Rethinking bullpen usage patternsBy
After watching Chien-Ming Wang pitch out of the bullpen yesterday, I’ve decided I like him out there. Well, not him specifically, but I definitely like that type of reliever. It’s one reason Al Aceves can be valuable to the Yankees this season: the ability to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen. The problem with having just Aceves, though, is that if he pitches three innings, as he did Friday night, he’s not available for a couple of days. So when, two days later, the Yanks need another long relief appearance, it’s nice to have a guy like Wang to fill that role.
It’s become standard practice for baseball teams to carry seven relievers on top of their five starters. This leaves the bench somewhat depleted, but for a team like the Yankees which normally has a stellar one through nine, it’s not much of an issue. That doesn’t meant that the way they construct the bullpen is right, though. In fact, with seven guys sitting out in the pen it might be time to rethink how they pick the relievers on the staff.
The general preference seems to be filling the pen with a bunch of one-inning, or even one-batter, guys. Sometimes they’ll go two, but for the most part you see a new reliever every inning after the starter exits unless he’s remarkably efficient, or the manager wants to play match-ups. But is playing match-ups necessarily the right move? After all, baseball is a game based on randomness. Anything can happen at any given time, and so playing lefty-lefty sometimes doesn’t work out. The percentages are supposedly in the pitcher’s favor, but probability, especially in an environment like baseball, isn’t exactly like flipping a coin.
What I’m getting at is the question of whether there’s an opportunity to capitalize in the bullpen. Start after start, we see starters exiting after six innings. That means three relievers between the starter and the end. Sometimes one of those relievers is Mariano, but what about those other two? Sure, you could have a lights-out eighth inning guy, but he can’t pitch every day. That, in fact, is one of my criticisms of Joe Torre’s “three-headed monster” schemes. If starters aren’t pitching past the sixth, you can’t just toss Quantrill-Gordon-Rivera every day. Torre did, and we saw the results at the end of the season.
What if the Yankees decided to use Aceves and one more designated long-man to fill multiple innings out of the pen? This would cost just two roster spots, leaving four more non-Mo spots in the pen. That goes to one-inning, high percentages guys. Think Bruney, Marte, Coke and eventually Melancon. So when A.J. goes six innings one day, Aceves can come in and finish the start. If there’s a one-run lead in the ninth Mo can come on. If he’s not available, Aceves can just finish what he
If on the next night the starter can only go six, then you have the second long man to fill in. Again, Mo can pitch the ninth in a close game, or the long reliever can just finish it out, as he would the third inning of any start. It’s possible, in fact, that on these two consecutive games none of the one-inning relievers gets the ball. The long reliever is the guy who can take the game to the end (or, again, Mo can finish it).
This works well with the Yankees, who have a number of pitchers who can go deep into games. Sometimes CC will just finish what he started. Others he’ll leave only one or two innings left for the bullpen. This is where the one-inning guys fit in. When CC, A.J., and Andy go seven or eight, they can each pitch an inning in relief. Or, gasp, one could pitch two innings.
A while back, Phil Coke spoke about the bullpen not having defined roles. Well, this would shore up that problem nicely. Players A and B are long men. Players C, D, and E are one-inning guys. Player F is a LOOGY. Mo is Mo. Roles defined.
One of the biggest questions raised here would be of where to find a second long man. There are 18 weeks left in the season, not counting the All-Star week. If you can give one of the long men six innings a week (two appearances of three innings or three appearances of two innings), that comes out to 108 innings. They Yankees could, if they could find a way to guarantee he gets to his innings goals, slot Phil Hughes into that spot. It would allow him multiple-innigns work, keep him at the major league level, and also make him available, given proper notice of course, for spot starts, which would further increase his innings totals.
This idea is very rough and not even half-baked. It’s something I thought of while watching Wang pitch in relief of Hughes today. I’m also not married to relegating Hughes to this role. In any case, it seems like a creative way to utilize the team’s pitching surplus. Create a role called “finisher.” That reliever is called upon to pitch multiple innings and finish games. And, as always, Mo can finish the tight ones. Beyond getting more guys more innings, it is also a way to keep the one-inning guys fresh.
(Plus, if they can slot two quality guys like Hughes and Aceves into the long roles, they might not even need to carry 12 pitchers. If those guys are pitching every other or every third game and the starters are taking it to the seventh or eighth in the rest, it would seem the team could get by with just six guys in the bullpen. As an aside, it would also make sense to have a option-able guy on the bench so that the team could call up another reliever in case of emergency.)
How could we expand upon and refine this idea so it would work for the Yanks this year? The idea is to limit the usage of the crappy relievers, maximize the innings of the guys who are pitching well, and get guys like Hughes and Joba to their innings totals. It would seem that letting them go longer in the pen would be one solution. So how can the Yanks make it work?