Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Misuse of Relievers

Aaron Heilman has already faced 141 batters this season. Only one other Mets reliever has faced more than 100 - Jorge Sosa, who faced 107 batters before being released last month. Sosa hasn't thrown a pitch for the Mets since May 12, yet he has still faced more batters than Billy Wagner (95) this season. I cannot think of a more startling indictment of Willie Randolph's bullpen management then that.

Of course, it's not all Willie's fault. He's a conventional, by the book manager who is either unwilling or unable to think outside the box. Closers are supposed to be the best relievers in the bullpen, but there's not one closer in the league who is routinely given the lion's share of his team's relief work. They are instead shoehorned into a rigid usage pattern that actively inhibits their team's chances to maximize opportunities to win games by using their best relievers in high leverage situations. Willie is just following along with the rest of the crowd. What's worse, Wagner has bought into the lie hook, line and sinker.

Rollie Fingers led the Oakland A's in relief batters faced during their three straight World Series campaigns from 1972 to 1974 and led his team in that category five other times in his career. Dan Quisenberry led the Kansas City Royals in relief batters faced in four straight seasons (1982 to 1985). Bruce Sutter did it three times for the St. Louis Cardinals, from 1981 to 1983. Each won a World Series with their team; Sutter in 1982 and Quiz three years later.

This is how it was done before Tony LaRussa turned Dennis Eckersley into a one-inning specialist in the late 1980s. Other managers inexplicably followed suit, never realizing that LaRussa was in fact handcuffing himself by only using his best reliever in highly specialized situations. The Cult of the Save has flourished in the last 20 years - all at the expense of intelligent reliever usage.

So far this season, only two teams in baseball have allowed their closer to face more batters than any other reliever - the Houston Astros (Jose Valverde) and the Oakland A's (Huston Street). Of course, each are barely holding off middle relievers to retain the team lead in batters faced in relief and will undoubtedly be surpassed by one or more relievers by the end of the year. Besides, the Astros are managed by a guy who thinks home runs are rally-killers and the A's are skippered by a guy whose primary job qualification might be his best friend, so I'm not ready to annoint Cecil Cooper or Bob Geren managerial geniuses just yet.

Contrast that with the Pitsburgh Pirates, where manager John Russell has allowed nondescript middle reliever Franquelis Osoria to face nearly twice as many batters (183 to 102) as his fine young closer Matt Capps. How on earth does using Osoria, who could charitably be called the fourth best reliever in the Pirates' bullpen, so much more than Capps make any type of sense?

It doesn't. Reliever usage in today's game is completely out of whack. Who will be the first major league manger to realize LaRussa's two decades old mistake for what it was and restore sanity to the distribution of reliever workload?


tim said...

Wagner in my view isn't the Mets best reliever. I think Sanchez is, that said, I think it wouldn't hurt to use Billy in some 4 to six out saves. Willie drinks the kool aid, no doubt, but his use of Sanchez for two innings yesterday was a good move. While you probably lose Sanchez for the day, you have the rest of the bullpen rested and Wagner can go three in a row. Sanchez, who in my view can close for this team will be available tomorrow to close if Wagner is feeling iffy.

I think the biggest problem facing managers is the fact that some of these kids come up already in that one inning and out mode. Eddie Kunz is a great example, he's going to come up and be a one inning guy because he has been trained to be a one inning guy, in fact he was drafed as a one inning guy. Willie Collazo has seen both ends of a pitching staff and may be in line to be a two or three inning guy.

Hitting has also improved beyond pitching. Besides hitting gurus and watching film, I think advances in player fitness benefit a hitter more than a pitcher, in other words, I think you get more out of working out as a hitter than a pitcher. I mean, a batter takes BP every day and can improve his swing on a day to day basis without a real fear of fatigue or injury, not so for a pitcher, they throw on a given day between starts (if they are starters) and rest the remaining three days. Relievers don't really throw outside of warming up for a game situation. Its a hitters game and Rollie Fingers couldn't do what he did in this era of baseball, as great as he was.

If you want to see pitchers pitch more raise the mound back to the Gibson era. I mean, the fences are closer and the hitters are bigger and stronger, it's about time we give the pitchers some.

By the way, Willie's mistake was not letting Maine go another. Another victim of the almighty pitch count.

Judge Roughneck said...

I don't know how you can possibly think Sanchez is better than Wagner. The track records of both pitchers are heavily weighted in Wagner's favor, as is their 2008 performances. Sanchez has looked very sharp since getting bombed by the Reds on May 10, but those 11 innings are not enough to make him a serious candidate for best reliever on the team. Now, you can make a case that Sanchez is the second-best reliever on the team, but I think the gap between him and Wagner is still considerable.

That said, I agree it was a very encouraging sign that Sanchez pitched two reasonably effective innings on Wednesday. First and foremost, it means that he is healthy enough to do so. This is the second time since the injury that Sanchez threw two full innings and perhaps Randolph is embracing the notion of doing so more often. I still think the best reliever should face the most batters, but it's not a crime if the second-best reliever does so instead.

You're also right about we train six-inning starters and one-inning relievers today. It's why I was so excited about what Dyar Miller is doing with the St. Louis farm system - he recognizes that starters aren't being trained to go deep enough into games and he's taking steps to correct that. I'll be following the progress of his Double-A starters for the next few months.

I would've considered raising the mound before this season, but the downtick in offense we're seeing may be correlated with increased vigilance for steroid and amphetamine use. Now I want to wait a couple of years to see if this is a one-year aberration or the beginning of a trend in declining offense.

Finally, it's time to raise John Maine's pitch count to 120 and be done with it. If Double-A hurlers can do it, so can John.