They Used to Be Called Firemen
How do you spell relief? F-i-r-e-m-e-n. A-c-e R-e-l-i-e-v-e-r-s. C-l-o-s-e-r-s. Call 'em what you want. Heck, spell 'em the way you want. This isn't English 101. It is the Deployment of the Bullpen. The Next Frontier.
Class, we're going to do a case study. No textbooks needed. Let's take a look at last Friday night's game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. I will set the stage for you.
Jeff Weaver started for the Dodgers, had a no-hitter broken up in the sixth, and gave up just three hits and no runs through seven. With one out in the eighth and the Dodgers leading 2-0, pinch hitter Pete Orr singled and moved to third on Rafael Furcal's double. Weaver struck out Marcus Giles and then walked Chipper Jones on four pitches to load the bases.
Weaver had thrown 114 pitches at this point and was clearly laboring. Adam LaRoche, Atlanta's clean-up hitter was due up next. Weaver throws right and LaRoche bats left. Kelly Wunsch, a southpaw, was warming up in the bullpen.
Dodgers manager Jim Tracy left Weaver in and LaRoche crushed a 2-2 offering for a grand slam into the right-field pavillion. Braves 4, Dodgers 2. Tracy replaced Weaver (who threw 119 pitches, his highest total since June 1, 2004, when he served up 125) with Wunsch to face the switch-hitting Johnny Estrada, who promptly singled. Giovanni Carrara was summoned from the bullpen, and he struck out Andruw Jones.
Tracy and Weaver were subsequently bailed out when Milton Bradley slugged a grand slam in the home half of the eighth inning. Yhency Brazoban pitched the top of the ninth and retired the Braves in order, striking out Brian Jordan for the second out and pinch-hitter Julio Franco to end the game.
The Dodgers won the game, 7-4. Carrara, who threw one-third of an inning, was the pitcher of record when Bradley hit the game-winning home run. He got the win to run his record to 4-0 and Brazoban got the proverbial "show up in the ninth inning with a three-run lead and get a save"--his 11th of the season.
According to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, "Tracy defended the decision to stick with Weaver, noting that had he turned to Wunsch, the Braves likely would have countered with PH Julio Franco." What Tracy meant was that he preferred Weaver vs. LaRoche over Wunsch vs. Franco. I don't really agree with that decision myself. LaRoche is a much better hitter than Franco and Weaver was gassed.
"I wasn't going to take Weaver out. Until that point, the hardest hit ball had been a double by Horacio Ramirez . . . he was one pitch away, I wouldn't want anybody to take the ball away from me in that situation."
The decision to leave Weaver in or take him out should have nothing to do with whether Tracy would or wouldn't "want" the ball in that spot. Instead, it should come down to whether Weaver gave the Dodgers the best opportunity to win the game.
Rather than thinking it came down to either Weaver vs. LaRoche or Wunsch vs. Franco, why wasn't Brazoban--the Dodgers' best pitcher in the first month-and-a-half of 2005--an option at that point? Why do you have to stick with a tired starter or go with a LOOGY (which stands for Left-handed One-Out GuY)? I mean, the game was on the line right then and there. Dodgers up 2-0, top of the eighth, bases loaded, and the opposition's #4 hitter coming to bat. This is about as highly leveraged of a situation as you will get.
A manager should want the best pitcher available to him to be in the game for that critical at-bat. A well-rested Brazoban and his 2.03 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning was clearly that man. Another point in favor of using Yhency was knowing that the Dodgers were activating Eric Gagne from the disabled list the following day. Given everything, pushing Brazoban for four outs made all the sense in the world.
But even if Tracy didn't want Brazoban to pitch that much, I would still argue that he is better off using his fireman/ace reliever/closer in the eighth for one batter than having him start the top of the ninth with even a two-run lead but nobody on and facing the bottom half of the order. The Dodgers needed to retire LaRoche with the bases full. Estrada, Jones, and Jordan in the ninth could wait for another pitcher, if need be.
When you call 911, do you expect the fire department to do everything they can to put out your fire, or would you want them to hold back in case they're needed elsewhere?
Managers need to understand the win probability or expectancy when considering pitching changes. Choosing your best reliever to come in and close out an inning during a threat in the seventh or eighth--even if it means using a lesser option in the ninth--is generally a more prudent use of your bullpen than calling upon your so-called closer for the last three outs of the game when nobody is on base.
They used to call these relievers firemen rather than closers. Their job was to put out the fire when needed, not necessarily to literally close out the game.
In the example above, I will say it is easier said than done. To deploy this strategy effectively, a star reliever would need to warm up earlier and more often because his role would be less certain than just getting ready to pitch the final inning. However, there is no reason why Brazoban couldn't have been asked to begin throwing after Furcal doubled. The tying run was on second base, the go-ahead run was at the plate, and the Braves had their second, third, and fourth hitters coming up. After Weaver walked Chipper Jones two batters later, Yhency should have been warm enough to face LaRoche. If not, Tracy could have visited the mound twice, giving his ace that much more time to get ready.
As I pointed out in a recent chat with Jon Weisman at Dodger Thoughts, "I have always been an advocate of using your best relief pitchers in the most highly leveraged situations. Brazoban and Gagne should be used when the game is on the line, no matter the inning. The Dodgers also have the luxury of having one of the best LOOGYs in baseball this year and a couple of decent back of the bullpen guys who could pitch late in a game, if need be."
In recent times, closers have been used less frequently before the ninth inning at critical junctures and in ties late in the game--two of the most highly leveraged situations--and almost exclusively when their team has a one- (good), two- (OK), or three-run (not so good) lead in the ninth. The latter two instances amount to an inefficient use of resources and appear to be driven by the desire on the part of relievers and agents to accumulate saves and by managers unwilling to go against what has sadly become the conventional wisdom.
Getting rid of the save stat would go a long way toward alleviating this problem. Absent that, changing the definition of a save (i.e., the tying or winning run must be at-bat or on-base when a reliever enters the game) would help matters. But save or no save, it should be the responsibility of all managers to use whatever they wish to call their best reliever when the game is on the line, starting as early as the seventh inning. If it means letting these pitchers throw more than one inning, well, that would be a good change, too. Remember, they used to be called firemen.