The Closer By Committee

October 25, 2012

                It’s been ten years; maybe I can get by with writing this article now, without making too many headlines.

                In 2003 the Red Sox had a regrettable bullpen experience.   Almost nothing that has been written about this experience is accurate, and, due to my own involvement in the mess, it has always been my judgment that the best course of action was just to stay silent about it.   Some things you can only talk about when nobody cares about them anymore.   With the passage of time, perhaps this subject has cooled down to where we can talk about it?

                First of all, I have never advocated a Closer by Committee—not in any book, not in any memo, not in any speech, not in private communication, not inside the Red Sox organization, not outside of it, not anywhere.    Not only have I never advocated a Closer by Committee directly, but I have never advocated any vaguely similar idea.   Nothing I have ever written is correctly understood as advocating a Closer by Committee.  

                The first step in the Closer by Committee debacle was that the Red Sox management decided to try to save money in the bullpen.    In 2002 the Red Sox’ Closer was Ugueth Urbina, who saved 40 games and was fairly effective, although he had also blown six saves.   The Red Sox paid Ugueth $6.7 million that year to pitch 60 innings--$110,000 an inning, plus change.   More to the point, in 2002 the Red Sox starting pitchers had a won-lost record of 78-47 with a 3.53 ERA.   The bullpen had a record of 15-22 with a 4.25 ERA—and yet we had paid the bullpen far more, per inning pitched, than we had paid the starting pitchers.    This didn’t seem to make sense.    A decision was made that the bullpen was the place where we could spend a little bit less money.   Not saying it was right; not saying it was wrong.   That was the decision that was made.

                We decided to spend our money on hitters.   We brought in hitters—truckloads of hitters.   Kevin Millar, Billy Mueller, David Ortiz, Todd Walker, some other guys.   On the whole, that strategy worked OK, I think.   We haven’t been asked to apologize for that.

                We had to let Ugueth walk, then, and there wasn’t space in the budget to acquire another Closer.    We did, however, sign or re-sign several relatively inexpensive relievers.   We signed Mike Timlin, Ramiro Mendoza and Chad Fox, re-signed Alan Embree.    We still had Bobby Howry, who had saved 28 games for Chicago in 1999, and had pitched 67 games at a fairly decent level in 2002. None of them earned more than $3 million 2003, and much of what they did earn was in incentives; they were mostly operating on a base salary of $500,000 to $1.5 million.  Because we had signed so many relievers and had let Urbina go, people started asking us, "Who is your closer now?   Is Alan Embree your Closer now?    Is Mike Timlin your Closer now?  Is Chad Fox going to be your Closer?"

                To be frank, we didn’t know.   On paper, we seemed to have a pretty good and very deep bullpen with a lot of quality veteran relievers, but we didn’t know who the Closer was.

                I don’t believe that anyone in our office ever proposed that we should use a Closer by Committee.    I joined the Red Sox front office in October, 2002.    I never heard anyone in that office advocate for a Closer by Committee or describe what we were doing as a Closer by Committee.     I think that what happened was, we were asked repeatedly who the Closer was, and, since we didn’t know, when somebody in the press suggested that we might have a Closer by Committee, somebody in our system said, "Yes."   Whether it was Grady Little who said "Yes" or Theo or somebody else. . ..I don’t know.    But I think that’s what happened.

                Were we really intending to use a Closer by Committee?   Well. . .no; it’s not a yes or no question, but "no" is more accurate than "yes".    You have to understand how a front office works:  different people have different evaluations of the talent.    I think most of us were hoping that Chad Fox would be healthy.   Fox had had a 1.89 ERA in 65 games just one season earlier, striking out 80 batters and giving up 44 hits for Milwaukee in 2001.   He had been injured in 2002, but if he had been able to get back close to that level, he would have been our Closer.

                You don’t want to say that, however, because you’ve got several other relievers who would also really like to be the Closer and earn the Big Bucks.    You don’t want to tell Bobby Howry that you’re not hoping HE will step up, you’re hoping this other guy will step up.    Most of us figured that Grady would at some point, spring training or later on, designate a Closer.   In the meantime, it seemed safer to allow the press to prattle about a Closer by Committee than for us to wade into the discussion and annoy the manager and annoy the rest of the bullpen by anointing one of their number as the Chosen Closer.

                That was the third step in this debacle:   1) We decided to save money in the bullpen, 2) We signed several inexpensive relievers, and 3) Somebody in our organization directly or implicitly Okayed the use of the term "Closer by Committee".

                The fourth thing that happened, within a month of the third, was that my name became associated with the strategy.   This happened, from my standpoint, mostly as a result of two more-or-less simultaneous articles, written by Alex Speier and John Tomase.   Alex and John are good guys, both of them, and they certainly were not attempting to cause trouble for me by doing this.   They were more trying to be my advocates, I think, than trying to be my accusers.    They looked through my books for anything that I had written that seemed to advocate the strategies that the Red Sox were implementing.  There isn’t anything there that advocates a CbyC, but there were some things I had written that, taken out of context and put into the context of the CbyC debate, could be misread as advocating the strategy.

                Such as?

