Dodger Bullpen Disproves Bill James

J.C. AyvaziSenior Analyst IAugust 27, 2008

Bill James, author of numerous books and historical abstracts on baseball, must really hate the guts of Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, and Takashi Saito. They have conspired to prove the lie in his theories of using ace closers to finish off ballgames.

Mr. James has proposed the theory that there is no appreciable difference between relieving in the 7th inning and the 9th inning. He would not “waste” bringing in a closer with a three run lead. He would also risk burning out his closer in two inning saves with a one run lead. The last few weeks have provided plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The physical injury Saito has suffered is one element. The emotional injury currently being suffered by Dodger players and fans due to the bullpen’s descent into arson squad status is quite another.

It is sadly possible Saito has thrown his last Major League pitch. We must learn to wrap our brains around that Dodger reality. His return can only be an unexpected bonus. A very keen eye shall be kept on the work—both what and when—of Broxton and Kuo.

Broxton has shown the ability to blow away hitters with great effectiveness during stints in the 7th and 8th innings. Rarely has he been able to go two innings at the same level of effectiveness. His ability does not carry over with any consistency in his 9th inning appearances. Bouts of wildness, the inabilities to overcome fielding miscues and poor pitch location have sadly been far more commonplace.

Kuo, who is also prone to wildness, has not been very effective in his closing opportunities. This reporter feels he has been miscast as a reliever in the first place.  Kuo has shown he can start. Given left handed starters are not in abundance, Joe Torre and Rick Honeycutt have missed a great opportunity by keeping him in the bullpen. 

Kuo also has the ability to swing a bat far better than most of his pitching brethren. As a starter, he would be another left-handed bat coming off the bench four out of five games. A damn better sight than what Mark Sweeney is offering anymore. Sweeney's ability to hold onto his job can be considered a wonderment.

The primary aspects of a dominant closer consist of both pitching ability and mental toughness. He can perform a psych job on the opposing team while walking from the bullpen to the mound—much like Eric Gagne or Trevor Hoffman. The other teams hitters would be happy just making contact and not looking foolish at the plate.

A dominant closer is much like an elite NFL quarterback or NHL goaltender. Someone all the others on his team know will come through for them. They know he has their back, and in turn they are able to relax and perform better. You have a positive energy loop that feeds on itself to give more and more confidence to the team.

That is what all of Mr. James cold hard stats are not able to compute. The soul of the game cannot be broken down into a formula—witness the Dodger bullpen. The confidence of knowing your job, being able to prepare for it as the time comes, and the talent to execute on the field in a calm manner is as much mental as physical. When the order is disrupted, chaos follows.

Mr. James seems to dismiss the National League game with his two inning closer assignments, which will be complicated by the possibility of the pitcher batting in the 8th inning. That is unless you are willing to risk weakening your defense with a double switch.

There is also the length of a 162 game season, bracketed by a month of spring training and another month of post season—only for those so lucky to qualify for it of course. The pace Mr. James proposes will burn out most closers, yet the managers and pitching coaches will be the ones who hang for the offense.