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How to effecitvely manage a bullpen

Posted By Sam Diament On Apr 12 2010 @ 3:49 pm In Washington Nationals | 1 Comment

Closers are over rated, but no one likes to challenge conventional thinking nowadays (save John Russell; see: Pitcher batting 8th [1]). Specifically, every team has one setup man and one closer, as well as a hierarchy of relievers to pitch the 6th and 7th innings when the team is winning and losing.

Scrap it! Here’s what teams should do: match up the best reliever on the team with the other team’s best hitters. For the Nationals a guy like Tyler Clippard can pitch two innings on two consecutive days. Instead of making him pitch the 6th and 7th, why not just match him up with the Utley, Howard, and Werth part of the Phillies’ line up, whatever inning that may be?

This may be a problem with some relievers, namely closers, who are creatures of habit. They have a clearly defined role. They know when they will and will not pitch based on the game situation. Well, I say, [bleep] ‘em. What’s the value of a guy who can pitch one inning only when the team is winning in the game’s potential last inning? A guy like Matt Capps would have more value, anyway, if he could pitch well in any situation. Any reliever would.

This has turned into a bit of a rant because I am mad at the Nationals’ bullpen. Collectively, it sucks talent-wise. However, the two bright-ish spots are Clippard and Sean Burnett. I am not sure why, whenever they are available to pitch, these guys are not the first options to face the opposing team’s best hitters.

The other thing that has me upset is the save. What a stupid statistic. Saves, blown saves, holds, etc. These were created just as a ploy to make some pitchers more money. But the pitchers who get their teams from the starting pitcher to the closer unscathed do not get nearly as much notoriety (holds have much lower standing than saves). Plus, it is completely circumstantial. Clippard could be a successful closer. He could be piling up the saves and would be making many millions of dollars instead of Capps.

Under my model for bullpens (which isn’t exactly new), two statistics are very important: Leverage Index (LI) and Win Probability Added (WPA). Leverage Index measures the importance of any given situation depending on a variety of factors. Win Probability Added measures the difference of how much a player added to a team’s probability of winning and how much that player takes away over the course of the year.

Using a team’s best relief pitcher at the most important times of the game will be reflected by LI, and how successful the pitcher is will be reflected by WPA as well as our good, ole’ friend, xFIP.

I ran this idea by one of my always argumentative friends. He told me to consider the “human element,” that pitchers cannot pitch every day and are better on a schedule or defined role. To address the first point, I don’t expect the pitcher to pitch every day, but he should be able to maintain the same level of readiness as in the current bullpen setup. Any given relief pitcher cannot pitch every day as is anyway. The other issue is ridiculous. If a pitcher wants a defined role, he can sell insurance. He knows what he will do every day. Baseball is a game of variability every day, so no pitcher should reasonably expect to pitch in only one type of situation.

Instead of considering this a “closer by committee” bullpen, consider it a “maximizing the use of your best relief pitchers” bullpen. A manager has plenty of time to figure out in which innings an opposing team’s sluggers are going to hit, and, as such, he should easily be able to send out his best relief pitcher to face these hitters.

It’s not a radical idea; it’s just different.

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[1] Pitcher batting 8th: http://www.prosportsblogging.com//sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/sky_andrecheck/04/08/pirates.order/index.html?eref=sircrc”

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