SportsProf

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

I'm Not the First One With This Theory, But

here goes.

Everything evolves, some things for the better, some for the worse. People, products, environments. The average NBA player is much taller today than, say, 30 years ago, flat-panel TVs are much cheaper now than even three years ago, and bald eagles have come back while I've heard that cell phone usage is harming bees. I'm not a little bit out of my depth on some of these issues, but I think that I've painted my point with a broad brush. Change happens.

Tony LaRussa helped evolve the role of the modern pitcher. Long gone are the days when teams like the Orioles had a four-man rotation, whose members each won 20-games. You could look it up, but Messrs. Palmer, McNally, Dobson and Cuellar did just that. At some point rotations morphed into five-man efforts, and, yet, seemingly pitchers started to get hurt more than ever. Relief pitching a half century ago was the refuge for those not good enough to be starters. That still holds true today, the theory being that starters have enough stuff to get through a lineup three and four times, while relievers have (many) fewer "out" pitches and basically could go once through a lineup, if that (and those relievers are the "long" relievers). Let's put closers in the discussion's parking lot for a moment, because they've been heralded as a different breed of cat.

If there's any doubt that starters have more talent and stuff than relievers, witness various World Series of seasons past. The fifth starter (and sometimes the fourth) gets primo bullpen service time. The reason -- his stuff is more electric than the stuff of the hypothetical, average long man (where there's no guarantee that his stuff will be there year-in, year-out, which is why there's significant turnover in bullpens year-in, year-out). The starter has 2 or 3 excellent to pretty good pitches, while the reliever might have one "out" pitch. Therefore, he'll have a better chance to get people out, even if he doesn't have much experience coming into the game out of the bullpen.

Tony LaRussa changed the role of the closer. Say 25-30 plus years ago, the closer came into the game near the end, but not exclusively in the ninth inning. If the starter got into trouble in the eighth with one out and two on, the closer would come in, put out the fire (hence the term "fireman" and the Rolaids "Fireman of the Year" Award). Invariably, he then would pitch the ninth. Check out the records of guys like Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter, not to mention Dan Quisenberry, and see what I mean. Those guys literally saved the game; they just didn't pitch the ninth. They were closers and finishers in every sense of the word, and, I'd submit, among the best relief pitchers -- ever.

LaRussa changed all that by creating relief specialists. Long relievers have existed for a while, the guys who you want to keep the game close and honor Hippocrates' oath of "First, Do No Harm" and whom you pray won't bring gasoline to the fire. But they came in when your starter got lit for five runs in the first three innings. LaRussa created the lefty set-up man, the right set-up man, and even the mid-game specialists. Look at a box score of LaRussa-managed teams going back to Oakland and see what I mean. To the discerning, his managerial moves were a work of art. The man truly knew his staff and which buttons to push.

In evolving the role of the bullpen, though, he led the transformation of the "macho" fireman who would come in and put out a late-inning fire into the guy who pitches the ninth. Even Mariano Rivera, the best closer ever, pretty much pitches the ninth. To Joe Torre's great credit, the Yankee skipper would bring in Rivera in the eighth to pitcher either two full innings or at least part of the eighth before finishing the game, especially in late-season games and in the post-season. By doing this, Torre put the "fireman" back into Mariano's job description, at least during certain moments. Make no mistake, though, Rivera is an exception. He's one of the best ever, and he would have thrived in the days of Gossage and Sutter. I'm not sure many other modern closers would have.

Today, the hypothetical, average closer pitches the ninth. His team could be up one to three runs (any more wouldn't qualify for a save), but there is no real danger (except, perhaps, for the heart of the opposing team's order coming to the plate in the ninth). In this fashion, he's not putting out a fire, he's merely closing out the game and pitching the ninth. While it's nice to have a flamethrower like Billy Wagner pitch the ninth, I would question whether it's that imperative to have that intimidating closer finish the came. Couldn't someone else do it? A less dominating pitcher who has good control and probably won't put more than one baserunner on? I know that relief pitching is in (very) short supply this season, but what I'm really getting at is whether you need your best reliever to pitch the ninth. Do you?

Or do you need him to come in during situations like this: you're up one run, on the road, in the bottom of the seventh, the other team has men on second and third with one out. Shouldn't you put that lights-out pitcher in then, to put out the fire? You can do a double switch if you want him to pitch more than an inning (admittedly, if he pitches 2 1/3 then he might not be available for a couple of days, but these situations don't happen every game), but then you're putting your best pitcher in the game in an appropriate situation. He can change the tide of the game and help your team put it away. Put in a middle guy, he gets shelled, and then you're down at least a run and you might never get the opportunity to use your best reliever. Do you think the game could evolve in this fashion? Are closers becoming too much of a luxury? And why do closers burn out, and why do teams change closers more frequently than you would think?

My view is that the game will evolve in this direction -- using your best reliever in the toughest situations. Look, you don't want a weak pitcher to finish the game, but you definitely want a strong one to put out the fire, because closers no longer do that. And that pitcher might become your most valuable non-starter, because he's the guy to stop the bleeding and, perhaps, change the tides of the game. Because if that guy puts out the fire in the seventh and then uses his lights-out stuff at least in one more inning, the whole tenor of the game changes. As an example, remember El Duque's performance with the sacks jammed and no outs in the fifth inning of a Sox-Astros World Series game several years ago. El Duque came into the game as a reliever, and he ended the threat. Checkmate.

I write this from the vantage point of watching my hometown Phillies put in nameless souls game after game who haven't been able to stop the bleeding. There's decent talent on that team to finish about .500, and its Achilles' heel is its relief corps (and it was so at the season's outset). True, they have two injured closers (one of whom is a recently converted starter), but they haven't had anyone (not even the heretofore reliable Geoff Geary, whose pinpoint control took a holiday, costing Geary an unplanned summer trip to AAA Ottawa) to stem the tide. The Mets excelled last season because they had a transcending 'pen, with several guys who could do just what I've written about. Okay, so the worst team to win the Series in decades beat them in the NLCS, but the teams that have gotten to the top (Detroit, for example) had guys other than closers who could put out the fire (and you could argue that setup man Joel Zumaya, when healthy, is the best reliever in Motown).

So watch the evolution of pitching staffs during the next ten years, and watch front offices dissect the situations I've highlighted and how they're best handled. And then take a solid GM with a manager willing to take a few more chances to win, and you'll start seeing some very solid relievers emerge in a new role: The True Fireman.

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