Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays signed Grant Balfour to be their closer for 2014 (and presumably 2015), committing to pay him $12 million over the next two seasons. It’s not an expensive closer contract, as these things go. But for the cost-conscious Rays, it seemed a little strange. The team also re-signed Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) and traded for Heath Bell over the winter. Another sabermetric darling team, the Oakland A’s, signed Eric O’Flaherty last week and, earlier in the winter, traded for Josh Lindblom and Jim Johnson.
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Providing every team's bullpen picture at a glance.
Bullpen management: it’s one of the areas in which a major-league manager can make the most difference, and it’s also one of the areas in which we’re least likely to be satisfied with his work. But before we can pass judgment on a manager’s use of his bullpen, we have to know how he used it, and not just on an anecdotal level (although we agree that he made a mistake that one time your team lost a tie game on the road without using its rested ace reliever). On our Manager Pitching report, you can see how many relievers each manager used, and how many of those relief outings ended without a run being allowed. But that report won’t tell you who those relievers were, or when they were used.
Sure, there might be better ways to construct bullpens than the way teams do it now, but change might not be as easy as you think.
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.
Which relievers were added to or removed from the managerial circle of trust between April and September?
On April 29, Bud Black summoned Dale Thayer from the bullpen to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning against the Giants. The Padres trailed by three runs and were already 98 percent likely to lose. It was, for Thayer and the Padres and the Giants and Bud Black, a very low-leverage situation. Just three times in his big-league career had Thayer pitched in even an average leverage situation. Every other time, it has been something more like mop-up work. Thayer threw a bunch of strikes and had a perfect inning.
Now skip ahead to September, and here are the situations in which Thayer has been called on:
You might not know it from watching the World Series, but it often makes sense for a manager to pinch hit for his starter before the late innings.
Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Mitchel Lichtman, or MGL, has been doing sabermetric research and writing for over 20 years. He is one of the authors of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, and co-hosts The Book blog, www.insidethebook.com. He consulted for the St. Louis Cardinals from 2004 to 2006, as well as other major-league teams. He holds a B.A. from Cornell University and a J.D. from the University of Nevada Boyd School of Law. Most of the time these days you can find him on the golf course.
Let’s talk about the power of myth. A myth, simply put, is a story that is meant either to explain why something is, or to tell us how something ought to be. (Strictly speaking, myths are religious in nature, but we’re going to go ahead and stretch the word just a bit here.) It’s a story that teaches us something—a parable, if you will. But it starts off with a story.
Baseball, I think, lends itself particularly well to stories. And I have a fondness for baseball stories. Consider, for instance, this game between the Red Sox and the Devil Rays back in ’04, the second game of a late-April double-header. It wasn’t a particularly dramatic game, I’ll grant you that. The Sox scored seven runs in the first inning, and the D-Rays never seriously threatened after that. Still, a seasoned baseball fan can go over the box score and construct a story from it. It’s something you pick up with practice.
Scott Boras figures to get the 17-year-old catcher a draft-record contract this year because the rules could change in 2011.
In terms of pure talent evaluation, baseball's draft is the most difficult among major sports due to the widely varying ranges in age and experience, forcing clubs to look equally at both nearly finished college products and high school players, many who have yet to even physically mature. Confusing things even more is a factor that rarely enters into the other sports. In basketball and football, the order players go off the board is a pretty solid estimation of their talent level, but without defined bonuses for each pick, other than Major League Baseball's routinely-ignored suggestions, signability plays a major factor in where a player is selected in the baseball draft. The biggest factor in gauging signability is leverage, and while College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper is nearly universally seen as historic on a talent level, his leverage is even more unique.
Which managers did the best at understanding leverage in their handling of the bullpen?
"Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world"-Archimedes
There seems to be one baseball topic where there is agreement between the "old school" and the "new school" bullpen management. Frequently, former players-those who haven't played in 20 or more years-or color commentators talk about the demise of the fireman and the rise of the closer, and bemoan the fact that you don't see the likes of a Rich Gossage or Dan Quisenberry coming into the game at a critical juncture in the seventh inning any more, or only occasionally in the eighth. Similarly, the sabermetric community has shown mathematically (see Keith Woolner's piece in Baseball Between the Numbers), that a manager willing to break from the current mold could garner a few more wins per year by bringing in his "closer" in crucial seventh- and eighth-inning situations.
Picking relievers beyond the obvious candidates can be an exercise in using the right tools.
Beyond a handful of reliable hurlers that manage to be consistent in their production, projecting what a reliever is going to do in any given year can be a risky proposition. For every Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon, you have dozens of inconsistent Joe Borowski or Lance Carter types to sift through every year. Luckily, there are some sabermetric tools that you can use in order to identify which pitchers are capable of consistently delivering the numbers they put up, and which ones are better left on your league's waiver wire, notwithstanding any lofty save totals they may have.
Dan examines where research on clutch hitting is now, and ranks the best in 2006.
Clutch hitting is one of those issues that just won't go away. Ever since Dick Cramer's famous study titled "Do Clutch Hitters Exist?" was published in the 1977 Baseball Research Journal there has been no end to the discussion of just what is and what isn't clutch hitting, and how it can or can't be measured.