Monday night I was in my first live chat session, hosted by Phil Mackey of ESPN 1500. Semi-predictably, I settleD into the role of elderly curmudgeon, ala Patrick Reusse, except without the charm. That became especially apparent when the topic of bullpen usage came up.
In 1985, Bill James tackled the changing role of relievers in Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. He noted the changing roleS and predicted further changes. And he was right, as roles became more defined and we saw the rise of the one-inning closer by the 90s. No longer did we see the best relief pitcher enter the game at a critical time early in the game. Their new role was to protect a lead in the ninth inning.
It’s become a hotly debated topic, especially when a game is lost, and I find myself on the opposite side of it than many of my peers. I have no problem with stricter roles in a bullpen, even if that means "saving" the closer for the end of the game. I suspect there are long-term benefits that equal the short-term gain in using them in a more flexible manner:
TwinsGeek: But Mackey, managing a bullpen could be similar to managing any other group of people - they perform best when expectations are set.
Aaron Gleeman: Plenty of setup men seem to do just fine being thrown into all kinds of spots without knowing exactly when and where.
Phil Mackey: Right TwinsGeek, but they'd get used to it.
But Monday night was the first time I really asked myself the question:
TwinsGeek: So do we thing that bullpen's blow MORE games now than they did before 1985? Do we have any evidence of this?
Aaron Gleeman: John, bullpens now also have 3-4 extra pitchers and specialized roles. So you'd expect them to be better, in general.
So let’s do a little back-of-the-napkin analysis today around this. I’m hoping to get a sense whether:
- Have teams become better at winning games with close scores, and did this happen at about the same time as the rise of the closer?
- Is it possible that while saving the "closer" for late innings helps the team preserve late leads that it has had a similar negative impact on leads earlier?
(On caveat – I’m going to skip two years. I’m going to skip 1999 because the site that I’m using doesn’t have any data for 1999. And I’m going to skip 1994 because it was the strike-shortened year. Because of that, I'm not comfortable with the sample data size, because I'm seeing some goofy results. For instance, in 1994 fewer teams could hold a one-run lead going into the eighth than could hold a one-run lead going into the seventh. Think about that for a minute.)
So, how does it look? For year to year comparisons, it’s a little bit of a mess:
Yikes, that's like my EKG during Game 163. It’s hard to see any trends here because the data jumps around a lot. So let’s smooth it a bit by taking the average for every five-year period instead…..
That’s odd. During the late 70s and 80s, bullpens didn’t change very much in protecting a ninth inning lead – that green line is pretty level at first. However, teams got about 5% better at preserving a win in the seventh or eighth inning between 1982 and 1990. That’s a very strange result if, as the theory goes, the best relievers were being moved to work strictly the ninth inning. I’d expect exactly the opposite – a slight uptick for that green line and declines in the red and blue lines.
I’d also feel a lot more comfortable if those lines evened off a bit in the 90s, but instead they decline slightly back to previous levels, except for the eighth inning guy who had a couple of very good years in 2001 and 2002. So there are obvious plenty of other factors impacting these lines. It might be that the previous increase in middle-relief effectiveness had nothing at all to do with the change in usage.
But I think one thing that I don’t see here is relevant. I don’t see any evidence that at any macro-level, the change in bullpen usage that swept through the 80s hurt team’s ability to hold onto one-run leads. We can claim that utilizing a team’s best relievers in this new modern way isn’t particularly smart, but it sure doesn’t look like it spectacularly stupid, either.