The Major League Baseball bullpen is a place that is littered with flamed out former starting pitchers, pitchers who have a niche for getting a certain type of player out when matched up properly, and guys that get paid millions of dollars to close out games, utilizing the false value of the save statistic to present himself as valuable within the game.
Certainly, the top closers in baseball history have had value to their teams, but how much? Consider the top 10 relief pitchers in the save category in baseball history:
Rollie Fingers pitched in a different era, but you could say the same for Lee Smith and Jeff Reardon. Relief pitchers used to pitch more innings and they were more valuable to their clubs because of their extended appearances. When Fingers led the league in saves in 1977 with 35, he made 78 appearances and pitched 132.1 innings (1.7 IP/G) while facing 543 batters. Last season, Craig Kimbrel led the NL in saves, 42, while making 63 appearances and pitching 62.2 innings (0.99 IP/G) while facing 231 batters. How much more valuable could he have been for Atlanta last season by pitching 1.11 IP/G?
He would have reached just 70 innings but Kimbrel was striking out 16.7 K/9, so he could have struck out an additional 13-14 batters, which could have killed another rally or won the Braves another couple of games. If Kimbrel was worth 3.3 WAR last year and he had taken innings away from Jonny Venters, who had a 0.4 WAR, his WAR could have increased to 3.6, which may or may not have counted in the wins column, but why wouldn’t you want your best reliever in a game in the most valuable moments?
Which leads us to former journeyman relief pitcher Mike Marshall. Marshall won the Cy Young award in 1974 when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He made 106 appearances, led the NL with 21 saves, and pitched a whopping 208.1 innings out of the bullpen! Sure, the league leader in innings pitched in 1974 was Nolan Ryan, who made 41 starts and accumulated 332.2 innings with his 26 complete games, but the next closest pitcher in appearances was Burt Hooten, who had 48.
Marshall pitched in exactly 700 games out of the bullpen (he made 24 career starts) and he pitched 1259.1 innings, good for 1.8 IP/G. For all of those failed starting pitchers who sit in bullpens around the league, why aren’t more teams utilizing them differently? What if pitchers who dominate in earlier innings but struggle later in the game were able to pitch two to three times each week out of the bullpen with a four-man rotation?
A.J. Griffin, the Oakland Athletics right-hander, has a 3.08 ERA over his first 75 pitches in a game with a 5.74 ERA from pitch 76 on.
Tyler Chatwood, the Colorado Rockies right-hander, has a 2.94 ERA over his first 75 pitches, followed up by a 4.11 ERA from pitch 76 on.
Even more prolific starters fall into this type of split:
Madison Bumgarner – first 75 pitches 1.99 ERA, 76+ pitches 5.24 ERA
Mat Latos – first 75 pitches 2.37 ERA, 76+ pitches 4.53 ERA
Obviously, as a starting pitcher goes deeper into the game, they are likely to get tired, but the multiple times that the hitters see the pitchers will impact the success of the opposition, as well. However, why aren’t there more teams utilizing their 25-man roster differently?
The Minnesota Twins utilize Anthony Swarzak in a Marshall-like role, as he has pitched 73 innings over 37 appearances (1.97 IP/G) and the Arizona Diamondbacks do the same with Josh Collmenter, who has pitched 78.1 innings over 37 appearances (2.18 IP/G), but with so many extra inning games and the need to roster flexibility, why aren’t more teams going to a five or six man bullpen featuring rubber arms that can be used for several innings per appearance?
Sure, teams need to be careful with their investments and the days of your starters tossing 300 innings and 25 or more complete games in a season are long gone, but why waste a roster spot on a LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY) when you can utilize your other arms in a different way? With all of these young starters, like Stephen Strasburg last year and Matt Harvey this year, reaching innings limits, wouldn’t the Marshall-like relief pitcher help a team keep that solid, young arm effective into the playoffs by keeping outings short?
The one inning closer may not ever go away again, Lord knows that agents and the Players Union wouldn’t be too keen on the idea of eliminating the role, but maybe paying big-time money to a pitcher that doesn’t impact a significant part of the game wouldn’t be such a bad idea for clubs. Do you think Aroldis Chapman tossing two to three innings per outing would be good or bad for the Reds, especially during a Latos start based on the statistics above?