This week in the bullpen we’re living up to our name and (mostly) discussing all things reliever-related. And by “we,” I mean myself (Andrew) and Colin, because regular contributor Dan is apparently too busy stalking Bryce Harper or mourning this week’s tragic lack of Dayn Perry on Fangraphs Audio to wax philosophic about baseball. I hear David Byrne on the PA system; that must mean Colin’s getting the call. Here he is:
Colin: What’s the Bullpen by Committee without some bullpen talk? Relievers are an often overlooked, if not mocked, entity by stat-heads for their minimal contributions and chronic misuse. In a perfect world, a team’s closer should be its sixth best pitcher behind the five guys up front throwing around 180 innings per season. In reality, some of the top arms in the game are relegated to reliever status, while they watch less capable hurlers eat away innings and eat away at the win column. Even worse, the best relievers are only likely to see the light of day when their teams lead by one to three runs—usually they rot in the ‘pen while career AAAA pitchers squander any chance at a W.
Make sense? Yeah, I know it doesn’t. But that’s the system we’ve operated under for the last 40 or so years and it doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Maybe the feds should spend less time prosecuting steroid users and more time prosecuting Dusty Baker.
So let’s go back to what we do best and mock away! There’s no better place to start than Philadelphia. Here is a team that has lost six games in the 9th inning or later and only in one of those games did their $50 million closer, Jonathan Papelbon, appear. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE!?
Meanwhile in Cincinnati, Aroldis Chapman and his 105 MPH fastball have strung together 15 2/3 straight scoreless innings, yet he is not allowed to pitch anything but the 7th or 8th inning when his team is tied or leading.
I love watching these pitchers. Why can’t we see more of them? Let my people go!
Andrew: You can’t see more of them because Jerome Holtzman, a baseball writer and member of the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars before that concept even existed, invented an incredibly stupid “statistic” in 1959 that narrow-minded, stubborn baseball managers (so basically, almost all of them) still allow to dictate their bullpen usage to this day, often to the detriment of their teams’ chances of winning.
The only argument in favor of modern bullpen management that makes any sense to me is that relievers perform better when they mentally prepare themselves for a specific role night in and night out. But even this argument seems tenuous to me at best; there aren’t many other areas of life where management would say, “Yeah, we’re not really using our resources optimally here, but it’s what our employees are used to, so screw it.” These guys are paid hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year to throw a few innings a week; I don’t think pitching in the seventh down one run versus pitching in the eighth in a tie game or in the ninth with a one-run lead should make much of difference. Regardless of the situation, their objective remains the same: get hitters out.
But enough complaining; allow me to praise someone for handling something bullpen-related the right way, notably the Texas Rangers’ decision to move Neftali Feliz to the starting rotation this season after he found success (Game 6 of the 2011 World Series notwithstanding) as the team’s closer during his first two full seasons in the bigs. Feliz was groomed as a starter in the minors but, in the same mold as Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, among others, made his major-league debut as a high-leverage reliever, wherein he made overmatched hitters look sillier than Ryan Doumit trying to field a popup (or anything, for that matter).
I worried that the Rangers would fall prey to the siren song of Feliz’s success as a closer and leave him in the role permanently, forgoing the chance to see what he could do as a starter. But the Rangers, being a smart team, understood that even if Feliz is just average or slightly above as a starter, he’ll provide more value to the team in his 180-200 innings as a starter than he would even as an elite closer. Thus, they risked the wrath of the “OMG SAVES!! CLOSER’S MENTALITY!!! GRIT!!!” crowd and moved him to the rotation this season, where despite not pitching especially well, he’s already provided 0.4 WAR thus far, versus 1.0 WAR all last season as a closer. Note to other teams: if the Rangers are doing something, it’s probably a good thing to do. Now if only I knew who to single out for praise for this decision; TV broadcasts really need to do a better job of letting us know who’s running things for the Rangers.
Colin: This Rangers team is ridiculous. It’s tough to find an out in their lineup and although finally coming back into the atmosphere, the Rangers’ pitching is almost as good as anyone’s. I can’t help but try to compare them on an all-time scale already. They likely won’t win 116 games like the 2001 Mariners or steamroll through the season like the 1998 Yankees did, but they have a chance to field a better team than both. Imagine if October panned out differently in 2010 and 2011? We might be talking about the Ranger dynasty; a group only exceeded by your father’s grandfather’s Yankees. Hamilton’s contract looms large, though thanks to a loaded farm system and increased cash flow, baseball will reign supreme in North Texas for quite some time. Emmitt, Troy and Michael? Try Josh, Ian and Jurrickson.
Circling back to the ‘pen, I’ll be interested in what moves the Ranger mothership will make as we approach the July trading deadline. I doubt standing pat will be a popular decision in Texas. After all, the “dynasty” is currently closer to that of the Buffalo Bills than Murderer’s Row—they need to win this year to avoid the dubious distinction that has plagued Western New York (okay there is more than just one). And what better move than to deplete your farm for LOOGYs, ROOGYs and wily vets! I realize the Rangers bullpen has been stout thus far, but I’d be willing to bet at least one of those arms will go down to injury or the heat of Texas summer. Last season they demonstrated their propensity to acquire relievers mid-season by trading for Koji Uehara and Mike Adams.
But who should they target? They’ll need an arm with closer experience in case Joe Nathan goes down. It would also be a good idea to have a reliever who has pitched effectively in the AL West, you know, because it’s so much different pitching in that division. Most importantly, it should be someone with a World Series ring and a fiery personality that screams leadership, baby!
I can think of only one man.