November 5, 2012
In Praise of the Modern Bullpen
The construction of the modern bullpen is silly. It starts with a junk stat (the save) and works backwards from there. There’s an anointed “closer,” his deputy (“the set-up guy”) who pitches the eighth inning, a couple of “match-up” relievers for the seventh inning, and some middle and long-relief guys who suck up innings four through six, as needed. In a close game, the relievers on the team with a lead are generally deployed in the (perceived) reverse order of their effectiveness as the innings unfold, with the apparent aim being to slowly choke off the other team’s chances of winning as the game goes further along. And to record a save.
The folly of this system has been pointed out over the years by many people (including me). There is even some precedent for how a bullpen can be constructed differently. It’s called the 1970s. Calls to get away from the inning-based system in favor of a better understanding of how to properly leverage relievers used to be groundbreaking. Now, if I wanted to write an article on the reasons why teams should dump the closer-set-up-match-up-middle-long model here at Baseball Prospectus, my editors would ask why I was re-hashing old material.
In general, the explanations that have been offered for why not even one team has abandoned the present model for a leverage model have focused on character flaws in the decision makers (read: GMs and managers) of teams. I know, because I’ve made a lot of these arguments. A few of my personal favorites:
· They must have failed math. I got a 5 on my AP Calculus test. And I have a Ph.D. Boom.
There might be some validity to all of the above (I really did get a 5 in AP Calc). It’s just that—like all arguments in which there are two sides—it’s more complicated than that. The other side might be filled with (gulp) reasonable and intelligent people who looked comprehensively at this issue and saw things differently. This week I gave myself a challenge, in the spirit of that election thing that’s happening. I’m going to genuinely imagine myself on the other side of the argument and try to make the case that the closer-set-up-match-up-middle-long model has benefits that, even if they don’t cancel out the advantages of a leverage-based model, make my position of a leverage-based bullpen a little less of a (pardon the mixed metaphor) slam dunk.
Argument #1: People perform better when they have well-defined roles