he's a great manager to ask about general baseball trends, because he always tries to give a thoughtful answer. For a guy who was once the best player on the New York Yankees, he has a very down-to-earth, old-school baseball aura about him.

"From the standpoint of trying to keep a guy's innings down, I can understand it," Mattingly said." I saw the Yankees do it a few years ago with Joba (Chamberlain). When he first came in they were relieving him to keep his innings down but still give him big-league experience."

Of course, when Chamberlain's named popped up, it was hard not to think about the litany of injury problems that have befallen the one-time sensation.

"The bullpen guys are pretty much like everyday players," Mattingly said. "You can use those guys almost every day, so that changes from a starter where you have four days off and build up to let it go 100 (pitches) or so. If maybe you come in and throw 15 but you do it three out of four … I don't know which one's better."

At that point, I laughed and said, "I guess the answer is that pitching is inherently dangerous."

"To me there are factors," Mattingly said. "Guys that have clean mechanics, that are straight, that have everything square and straight in line, there's going to be less strain on the arm, less stress on the body. The guy that is kind of funky that helps him be more successful, I don't if it takes his longevity away."

True, and sometimes that funkiness is what lands a guy in the bullpen in the first place.

On Wednesday, I asked Sveum about the same topic.

"Who knows what’s behind injuries?" Sveum said. "They're there. They happen. Closers obviously are put in situations where the stress is so much more than any other inning. A lot of times they are max-effort guys, very hard throwers, so the chance of injury is there, as much as you're being careful with how much you use them.

"Teams are winning, they have to be careful to (go overboard) protecting leads instead of giving them the day off. They still need their days off like anybody else. Sometimes you can get a little carried away."

But again, most pitchers end up as relievers for a reason. They have poor mechanics that wouldn't hold up if they had to throw 100 pitches on a regular basis. Or they have a limited repertoire, or a deficiency in their platoon splits. The more interesting cases are players like Sale, who seemingly have every attribute you want in a starting pitcher yet have to battle their own teams to stay in that role. Sveum agreed that it might be easier for some pitchers to maintain arm health as a starter.

"It is easier," Sveum said. "Over the years, as a reliever it's difficult. It's almost getting lucky, with guys that are going to be hard throwers, stuff guys, to have longevity. You see that time and time again with injuries to bullpens. It's a very difficult job to get up and get down, and get up and get in games.

"There is no cut-and-dried way to look at these things."

If you were to rank managers on an amiability scale, Sveum would probably rank in the middle of the pack. He's a likeable guy but is very direct and matter-of-fact in his dealing with the media. Mattingly would be up there, with his thoughtful answers and generosity with his time. Topping the charts, however, would be Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez, who just likes to talk. When I wandered over to the Braves' dugout on Wednesday, I thought I'd missed his press conference because he was just sitting there shooting the breeze in a very informal fashion. I learned later that the presser hadn't even begun.

"I think you have a certain amount of throws in you and no matter what you do, it's going to blow," Gonzalez said. "I don't know if there any theory behind it or medical fact, but it seems like the more as an industry we try to take care of pitcher's arms, they still blow."

Not that we shouldn't continue to strive to maximize pitcher health, but I think there is a lot of truth to Gonzalez's opinion. A few guys have rubber arms and can pitch day after day with little apparent wear and tear. A handful of starters, like Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay, can run up high pitch counts on a regular basis and stay strong. But for most pitchers, it's a crapshoot. That being the case, managing a pitcher becomes more a matter of using him in a role that maximizes his value. You get as much as you can get while you can get it. You don't go all Dusty Baker on a young pitcher, but you don't shunt him off to the bullpen either in a misguided attempt to protect his arm.

The last person I talked to was the Cubs' Ryan Dempster, who is one of just 18 pitchers in big-league history to compile at least 100 wins and 80 saves in a career. He had Tommy John surgery earlier in his career, and when he came back, it was as a reliever. In his first four years with the Cubs, he started just six games, but his last 137 appearances have been as a starting pitcher. He's a guy who's been on both sides of the fence.

"Some closers have been able to stay healthy," Dempster said. "I think maybe the most common theme is that the fact that they throw so hard. The human body isn't made to throw a baseball in general, much less with that kind of velocity and intensity. I think it's just not conducive to, no matter who you are, to being able to stay healthy."

Again, it's the pitching-is-inherently-bad-for-you statement, but with the important observation that modern-day short relievers are almost by default balls-out kind of pitchers, hell-bent on lighting up the radar gun. And they do it in brief, adrenaline-fueled situations.

"Definitely it's become specialized," Dempster said. "The whole goal is to get a starter through six innings nowadays. It's kind of crazy. Before it was, you'd see guys throwing 20 complete games a year. Now, it's almost like if the seventh inning comes around and you give up a hit, you're done."

We commiserated on all this for a bit, and then I said, "Would it surprise you if I told you that statistically, teams aren't really any better at protecting leads than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago?"

Dempster shook his head.

"I think it's always been that way," he said. "As the game goes on, what you've got to remember is that everybody says (batters) get better at-bats in the ninth inning, but it's also their fourth or fifth at-bat in the game. They've seen a lot of pitches. They're more comfortable up there, where the umpire's strike zone is.

"A lot these late-inning at-bats might look more competitive, but I think it's just a matter of seeing pitches that day."

So with one statement, Dempster dismisses the role of closer, or any other role, really. It's all on the batters. The numbers don't really bear that out, but it's an intriguing notion. Last season, the big-league OPS was .720; in what Baseball-Reference.com defines as "late-and-close" situations, the OPS was .683. The "batters-are-more-comfortable" observation is just another factor in what seems to be a very heavy fog.

Where is all this leading? I wish I could say. I'm reasonably sure that the White Sox can't protect Chris Sale by using him in relief. I'm fairly sure that modern bullpens aren't any better at holding leads than their forebears. I am almost certain that teams are still committing too much salary to these specialized roles. I don't have any answers, but that doesn't matter. What's really troubling to me is the fact that baseball, as an industry, still doesn't seem to be asking the right questions.

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

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Inside The Park: Farew... (05/21)
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