Why Baseball Needs a New Outlook on Relief Pitchers

As baseball continues to evolve, the possibility for change in one of the game’s most rudimentary areas remains overlooked. Since the creation of the “save,” the structure and perception of the bullpen has largely remained the same. Teams name their best reliever the “closer” and pitch them in the 9th inning, use their next best reliever or two as set up men, and slot the rest into middle/long relief. However, the way teams view bullpens is growing obsolete, as it hasn’t adapted to the ongoing rise of statistics and no longer fits even basic conventional wisdom. While change might be difficult to swallow in a sport built on continuity, the time for it is now: in a business fueled by winning games, the baseball industry is simply too smart to keep living in the past.

Primarily, I challenge the notion of even having a closer in today’s game. The biggest advantage of not having one would be the enhanced ability to play matchups: automatically slotting your best reliever in to pitch the ninth inning really puts your team in a box in terms of preparedness for different in-game situations. For example, if the 2, 3, and 4 hitters are due up in the eighth inning of a close game, why wouldn’t you want your best reliever in the game to eliminate what will likely be the game’s biggest threat? Or if two or even three lefties are due up in a save situation and your lefty specialist is the best option, why not pitch him in the 9th inning? This allows you to control the game instead of allowing the game to potentially put you in unfavorable situations. Another advantage to not having a closer is cost. Saves are the number one way a closer makes money through the arbitration process, so spreading them out would likely lower the base salary of your best relief pitcher (and potentially the bullpen as a whole since closers often make far and away the most money, though the other relievers who get save opportunities may see marginal increases in pay), simultaneously making him easier to hold onto and giving him more trade value. To me, it seems like common sense to enact a change that improves in-game flexibility and makes your best reliever (and possibly the bullpen as a whole) cheaper and more valuable.

Going back to the save, I see it as maybe the most overrated statistic in baseball. While starting pitchers are increasingly evaluated on stats like ERA, WHIP, K%, BB%, and even more advanced ERA indicators like FIP as opposed to mere wins and losses, the general baseball culture still often puts saves at the forefront when evaluating relievers. Needless to say, a save does not indicate quality of performance in the same way that stats like ERA and FIP do. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Not everyone can handle the ninth inning, it’s a lot of pressure.” To this, I’d respond by saying that pitching in any inning of a major league game is a lot of pressure and the ninth inning isn’t always the most high leverage. After all, not all saves are created equally: for example, protecting a three run lead against the 7, 8, and 9 hitters counts the same as protecting a one run lead against the 2, 3, and 4 hitters. As I alluded to earlier, I’d rather have my best relievers pitching when I need them most as opposed to simply the ninth inning.

So, how would I fix things? Instead of having closers, set-up men, middle relievers, and long relievers, I would format my bullpen with an ace, #2, #3, etc. However, instead of having each slot pitching every x number of days or in the xth inning, I would simply call upon them when they’re needed most. For example, if I have to protect a one run lead in the 8th inning against the heart of the order, I’d likely call on my ace and have my #2 come in for the 9th inning against the lower part of the order. And if the lead increased, say to 3 runs, I might feel comfortable bringing in my #3 to close out the game. If the game really isn’t close by the time the starter is pulled, I wouldn’t even need to use my ace, and could probably get by with my #5 or #6. And unlike a starting rotation, this reliever alignment would be fluid, changing from game to game, inning to inning, or even at bat to at bat depending on pitcher availability and in-game situation. For example, my alignment against predominantly lefty hitters might be different from my alignment against predominantly righty hitters, and my ace if I need multiple crucial innings in a close game might be different from my ace if I only need one. However, a reliever that is head and shoulders above the rest of the bullpen (like Craig Kimbrel on the Red Sox) would likely be my ace in the majority of situations.

Yet, despite the lack of practicality of the closer position today, it still holds sentimental value for baseball fans everywhere. It would take the general baseball culture time to move away from the closer, and would likely leave the nostalgic longing for the days of shutdown closers like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. However, I believe that one day an ace reliever could be seen in the same light as a closer while potentially being more valuable to his team. And while baseball is a game built on tradition and routine, the system for managing and evaluating relievers has simply become outdated. It’s time for both teams and the general public to adopt this new philosophy, as it would help us better understand reliever performance and how to optimize it in a way that helps teams win games.

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One thought on “Why Baseball Needs a New Outlook on Relief Pitchers

  1. Great article. I could easily see Epstein and Maddon switching things up by using Aroldis Chapman as a bullpen “ace” in the postseason. The only thing stopping them from doing so would probably be Chapman’s comfort level with the new position.

    Like

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