Bullpen By Committee – Can It Work?

12 Dec

While hardly a new idea the notion of a bullpen by committee does merit further investigation. Many younger fans forget the closer was an idea really only introduced to baseball about thirty five years ago. It goes without saying the role has evolved, but is a single closer actually the best way to go?

To truly understand the debate between a single closer or bullpen by committee it helps to first understand how the role evolved. Mike Marshall was basically who we could consider the first definitive lights out closer. He was soon followed by the likes Of Rich “Goose” Gossage, Kent Tekulve, Albert “Sparky” Lyle, Bruce Sutter, and Rollie Fingers. These were not simply one inning closers, in fact more often than not they collected their saves over two or more innings. This was still a time when starting pitchers were expected to log innings upwards of 240 per year. With that as a standard, the closer was oft times the starters reliever. Not a replacement for the setup man that replaced the lefty specialist that replaced the short man. Again this was an era when teams regularly got by carrying only ten pitchers.

As we fast forward to the mid 1980’s the closer role became something that was seen as a luxury. Only teams with a wealth of money or talent to acquire a closer or lucky enough to develop one through their system had them. It was becoming increasingly evident though this was the wave of the future. Teams began scrambling in earnest to lay hands on a definitive closer. This is when teams first began taking a look at converting top starting pitchers in their system into closers showing how importantly the games evolution was being taken. The days of relievers being guys considered washed up or simply unable to deliver innings as a starter were gone. Dave Righetti was the first established young top of the rotation type starter to undergo this transition.

Moving ahead another decade the closer was a part of every team. Even the poorest in the league had someone to hang this tag on. It was 1996 that began yet another step in the bullpens usage. This phenomena was called the extended bridge. The Yankees plan of getting just five quality innings from a starter before turning it over to the pen became wildly popular. While many imitated this few duplicated it. In all honesty not many teams had the luxury of using a talent like Mariano Rivera as a setup man to get to a John Wettland. The basic idea behind this was it would save wear and tear on starters arms whom were becoming a rather expensive commodity while allowing the cheaper options in the bullpen to shoulder a large portion of the work. The frequent changes in pitchers with their varying styles and pitch selection was believed to keep hitters off balance. At that time perhaps it was true but maybe it no longer is.

While people will point out that most teams winning World Series titles have that ninth inning hammer such as the Yankees or Red Sox, is it the only or best way to go? Quite simply no. If you are fortunate to have a talent like Rivera, Papelbon, or Hoffman then it makes perfect sense to use them every time out. In the case of Rivera and Hoffman they are the greatest closers of the era and Papelbon appears to be on the way to joining them. If you don’t have that gun loaded and waiting why not go with the pitcher that is the best match up regardless of inning? Ask Met’s fans how they feel seeing Billy Wagner blow one save after the other and then ask yourself if he should always close just because that is his label?

While some argue roles need to be clearly defined for each player this is a rather new phenomena. Remember only a short twenty five or so years ago most teams were using at least limited forms of closer by committee. Teams won championships that way. They still can. It would appear as though specialization is a monster run wild where there are actually pitchers like Graeme Lloyd who were paid multimillion dollar annual deals occupying a roster spot simply to pitch to one left handed hitter two or three times a week. I tend to believe if reliever “A” is the best match up to set down a string of hitters it should be his job to do so whether it be the seventh inning or ninth.

While we tend to think of the sole closer as the only way to go The Diamondbacks, and Reds made their way to World Series titles with the bullpen by committee approach. While it may seem odd to only point out two teams doing so in 20 years as a selling point it does demonstrate it can be done. If they were capable of doing this it points to other teams being able to do so as well if they would break from the accepted current norm and take a chance. If nothing else the versatility of knowing you have multiple players available to come in at any time and situation to close a team down would keep opposing managers guessing the entire game as to how to work their lineup rather than knowing the starter will be followed by a set formula of pitchers for a predetermined number of batters. Baseball got by with a bullpen by committee approach for nearly 90 years. It worked then and it can work now.

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