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Bullpens Newsbeat

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Robothal: What a relief! A’s could use bullpen differently than other teams

The natural question, now that Jim Johnson has thrown five consecutive scoreless innings, is whether the $10 million reliever soon will return to the closer’s role.

Well, what if the Athletics refuse to entertain the notion?

What if they take a wrecking ball to traditional bullpen roles and use their best relievers in the highest-leverage situations, regardless of inning?

If ever there was a general manager who would be willing to defy baseball’s conventional wisdom, it’s Billy Beane.

And if ever there was a team deep enough in dominant relievers to attempt an unorthodox but potentially optimal usage pattern, it’™s the A’s.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m not saying it should happen. I’m just saying that it wouldn’t surprise me if the A’s declined to re-establish Johnson as their closer, alternating him with other relievers in the role instead. ...

To be sure, a one-inning closer who pitches mostly in save situations is not conducive to an optimal bullpen. On the other hand, the creation of an entirely new usage pattern would require not just a strong manager, but also strong-minded relievers.

Melvin might very well be that kind of manager. Gregerson, Doolittle and Johnson might very well be those kinds of relievers. Still, the concept works better in a vacuum. And teams don’t play in a vacuum, not in an age of multi-million-dollar relievers who crave predictability and managers who face immediate 140-character second-guessing after every blown save.

Would the competitive advantage gained from a non-traditional bullpen be worth the potential disruption to so many in uniform? That is a question that not even the most gifted sabermetrician could answer, unless he or she could get inside the head of every reliever and every manager. It would be easy if they all were robots. But they’re not.

Managers get second-guessed plenty as it is—by fans, by reporters and yes, by their GMs. If I were a manager, I’d strive to be less rigid with my bullpen than most. But that’s easy for me to say as I sit here musing at my laptop. It’s a lot more difficult sitting in a dugout, making heat-of-the-moment decisions.

Even free thinkers such as Joe Maddon seem to prefer traditional bullpen management; the Rays invent new closers almost every season, but they do not try to reinvent the role. The Athletics, to this point, have operated in similar fashion. And if they returned to a typical setup—say, Otero and lefty Fernando Abad in the sixth; Doolittle, Gregerson and Cook in the seventh and eighth; Johnson in the ninth—they almost certainly would be quite good (assuming, of course, that Johnson was pitching well enough to reclaim his job).

Indeed, the debate might be more fun in theory than meaningful in reality; Epstein once told Baseball Prospectus that optimal bullpen usage would create only a “small” competitive edge. The Athletics, to be sure, are in a commanding position no matter which approach they take. All of their relievers—even the long man, lefty Drew Pomeranz—are quite good.

JE (Jason Epstein) Posted: April 17, 2014 at 05:14 PM | 9 comment(s)
  Beats: athletics, bullpens, relievers

 

 

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