Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Bullpen: Where the 6th Starter Goes to Keep His Job

There are two spots on a team where pitchers can make money: Starting, and Closing. The middle innings (say 6th through 8th on any given day) are reserved for the guys who’ve been in the minors too long, or are trying to become closers, or are up to help save the guys already in the ‘pen after a few 12 inning games. Something that’s becoming pretty prevalent is the attempt to convert young closers/set-up men into starters.

The reasons for this are numerous. If you can be dominant for one or two innings with 2 pitches, think how great you’ll be if you develop that third pitch you didn’t really need in AAA? Most one or two inning relievers rely on a standard set of pitches, the four-seam fastball and a slider, or maybe a four-seam fastball and a splitter, or in rare cases a four-seam fastball, and a cut fastball. Few late inning relievers use a big curveball or a changeup. These are the pitches that they’re ultimately being asked to perfect so that they can join the rotation, and rake in the cash.

The Yankees have tried to convert Joba Chamberlain back into a starter after an incredible run as a set-up man for Mariano Rivera, The Red Sox are currently hoping against hope that Daniel Bard will solve some of the woes associated with their rotation, and Neftali Feliz is filling the same role for the Rangers. It’s not that these teams don’t think that the pitchers should be in the bullpen, it’s the ever present “what if” factor. What if I’m squandering a future ace as my set-up man? What if my closer could turn into a No. 3 in my rotation? What if we mix and match relievers to fill in the 8th this year?

The two biggest things that weigh on managers and GMs making these decisions are simple: There’s no long term repercussions to trying, and there are, at any time 20+ pitchers who can fill the 7th or 8th inning for any given team between their farm system, waiver claims, various free agents, and even more available for the cost of an infielder at AAA who’s likely to only see much time as a defensive replacement. With so little to lose, and so much to gain, it’s no wonder teams have decided to use the best of their bullpens to try to make up the worst of their rotations. The players are happy because if it pans out, they could be in line for a pretty substantial raise, and if not they’ll slot right back in at the back end of the bullpen, no harm no foul. The teams are happy because they know that persistence will eventually find them gold despite really just digging around in their own junk drawer.

There’s a very real notion that the closer is one of the most important pitchers on any given team, and that to a certain degree is true, however saying that you need a top flight closer simply is not. Many teams will have a “closer by committee” throughout a large portion of the season, whether due to their closer developing an injury, or their closer at the onset of the season being generally ineffective. The Toronto Blue Jays last year finished 81-81, an even .500 record, with Frank Francisco sporting a 3.55 ERA, despite that unsightly (by closer’s standards) ERA, Francisco only blew 4 saves during the course of the season. He would have likely lost favor with the team much faster had he been given the opportunity to close more games, but he received only 21 save opportunities. Along with Francisco, Toronto “utilized” Jon Rauch as their closer. Rauch racked up 16 save opportunities, while converting 11 of them with a hefty 4.85 ERA. Despite this, the team still finished with an even record, in what is generally accepted as the toughest division in baseball, their record would have been good enough for 2nd place in the AL Central, and given an easier schedule in the Central division, would likely have been much better. Toronto’s woes last season were as much about who they were playing against as they were about who they sent out to play the game.

The closer is a luxury many teams don’t want to do without, but a luxury none the less.

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