Sunday, August 23, 2009

Role Reversal in LA

Bill Plaschke wrote about the Jonathan Broxton-George Sherrill job swap in today's LA Times. Here are some of the best quotes:

While Broxton wore a weary grimace afterward, he said he understood.

"We won, so it didn't matter," he said.

While Sherrill wore a shocked stare, he said he could also adjust.

"You try not to think about anything, you just go out there and pitch," he said.

I'd like to think that this is Plaschke taking creative liberties for the sake of his column, but I have to wonder. Relievers are so wedded to the notion of closer, set-up man and specialist that it wouldn't surprise me if Broxton and Sherrill were a little disoriented afterwards. That's what happens when reliever roles are defined by what inning it is and not by what reliever is most likely to get the outs you need.

After [Charlie] Haeger started the eighth inning by walking Sam Fuld, the heart of the Cubs' order was due up, and a right-hander was needed.

Milton Bradley, a switch-hitter, hits nearly 100 points worse against righties, while Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez hit right-handed.

Torre said Broxton was a better bet in that situation, so he was brought into the game, thrilling all those baseball thinkers who believe that a closer should pitch the most important inning of the game, not necessarily the last inning of the game.

Yes, I have to admit that I was a little thrilled watching the Game Tracker yesterday and seeing Broxton's name pop up in the eighth to replace Haeger. At that point, I thought Torre was going to push Broxton to give him a six-out save, another concept I believe strongly in. It turns out that Torre was playing more of a match-up game with his closer, but it still shows a willingness to engage in unconventional thinking for the good of the team.

I can't give Torre too much credit, though. Sherrill has been a closer in Baltimore before, which I'm sure that the manager took into consideration. Would Torre have been so willing to use Broxton in the eighth inning if his ninth-inning options did not include a reliever with closing experience? I have my doubts.

So how do they act now? What happens next?

More than any other player, relief pitchers hunger for defined roles. They set their minds to it. They base their routines on it.

This is particularly true for relatively inexperienced relievers such as Broxton and Sherrill, and even though Torre said the switch was temporary, you know they are both thinking about it this very minute ...

"I don't think it will be an issue," Torre said. "If somebody gets offended by pitching to the 3-4-5 hitters in the eighth inning, they're not the person I think they are."

Perfectly stated. How selfish would Broxton look if he started complaining about occasionally being used outside of his artifically conceived role? How weak-minded would he appear if, being used as something other than the modern closer, Broxton moaned about being used outside of his comfort zone?

Today's relievers hunger for defined roles for one reason and one reason only - the dollar signs that come attached to that role. Closers make more money than eighth-inning set-up men, who make more than seventh-inning set-up men, who make more than specialists. Relievers crave the usage hierarchy because the higher they go on the pecking chain, the closer they get to the almighty save.

Today's general managers will overpay for relievers based on how many saves they earn, even at the expense of WHIP, K/9 rates and other peripherals. (See Minaya, Omar.) Every team in baseball is on a quest to find the next Mariano Rivera and will overpay anyone whoever they think will bring similar results.

Guess what? The "next Mariano Rivera" doesn't exist! It's looking for the next Babe Ruth and expecting the guy to pitch AND play right field at a superb level. Rivera is a once-in-a-generation talent, whose greatness has eclipsed his competitors by leaps and bounds.

Instead of trying to find the next Rivera, baseball teams need to find a way to get the same results without resorting to the exact same method. If general managers suddenly started looking at, say, inherited runners stranded as a measure of quality in a relief pitcher, today's closers would suddenly start complaining about their roles. (I'm not advocating this, just using it as an example.)

If the save became seen as what it is - an antiquated statistic that tells you very little about a reliever's performance - every reliever in the league would suddenly begin lobbying to become a set-up man.

1 comment:

TW said...

An issue that you've championed for years, the retreat from the 'LaRussa Syndrome.'

I'm surprised and a little impressed that Torre, a man chained to the greatest reliever of all time, made a move such as this. Let us be reminded, Broxton was the set up man for Gagne and at times during that stretch, he probably got some 'save-like' outs.

Good piece.