Modern Day Use of the Bullpen in Baseball

Peter SchillerCorrespondent IApril 9, 2009

25 Jul 1992:  Pitcher Dennis Eckersley of the Oakland Athletics prepares to throw the ball during a game against the Minnesota Twins. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule  /Allsport

The use of the modern-day bullpen is a sore point with me. In my opinion, this practice is holding baseball back from gaining more widespread popularity. In order to gain more attention, all unnecessary down time needs to be eliminated.

The length of the games prevents people from becoming fans. The game can be just too darn long for the non-fan to cope with. One of these bottlenecks is the unnecessary use of bullpen “specialists” (I use that term loosely). A “specialist” is a pitcher who comes in just to face one batter and then is replaced by another pitcher who happens to throw with the other arm.

If you are a major league pitcher, you should be able to get out major league batters no matter which batter’s box they’re standing in! This is a situation where I throw sabermetrics out the window. To me, this was the idea of a few managers, which worked so well at the time that everyone jumped on the bandwagon to the point where this practice has become the norm for the modern-day bullpen.

This development, as best as I can pinpoint it, started sometime in 1987 with the Oakland A’s when they converted SP Dennis Eckersley into a closer. He only got 16 saves that year, but it was a turning point in baseball history. I don’t blame Eckersley; I blame the way in which he was used. I blame, right or wrong, Tony LaRussa!

I also admit that it was, and is, a very successful method for getting batters out, but at what price, long-term for baseball? One inning and out gave Eckersley and all other closers who followed him a “save.” It has gotten to the point where one can gain a save even in a 30-3 game!

Before this, closers went at least two or three innings per save. Guys like Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Tug McGraw, Hoyt Wilhelm, Sparky Lyle and Dick Radatz, to name a few. They came to the rescue in close game situations and shut down the opposing team and they broke a sweat doing it!

Every now and then, you see someone used the way those guys were used: Mariano Rivera, one of the best modern-day closers, is known for his occasional two or three-inning saves. We even saw young Jonathan Papelbon going multiple innings in 2007 (especially in the postseason). I’ll speak on this topic again when I address the problems with the saves rule, but for now, let’s get back to bullpen “specialists.” This is what Wikipedia has to say about left-handed specialists:

In baseball, a left-handed specialist (also called, somewhat derisively, a LOOGY or Lefty One Out Guy) is a left-handed relief pitcher who specializes in getting left-handed or poor right-handed switch batters out. These pitchers will commonly only pitch to a very small number of batters in each outing (often just one), and rarely to straight right-handed batters. Most Major League Baseball teams have a couple of left-handed pitchers in their bullpens, one of whom is probably a left-handed specialist.

Why not just bring in the best pitcher you have, outside of your closer, to pitch to the next few players coming up to bat in order to get out of an inning?

I don’t mind if teams bring in a new pitcher to start an inning, but to break up the flow of the game by allowing a pitcher to just face one batter seems silly to me. It always has and it always will.

So, my conclusion is that teams should do a better job in setting up their bullpens so that they are staffed with pitchers who can get batters of any type out and use closers in a way that most benefits their team, not just in the ninth inning against the other teams' seven, eight and nine guys.

Even a “specialist” can get those guys out!

A word to lefty and righty specialists out there: Learn how to pitch to get guys out, no matter which batter’s box they stand in, and let’s just play ball!

You can read more from Peter Schiller at his blog, Baseball Reflections.