Friday, May 08, 2009

More Bullpen Stuff

In case you failed to read the comments on my last couple of pieces about relievers, saves, and pitching staff size (in which case: shame on you), EEEEEE! staffer (I refuse to say “former”) David Malbuff responded to (not “former” either) EEEEEE! staffer David Beck’s comment about “Why not have 14-man staffs, all relievers?” David M. says, “I’m on the other side of this one. (Yes, I still exist.) Pick your nine best pitchers and let ’em get all the innings they can handle. Carry three catchers, two guys who can hit coming off the bench, and three utility men.”

That would be fine with me, actually. By now it should be clear that I’m very tired of 12-man pitching staffs (or worse), and the lefty-righty-lefty-righty dance makes me crazy. Also, if the tendency were to leave starters in until they simply could pitch no more (or the game ended), you’d have much more of a “thinking man’s game,” for want of a better expression. Pitchers would “pace themselves,” as they used to—it would be a return to, say, 1960s-brand baseball. You’d see pitchers getting by on guts and brains more than “stuff,” and there wouldn’t be any Jake Peavy Cy Youngs, wherein the winner never sees an eighth inning all season. The only downside would be the destroyed arms, but would that happen any more than it does now?

(The other thing is, the All-Time All-Star Baseball version of Sports Illustrated Baseball had nine pitchers per team—very few of whom were actual relievers….)

Dave (B.) and I had continued the overall discussion in e-mail and, as he points out in his comment here, the idea of a staff full of relievers is something he and I had discussed over the years, probably more than once. I don’t think either of us looks at it as ideal, but sort of the extreme version of the way pitching staffs are now.

In fact, at some point, probably at least 20 years ago, I tried doing the “two or three innings at a time” thing with the baseball game Dave and I had spent years developing. I’m pretty sure I got bored, but hey. Frankly, aesthetics aside, it makes loads of sense, although probably the manager would have to come up with these intricate little mini-rotations, like Casey Stengel’s fabled (i.e., true or not, but “fabled”) complex platoon system with the Yankees lineup.

You may remember that Tony LaRussa tried something like this several years ago, only he had his guys go four innings. Imagine being a starter on that club. Talk about unrewarding.

(Quick aside about LaRussa: He’s also the brain behind batting pitchers eighth occasionally—not that it hadn’t been done before. His rationale involved more RBI opportunities for Mark McGwire. This came up recently because Joe Torre did the same thing in a game against the Giants. This didn’t work out for the Dodgers—imagine my distress—but then, he’d put his number-five starter up against Tim Lincecum, which probably is a good time to perform an experiment like that. The actual distressing part is that Bruce Bochy was quoted as saying he might try that some day. I really hope he doesn’t, because his team will score fewer runs and, I dare say, win fewer ballgames. The pitcher’s spot, over the course of the season, will come to the plate more often than the actual major league hitter in the ninth spot, and that can’t possibly be a good thing. I might well do an Out Of the Park Baseball simulation just to see.)

I’m not advocating this—just thinking aloud—but I think it’d be possible to do the everybody-pitches-two thing with fewer pitchers—say, eight to 10—because everybody would be used to pitching two or three innings a lot. You could have a rotation(ish) like:

Fri Sat Sun Mon
Lincecum Zito Medders Johnson
Johnson Cain Romo Howry
Howry Sanchez Affeldt Affeldt
Affeldt Wilson Wilson Lincecum

And so on. (You know I’m just fantasizing because Sergio Romo’s in the mix.) You could, as much as possible, alternate lefties and righties for each trip through the lineup, and change up styles and such—e.g., backing up Zito’s 85-mile-an-hour fastball and sharp curve with Lincecum’s electric fastball and effective change, then Johnson’s 92 mph fastball and 89 mph slider, then Wilson’s 100 mph fastball and Nen-like slider. Something like that.

Course, that would change offensive strategies a lot, too, and it could be a real chess game, I guess. The logical endpoint, however, probably would be an Offensive Unit, a Defensive Unit, and a specialist pitcher for each of the other team’s batters.

Further, since this is mostly a discussion about relievers, Dave was whining—whenever you complain about a team you like, even a little, that doesn’t do well and which isn’t the Giants, it’s whining; when it’s about the Giants, it’s (a) analyzing, and (b) relevant—about the Angels blowing a 9-4 lead and losing 10-9 to the Yankees, whom Dave may dislike even more than the Dodgers, if such a thing is possible. “No bullpen is this bad,” he whined about the Angels (or I said in analysis of the Giants—as opposed to “in analysis about the Giants,” which, well, let’s not go there).

I am confident that the Angels and their wads of cash will be able to address the situation effectively. As Giants newsgroup vet Jonathan Bernstein has pointed out over the years, the thing with a bullpen is that except for your closer and one or two other guys (like the setup dude, and often not even him), you’re dealing with pretty interchangeable parts. A guy like Doug Henry—remember him?—throws hard, gets guys out nonstop, then breaks down… so you go and find John Johnstone, who’s more or less the same guy, at least until he breaks down, and then you go with… well, whoever—I mean, it didn’t work all that well for the Giants, but still.

Dave said he simply couldn’t think of any team whose bullpen was as atrocious as the Angels had been up to that point. “I cannot see how any team ever could ever have been this bad to have had so many huge leads and blown them in the last two innings,” he said. “Small leads, yes, even moderate leads, maybe.”

Without actually checking, my recollection is that the Giants were about this bad in 1996. It was different, though: they got lit up without regard to the score, really, and since they didn’t take many leads into the late innings, it wasn’t as heartbreaking, at least not in the sense Dave is talking about.

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