Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The State of "Today's" Bullpen

I came across this great article discussing the state of today's bullpen and how it's changing the way teams and fans view the game. It seemed worth sharing.
"If you believe the old-time pitchers, it was a disgrace to need relief from the bullpen, as that outdoor meeting place is quaintly called. It is believed by most baseball historians that the term 'bullpen' came from the old fence posters in the minor leagues featuring a bull advertising chewing tobacco and "makin's" back in the dear old days when people rolled their own without thought to marijuana.

Anyway, the firemen in baseball have come a long way and to the point where they now are as revered, respected and as well-paid as starters."
So far, so good. This is nothing we haven't heard before (though the random marijuana reference seems odd), and it seems to be a pretty standard view of the state of relief pitching in baseball today.
"Some oldline baseball men think too much attention has been given to the relievers and there have been grumblings for years to change the rules so a relief pitcher's actual contribution to his team may not be measured by the specious earned run average or even the newest thing in the game - the 'save'."
Well, there's something there, a little hint that this article wasn't written in the last few years. It's been a while since anyone could call the save the "newest thing in the game". In fact, this article - "Let's Toast the Firemen" by Bob Addie - was included in the 1973 Street & Smith's preview guide. What's most interesting about it is that, despite the facts being slightly different these days, the mentality is the same today as it was 35 years ago: the way managers use relief pitchers is continually changing the game, and those "old-time starters" who "did it the right way" just don't like it.
"But the reliever has had a profound influence on baseball and has made for a revolutionary change in the game. The complaint of some fans is that baseball never changes. It has been suggested that the game needs some changes such as occurred in football where specialists abound and where the defensive platoon sometimes never meets the offensive platoon.
The suggestions have been many that baseball, too, should have its offensive and defensive specialists with the weak-hitting glove men never getting to bat and pinch-hitters permitted for pitchers. There also have been suggestions that the automatic pass should be adopted but then we would have lost the thrill of sneaky strategy such as happened in the [1972] World Series when Cincinnati's Johnny Bench thought he was getting an intentional pass and Oakland's Rollie Fingers struck him out."
That's a great little story about Bench and Fingers just thrown into that sentence. I've watched many, many baseball games and every time there's an intentional walk, the thought crosses my mind about what would happen if the pitcher or batter decided to sleep through the free pass. I just can't imagine someone as legendary as Bench letting that happen to him - in the middle of the World Series, no less. The mention of a "defensive unit" and "offensive unit" is also pretty interesting to me. I can see how, in 1973, when the DH was implemented, people could realistically be wary of the Commissioner wanting to shove a "defensive" and "offensive" squad.
"Every year, it seems, we get a new record for saves. A save means going into the game with a lead and preserving it - although the margin you preserve could be anything from one to five. In the 1972 season, Sparky Lyle, the Yankee southpaw, had 35 saves to surpass the mark of 34 by Ron Perranoski, of Minnesota, in 1970.

But the over all leader - and more important because his team won a pennant - was Clay Carroll, of the Cincinnati Reds who came up with 37 saves, another record."
Francisco Rodriguez just reset the saves record this past season, saving 62 games. It's a little different than the mid-70s, I imagine, since the saves records aren't changing from year-to-year. But it's not that much different, though, if you consider how quickly all-time saves numbers are changing or who is considered top closer from year to year. It's almost like being in the middle of the stolen base revolution of the '70s and '80s.
"There is remarkable similarity between the two leagues in a couple of 1972 vital statistics - complete games and saves. In the National Leage, the 12 clubs registered 507 complete games and 361 saves. In the American League, it was 502 complete games and 372 saves. That's close enough to be twins.

The oddity is that although relief pitchers gained even greater prominence, the total of 1009 complete games for both leagues represented the second highest in history. The paradox is that the use of relievers is more popular than ever and yet complete games are holding up well, as the stock market would phrase it."
This is where the comparison between the modern era and the 1970s finally falls apart. Complete games are not a likelihood these days, and there's no way you're going to see a club with 30 complete games on it ever again, let alone the entire league. It just costs too much money to risk. There were 136 complete games in the majors last year, across all 30 teams - that's 4 CGs per team, on average. On the other hand, there were 1,134 saves in the league, or about 38 saves per team. As the article points out, the MLB lead for saves in '72 was only 37, less than the average team has today.

Much of the rest of Addie's article goes on to pay tribute to the retiring Hoyt Wilhelm and to discuss the current crop of relievers - Fingers, Dave Giusti, Mike Marshall - and how they're being used more and more in big games. In fact, Addie seems to lament how the World Series "got to be not a question of which pitcher was going to start but when the ace relievers such as Fingers for the A's and Carroll for the Reds would be brought in." The article ends, though, on an intriguing suggestion by Tug McGraw, the Mets star closer. Some of what he suggests has been adopted in the intervening years (inherited runners scored), but not everything. It seems a fitting way to end this post:
"'It's not right to regard a reliever the same way as a starting pitcher,' [McGraw] told Red Foley of the New York Daily News. 'A won and lost record and earned run average is okay for the guys who pitch a lot of innings but a reliever gets shortchanged.'

McGraw suggests a grading system for the bullpen by keeping a record of the times a reliever enters a game with men on base.

'The way it stands now,' explained McGraw, 'a guy comes in from the bullpen with somebody else's runners on base and if one or more of these men score the runs are charged to the pitcher he relieved. The relief pitcher, under that circumstance, didn't do his job. Why not have a method that charges him a plus and minus system. A column could be added to the statistics to indicate how often a reliever succeeded and how often he failed.'

As McGraw sees it, a reliever would be charged a minus for each man who scored and a plus for those left on base.

Among other suggestions, the reliever gets one point every inning he preserves a lead or prevents the other team from scoring. Subtract one point each time he loses a lead or a tie or is responsible for losing it.

But we're getting to the point now where computers are taking over everything and baseball is overloaded with statistics.

The old rule of thumb seems to be good enough for the relievers - if he gets more guys out than he puts on base, he's doing his job."
(Oh, and don't you love the jab at computers and stats - from 1973 - at the end there?)


tHeMARksMiTh said...

So by the last sentence's logic, giving up two home runs but getting three outs is a good thing for a reliever? Nice post.

The Common Man said...

"Complete games are not a likelihood these days, and there's no way you're going to see a club with 30 complete games on it ever again, let alone the entire league. It just costs too much money to risk."

While I'd agree that baseball has drifted ever further away from taxing pitchers too heavily, I think it's far too early to say that we're never going to see a glut of complete games again. It seems like I read annual articles growing up about players not staying with their original franchises for their whole careers, or the death of the 300 game winner. All it takes is one Billy Martin or one freak of nature pitcher to inspire copycats.

Aside from a front-line, Halladayian-workhorse, the team you'd be looking for probably would have a poor and/or inexperienced bullpen (to whom managers would not want to turn over a lead and are not paying a ton of money to sit on their butts), and a strong defense to minimize the number of batters a pitcher would face and the number of pitches he'd have to throw.

Creston said...

Even back in 1973, the BBWAA couldn't do anything except lament how awesome baseball USED TO BE.

Ca plus ce change, etc.

lar said...

You're right, TCM. I knew I was stating something a little more absolute than I should have when I wrote that. (only Sith speak in absolutes, right?)

I still think it's incredibly unlikely, though. 30 CGs on a pitching staff means 5 pitchers each with 6 CG, or one with 10 and the others with 4 each (and so on). Considering the way things are these days, I'd put the chances extremely low (much lower than another 300 game winner).