July 10, 2009
Breaking From Fashion
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:
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.