(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why is Good Relief Pitching in Such Short Supply?

Anywhere you look, you read that teams are concerned about their bullpens, at least most of them.

Why is that? Two thirds of the players organizations sign are pitchers, who constitute over 40% of a Major League team's roster (assuming a team carries 11 pitchers). Yet, why are relief staffs so tenuous? Last year, going into the season, the Mets had a 'pen that was the envy of baseball. By season's end, that same bullpen had fallen off the table, capped by Jayson Werth's spectacular steals of second and third off a move-less Billy Wagner to give the Phillies a thrilling come-from-behind win, putting a nail in the Mets' coffin. Sure, Duaner Sanchez had been in a cab that got into an accident that caused an injury, and yes Guillermo Mota had to sit out because of the steroids ban, but why do so many bullpens either falter or fail to materialize?

Here are some theories:

1. Overuse early in the season. That certainly happened to the Phillies, whose bullpen got off to a decent start despite injuries to two closers, first Tom Gordon and then Brett Myers. Others filled in, but Charlie Manuel overused Antonio Alfonseca, whose arm was almost falling off by season's end. That overuse almost crippled the Phillies (especially when Gordon and Myers were out), but the team rallied despite a) Ryan Madson's injuring his arm (and he was pitching great at the time) and b) Geoff Geary's temporary loss of his finite control (read: he was throwing too many too-slow pitches over the fat part of the plate). Thereupon, Myers and Gordon got healthy, Geary got his groove back, journeyman Clay Condrey pitched rather well (his over 5.00 ERA was misleading, because he pitched well in 30 of 34 outings -- when he was bad he was terrible), and the team signed lefty J.C. Romero, who proved to be quite a find. Still, overuse of hot pitchers hurts.

2. Failure to select the right pitchers. True, if most relievers were any good, they'd be starters, and they find themselves in the 'pen because they don't have enough good pitches to get through a lineup three times without getting tattooed the second time around. Madson was a failed starter for the Phillies, and Geary was a slow pitcher with excellent control, but he didn't really have an out pitch. The bottom line is that even if pitchers have one wicked pitch, they need to have the right mindset to relieve -- which is to be ready to throw at a moment's notice and to be able to handle either pitching an inning three days straight or not pitching for four straight games before getting back in. This seems rather obvious, but I felt the point needed to be made -- selecting people with the right mentality.

3. Injuries. Part of it stems from overuse, part of it stems from bad mechanics or bad luck. Whatever the reason, some guys get hurt (throwing is an unnatural motion, throwing breaking balls is even more unnatural), and that's why 2/3 of the guys you sign are pitchers.

Still, those explanations beg the question why bullpens are repeatedly iffy. Why can't teams find legions of Scott Linebrinks, set-up men who throw pretty well for years in a row? Why doesn't this happen? And, when one emerges, why is it not expected for him to succeed for a decade?

You figure that the Lords of Baseball spend so much money on everything that some team might have taken a crack at beginning to solve the problem, if not solving it completely. But it seems to me that no one has, and that there have to be reasons besides overuse, picking the wrong guys or injuries.

Unless, of course, it's a crap shoot, so it's all about picking the right guys. After over 100 years of trial and error, you think that some "Moneyball" type -- say the Baseball Prospectus people -- would have numbers that show the way to find the right relievers.

The mystery, though, remains.

And that's perhaps why we have compelling stretch drives most years.