Groupthink dictates formula for bullpen usage
Managers will have to take risks if specialized roles are to change
That was the closest comparison Will Ohman of the White Sox could summon for the role of a relief pitcher.
"It's a thankless job," Ohman said. "Nobody appreciates a ninja until they show up to help them."
Suffice to say, Ohman has an imagination. How he and his fellow ninjas are deployed during games, however, is far less innovative.
Nearly one-third of Major League clubs have changed closers this season because of subpar performances. Another handful of teams lost their finishers to injuries. Yet, as elusive as bullpen consistency has been, teams have maintained their standard methods of employing their relievers. As much as the game has evolved, bullpen usage appears to have reached a state of stagnation.
"It's just easier to go along with the idea of 'Well, that's the way it is,'" said Indians closer Chris Perez.
But is the established method of using relievers simply a case of groupthink?
Over time, starting pitchers have been conditioned to throw once every five days, instead of four, and for only 100 or so pitches. That has placed pressure on teams to fortify their staffs with a slew of reliable relievers. Starters have thrown complete games in just two percent of their outings this season, compared to 44 percent in 1940 and 82 percent in 1900.
"You definitely need a good bullpen," said Indians southpaw Tony Sipp. "It takes a lot of pressure off the starters if they know that if they can just get to the sixth, then you have a good bullpen coming behind you. It can definitely make or break a team."
Sipp is on point. After all, relievers typically toe the rubber during the game's most critical innings. But the skill of a reliever doesn't always reflect the importance of a game's situation. A closer is credited with a save even if they retire the bottom third of an opponent's order while protecting a comfortable three-run lead in the ninth. Conversely, a setup man who preserves a one-run edge against the heart of the order in the eighth is awarded a hold, a far less sexy statistic and one that rarely translates to the kind of dough dished out to closers.
So, who's to say it's not logical to use a club's top reliever -- often the closer -- at the most critical juncture, regardless of the inning? Shouldn't the best pitcher get the ball in the diciest situations?
"The whole stigma is the last three outs are the hardest," Perez said. "But what if you do put your closer in in the eighth to face the heart of their lineup and he blows it? It's the same situation."
That's the quandary that managers face. Should they continue to follow the tacit rules that implicitly dictate how to use relievers? Or will thinking outside the box come back to bite them?
|"There's a copycat element to it. You can see the success La Russa had in the late '80s, so other teams wanted to see if they could make that happen with their team, and that's basically been the pattern since then. Teams that have gone away from that ... if it doesn't work right away, there's outrage in the press and you have a restless fan base. No manager wants that because it complicates an already difficult job."|
|-- Paul Hirsch of SABR|
"If they were, then strategy would never change. ... It's easier to do what everyone expects you to do; it's easier to justify failing. If you bring in your closer in the seventh inning and he blows the lead and you lose the game, you're going to be criticized. If you bring in your closer in the ninth and he fails, no one is going to criticize you."
White Sox manager Robin Ventura ventured away from the norm last Tuesday, but the Indians foiled his plan. Holding a 3-0 lead in the eighth, Ventura requested the services of then-closer Chris Sale, who entered with two runners on base and none out. The idea was for Sale to record a six-out save. However, Cleveland tied the game before Sale even reached the ninth. Still, Ventura felt at peace with his decision.
"At that point, he's the guy for me with those matchups," Ventura said. "That's when, in the game, you get those crucial times when you want to bring in the guy you feel is the best guy in that situation."
Bullpen usage wasn't always so cut and dry. The save didn't become an official statistic until 1969. However, Paul Hirsch of SABR's board of directors believes the way Tony La Russa used his bullpen with Oakland in the late 1980s altered league-wide thinking. La Russa is often credited with bullpen specialization for how he used relievers such as Todd Burns, Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt to hold leads for Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley.
"There's a copycat element to it," Hirsch said. "You can see the success La Russa had in the late '80s, so other teams wanted to see if they could make that happen with their team, and that's basically been the pattern since then. Teams that have gone away from that ... if it doesn't work right away, there's outrage in the press and you have a restless fan base. No manager wants that because it complicates an already difficult job. I think that drives the groupthink."
That groupthink is derived from a manager's preference to have a regimented system to lean on. Then again, those guidelines aren't so closely followed during the postseason, when relievers often enter games earlier to stymie big innings and closers are called upon to pitch more than one inning.
"There is a more significant downside to being a maverick than there is an upside," Hirsch said. "In the playoffs, when the one-game result is much more magnified, suddenly teams are more willing to use closers for five or six outs. There are differences in how the games are managed. In the regular season, managers manage every game as one of 162. There is less incentive to do things differently."
Though managers can avoid blowback if they go by the book, Perez said history doesn't always forecast what's to come in a matchup.
"If the guy gets them out, then it's a good move," Perez said. "It's a Catch-22. That's why I like baseball. You can change the numbers that day. A guy could be 0-for-10 and get a game-winning home run off me. Now he's only 1-for-11, but he's got that game-winning home run. Does that mean if he leads off the next day, I'm not going to face him?"
The bullpen standards that every manager follows also make it easier on the pitchers, who feel more comfortable knowing what types of situations they're likely to face. Constantly shuffling a reliever's role sets up for nightmarish results.
"It's all about being prepared," Sipp said. "You don't want to go out there in any situation and not fully be aware of what you're coming into. If you know exactly who you're going to face and who's coming in behind you, that makes a lot of difference."
That seems to be the case no matter the profession.
"Knowledge is power," Ohman said. "The more often you can know what's expected of you, you can take the appropriate action and prepare for it.
"It's just like being a ninja."