The future of baseball part III: the relief pitcher

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May 21, 2017 by jessepell

Fernando Rodney is in his first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Chris Carlson/AP Photo)

Written by Jesse Pelletier

This article is the third chapter of my Future of Baseball series. The first two parts have investigated all aspects of offense, while here I shall move into the realm of pitching – specifically, relief pitching.

On May 17th I watched two baseball games: a matinée game in Arizona and ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball game in St. Louis. These two games were almost identical; both became tied 4-4 late in the game, both teams’ closers pitched the ninth inning, both went to extras and both ended in 5-4 come-from-behind victories. Let’s come back to that point about the closers.

The Diamondbacks were on a skid after the weekend, losing seven of their previous 11 games. Fortunately for DBacks fans, the schedule gods were merciful. Enter: the New York Mets.

The Diamondbacks took the first two games of the series but found themselves trailing in Wednesday night’s game. Matt Harvey started the game for the Mets and would say afterwards that it was as good as he’s felt all year. He threw 5 1/3 innings and let up three runs, but he would leave with a 4-3 lead. The bullpen closed out the sixth, but had no such luck in the seventh. Enter: Robert Gsellman.

With the game tied 4-4, DBacks closer Fernando Rodney entered to pitch the ninth. Diamondbacks commentator Bob Brenly asked an appropriate question: was it right to bring in Rodney in a non-save opportunity?

Rodney closed out the game the day before, but he was available to pitch and the game was close. Of course Rodney comes in for this situation! The home team doesn’t get save opportunities when the game is tied in the ninth, so there’s nothing to wait for. The game was close and the closer is the best relief pitcher. He got the call and the Diamondbacks went on to win the game.

The Wednesday Night Baseball game featured the Red Sox against the Cardinals in St. Louis. The Cardinals put four runs on the board early, while the Sox didn’t score until the seventh. Boston scored two in the seventh and two more in the eighth to tie the game 4-4. Heading into the top of the ninth, the Cardinals brought out their closer, Seung Hwan Oh. Oh finished the ninth unscathed, and the Red Sox were left asking the same question: should the closer pitch the ninth in a non-save situation?

Enter: Craig Kimbrel.

(Courtesy of Michael Ivins/Getty Images)

The Mets/DBacks game also featured the visiting closer in the ninth inning, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Addison Reed is the Mets closer, but he’s filling an interim role with Jeurys Familia on the disabled list. Furthermore, the Mets have five relief pitchers ranking in the top 26 in appearances. That leads the majors, with only four other teams having more than one pitcher in the top 26. None of those four teams have more than three. Plus, the Mets have already used a starter in a relief slot (Gsellman, in this very game).

The Red Sox, on the other hand, had their choice of pitchers going into the bottom of the ninth. They could have waited until a save opportunity arose. The Cardinals had the top of the order coming up in the ninth and the Sox had their 9-1-2 hitters due up in the tenth. If you ask me, the call to Kimbrel was a no-brainer.

Had the Cardinals led off the ninth with their number seven hitter, there’s an argument to save Kimbrel until the heart of the order hits for St. Louis. But the way I see it, Kimbrel gave the Sox the best odds of seeing the tenth inning. If Kimbrel didn’t come in and the Cards walked it off, the backlash against the manager would have been immense. No matter who the Sox had leading off the tenth, you have to give the ball to Kimbrel because you have to give yourself the best odds of seeing the tenth. End of story.

In general, I want baseball to steer away from this “closer” business. If you want an effective bullpen, you have a hierarchy of relievers and you get your best arms into the game when it matters. If you’re down by one in the eighth with your best bats due up in the ninth, throw your best available reliever. I don’t care that you’re losing. You need to get to the ninth down by as few as possible and your best relief pitcher is your best option. The real question is how many managers would do that?

I think it’s becoming more prominent, as evidenced by the Red Sox. If you want to cite the Mets as another example, you can. I will elect not to, given their ugly bullpen situation. Other writers have expressed their disinterest in the save as a statistic altogether, and I actually think the save is a nice stat. It serves as a reflection of how much a pitcher is trusted in important scenarios and I like that. The save statistic, however, does tempt elite relief pitchers to be reserved for save opportunities to boost their stats, and managers can’t let that happen.

As more writers bash the save, I think the league will actually catch on. My hope is that we could regularly see elite relief pitchers in non-save opportunities as soon as next year, even if the “closer” label is still thrown around. I think saves will remain an important stat and I think the hold stat sticks around too. *sigh*

(Courtesy of Brian Nguyen/Chicago Tribune)

And what about relief pitching before the closer?

Starting pitchers are throwing fewer innings than ever before. In part, it’s probably because they’re throwing harder than ever before. It’s also in part because managers are capping pitchers at set pitch counts. Either way, relief pitchers are going to see bigger portions of games. To account for this, teams reach a dilemma: do you keep fewer relievers and have them pitch more innings, or more relievers who pitch fewer innings?

Having fewer relievers who pitch deeper into games is a risky strategy. You’re relying on these guys always going multiple innings, but if one guy gets shelled the bullpen gets quickly depleted. The only advantage is that it opens up roster spots for other players. This could be particularly useful in the National League, which employs pinch hitters much more often than the American League.

On the other hand, more relievers take up roster spots but provide flexibility. A team can have a reliever for every type of scenario, and pitching fewer innings means relievers can be available for more games. Going into extra innings is less stressful because if you have to stretch out some relievers, you have more arms that you can stretch.

In 1918 there was an 18-inning game where each starter pitched at least 17 1/3 innings. Relief pitchers are obviously used much more now than they were then, but they aren’t used much more than they were in the ‘80s. I don’t foresee any significant changes with how relief pitchers are utilized, with the exception that some national league teams may look to add multiple long-inning relievers to add a roster spot for an extra pinch-hitter. Aside from that, the only change looks to be that starters are going fewer innings. While I don’t have the numbers, I’d think the average starter in 2017 works between five and six innings per game. In the future I don’t see that number ever changing. Aside from the way teams use their best relievers, don’t expect much to change with the future of relief pitching.

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