Over the last 40 or so years, few areas of major league baseball have evolved as much as the bullpen – specifically in relation to the role of the closer. It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of a “closer” was unheard of, even after deep bullpens had become a staple of major-league teams.
As most of you already know, I think the majority of baseball “tradition” is pretty dumb; the idea of focusing on a player’s batting average, the thought that walks are counterproductive, the over-use of the bunt… things like that.
But, when it comes to the closer role, the old school got it right. To be direct; the idea of saving your premier reliever for the 9th inning is incredibly, unequivocally stupid. Interestingly enough, this is an issue that both Chicago clubs are dealing with as we speak.
On the south side of town, fans have quickly grown tired of the Chicago White Sox organization’s handling of the back end of their bullpen, shuffling Chris Sale in and out of the role, seemingly by the day.
On the north side, fans and management alike have decided that the often-erratic, but sometimes dominant Carlos Marmol is no longer fit for the role.
Also interesting is that, contrary to what has become the standard of the time, both Chicago managers have decided to go with a “closer by committee” plan to secure the final three outs of ballgames. This plan has been met with varying levels of disdain and acceptance on both sides of town, much to my personal chagrin.
When you think about it logically – something that is often difficult to do in sports, where emotion is so directly tied to pretty much everything – the idea of a closer makes absolutely no sense.
As I alluded to in my last story, it’s true that sometimes the highest-leverage moment in the game is, in fact, the 9th inning. Such as when your team is up by only a run, maybe two, with the 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup due up.
However, just as often, the most important – or highest leverage – moment in the game occurs far earlier. Sometimes as early as the sixth or seventh inning. For example, take this situation: there is one out in the seventh inning, your team is up 4-3, the bases are loaded and Miguel Cabrera is at the plate with Prince Fielder waiting on deck.
Clearly, at this moment, the game is on the line as much as it’s ever going to be and, as a manager, you have two choices. You can either; A, bring in the best pitcher in your bullpen (which is most often the “closer”), or, B, bring in the second-, third- or fourth-best player in your ‘pen.
In that situation, most logical fans would agree that bringing in anyone but your best pitcher seriously handicaps your team’s chances of winning. But, if you are a believer in saving your best pitcher – your closer – for the end of the game, how do you justify not bringing him in to pitch in this situation? If you bring in anyone but your best, chances are good that there won’t be a game left for him to save two innings down the road.
By the same token, what’s the point of wasting your premier pitcher on a bases-empty, no-out situation when your team has a three-run lead? The whole idea is idiotic on its face. But, just to drive home the point a little further, let’s look deeper…
A few years back, on of baseball sabermetrics’ great minds, Tom M. Tango (Seriously, look him up. He’ll make your brain hurt), came up with an new stat known as leverage index, or LI. Basically, the idea is to give a numerical value to how intense any given situation is. That is, how “on the line” is the game at this moment.
Obviously, the bases loaded with nobody out in the bottom of the 8th inning with your team up by only one has a higher index – and a higher numerical value – than the top of the sixth inning with nobody on and your team up by 12 runs.
What’s really nice about this stat is that it allows you to look back and see how effectively – or ineffectively – a given team’s players have been utilized. Looking at the current Cubs and White Sox LI leaders, you start to see the issue.
For the Cubs:
1. Kerry Wood
2. Rafael Dolis
3. Carlos Marmol
4. James Russell
Coming into the season, Marmol was considered by the cubs to be the premier bullpen arm (as evidenced as being given the closer’s job). For the Sox, it was a three-way discussion between Thornton, Reed and Sale.
Interestingly enough, none of those players have been used in the highest leverage situations this season. That’s an issue.
On the bright side; however, in light of both Chicago managers’ decisions to begin using a closer by committee design, things may get better. Not having a set closer frees the manager to base his pitching decisions on (and I know, this is a crazy idea) who is best suited to pitch in any given situation. Be that based upon a pitcher’s past history against a batter, the matchup of righties and lefties, the leverage of the situation or whatever fits the game best at that moment.
Of course, I’m not so naive as to think this will last for very long on either side of town. Eventually, because the save has become a sexy stat and the players that rack up the most of them get paid heaps of money similar to that of middle-to-upper-echelon starters, someone is going to step back into the role of full-time closer sooner rather than later.
And that’s unfortunate, because when it comes right down to it, the whole idea of a full-time closer is mind-numbingly illogical.
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