How a Bullpen Should Work

Josh SaboContributor IApril 6, 2010

The modern baseball era has brought forth many changes to America’s pastime. These changes include the Designated Hitter (DH), the wild card, and an abundance of new statistics.

While I feel most of the changes have improved the game of baseball, others have hurt the game. One of these detrimental changes has been the recent assignment of bullpen roles. 

There’s no denying that having a good bullpen is important for a team. It’s always been viewed as an important part of a ballclub.

However, over the last few decades the bullpen has taken on a new significance, as managers have begun shaping their bullpen in a certain way, assigning particular jobs for each reliever.

For instance, the closer is automatically supposed to pitch the ninth, or in some cases, asked to pitch the eighth and remain in the game until it is over.

Before the closer comes in there’s another pre-assigned pitcher, the setup man, who is supposed to act as a bridge for the closer.

So, in a perfect world, the setup man is supposed to pitch the eighth inning and the closer comes in for the ninth, no matter what.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only one who sees how flawed this system of bullpen management is.

First of all, this system seems to ignore the impact of stats on the game of baseball, as it forces a manager to put his closer in during the ninth inning, no matter who’s at the plate.

It always seems managers only look at a pitcher's success against a batter if it’s earlier than the eighth. After that stats no longer matter and setup men and closers automatically take their predetermined slots.

This type of thinking can backfire and even cost your team the game.

For example, let’s take a look at the 2009 ALDS where the Yankees took on the Twins.

Game One, ninth inning leading, up 3-1, the Twins sent in Joe Nathan, their closer, to face Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada. 

Based solely on stats, the Twins made the wrong move, as Rodriguez and Teixeira are a combined 10 for 19 against Nathan.

But according to the new unwritten rules of baseball, Nathan was the right choice even if the move predictably backfired and cost the Twins the game, even though Jesse Crain has fared much better against A-Rod and Teixeira.

Another fault found in the current system is that the closer, the team’s most valuable reliever, is restricted to pitch only the ninth.

Even though a 2004 study done by David W. Smith found that closer or no closer, most games are finished in the ninth inning, even the team with the worst ninth inning pitching stats won over 80 percent of their games.

Since the closer is restricted to the final innings of games, they are sometimes not used at the most crucial points in the game.

For example, let’s say your team is playing the Philadelphia Phillies and Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth are due up in the seventh inning. If I were a manager, I would want my best reliever out there to face them; however, that reliever is foolishly kept in the pen for later use.

With so little quality middle relievers it wouldn’t surprise me if some managers did choose to change the status quo eventually, as certain teams only have one or two good relievers.

Restricting a closer to just one inning a game probably leads to more losses than saves, as sometimes the game is on the line in the middle innings.

If a manager sees a possible turning point in the game, he shouldn’t just stick to some trend that tells him who has to pitch.

Instead, he should look at the situation, look at the numbers, and put in whichever pitcher he thinks can get out of the situation unscathed.