                I had written about getting more out of your relief ace by getting him away from the "Closer" role.  Particularly in that era, but still today, the Closer often pitches what is, in reality, a low-leverage inning.     If you’re up 5-2 going into the 9th inning, your chance of winning the game is greater than 95%.    The impact of a run allowed at that moment is relatively low, compared to the impact of a run allowed at some unknown moment in the game.    Using the closer to pitch THAT inning, as opposed to asking him to pitch when the game is tied, is an inefficient use of a costly resource.    If you’re up TWO runs going into the 9th inning, that is not a high-leverage situation, either; it’s higher-leverage than three runs, but it’s not the stuff that legends are made of.

                There are logical problems with this argument as well, which we will get to later in the article.    But first, let me point out:

1) That this can much more plausibly be presented as an argument AGAINST the Closer by Committee concept than as an argument in favor of it, and

2) That this argument in fact had nothing whatsoever to do with the Red Sox decision making in the winter of 2002-2003.  

I’ve been a baseball writer a long time; I’ve written about everything that you can write about in baseball, pretty much.   We don’t spend our days, in the Red Sox front office, re-reading all this stuff.   There wasn’t ANY connection AT ALL between these comments and the decisions not to re-sign Ugueth Urbina and not to pursue a big-dollar alternative to him.

My comments were, in essence, about how to get as much mileage as you can out of your best reliever; in the terms familiar to us now, although not then, I was writing about how to maximize his leverage index.    Using a Closer By Committee is certainly not a way to maximize the leverage index of your best reliever.   It is much more likely that it will reduce the leverage index of your best reliever—thus, it’s an argument against the Closer By Committee.    But that didn’t matter, either, because, in fact, no one had ever made any connection between this argument and the Closer by Committee until Alex or Alex and John postulated that there was some such connection.

I let that pass without comment, and I hope you’ll understand; I let it pass without comment for obvious reasons.    In general I do not comment on whatever is said about me.   I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth with the media about comments like that.   Those are negative interactions most of the time; the press will think that I’m criticizing what they’ve said, even if I’m not, and also, it makes the discussion about me.    I’m happy to discuss ideas, happy to discuss sabermetrics, happy to discuss the Boston Red Sox or the 1968 Detroit Tigers.   When people start talking about me, I let it pass.

Once my name was attached to the strategy, however, it became a target for some people to shoot at.   Not everybody in the media loves Bill James, you might be surprised to learn.   Some people are rooting for me to fail; a great many people are rooting for me to succeed, and God bless you every one, but the bleachers on the other side of the court are not entirely empty.   Once my name was attached to the Closer by Committee, it became a controversial strategy, and some people were rooting for it to fail.

And fail it did.   Massively.

  • On opening day of the 2003 season, the Red Sox in Tampa Bay, the Red Sox went into the bottom of the 9th with a 4-1 lead.   Alan Embree gave up a single, a homer, and a single.   Chad Fox got two outs but then gave up a walk and another homer.   We lost, 6-4.
  • In the second game of the season we were up 8-6 going into the bottom of the eighth.   Bobby Howry gave up a single and a homer, and the game went into extra innings, although the Red Sox eventually won it.
  • In the fifth game of the season, playing Baltimore, we went into the bottom of the 9th with an 8-3 lead.    Ramiro Mendoza gave up six hits and four runs, and the Red Sox escaped with a one-run victory.
  • In the sixth game, Pedro Martinez pitched eight sterling innings, and the game was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.    Chad Fox walked in the losing run with one out.
  • In the eighth game, although the bullpen was never presented with a lead, they gave up three more runs in two and two-thirds innings, denying the offense a fair chance to come back and win the game.
  • In the tenth game of the season the Red Sox led 8-4 going into the bottom of the ninth.   Mike Timlin gave up three runs, and the Red Sox escaped with another one-run victory.

The Red Sox haven’t even gotten to Fenway Park yet, and the bullpen has had SIX meltdowns.   In Game 13, finally back in Fenway, the Red Sox led 5-1 through seven innings.   Ramiro Mendoza gave up four runs without getting an out.

Did the Closer by Committee strategy fail, or did the relievers fail?    Was this a strategic failure that might reasonably be blamed on Grady Little or whatever idiot had come up with the Closer by Committee label, or did these failures belong more to Chad Fox, Ramiro Mendoza, Bobby Howry, Alan Embree and Mike Timlin?    It doesn’t matter.   The strategy can’t succeed if the pitchers fail.   Once the bullpen exploded, the strategy was blown up.

Once the strategy had failed, I had no option except to stand there and take my shots.   There was absolutely nothing that I could say that was going to make it any better.    Three points:

1)  When you are in an organization and the organization is struggling, you absolutely cannot run around saying, "It’s not me.   It’s not me that’s failing, it’s the other guys."

2)  If in fact I wanted to disassociate myself from the Closer By Committee concept, the time to do that was before it had failed, not while it was failing.  Since I had been silent about the issue before the bullpen started surrendering mass quantities of runs, I could hardly try to get out of the battle while the bullets were flying.

3)  We had, in fact, made a very serious mistake.    Whether that mistake was failing to designate a Closer or whether it was deciding to save money in the bullpen or whether it was signing Ramiro Mendoza or whether it was gambling on Chad Fox to come back from an injury. . .what difference does that make?

When you’re running a team, you have to take responsibility for what happens.   Trying to get the public to understand exactly how you screwed up is the very definition of a fool’s errand.

Besides. ..point four. .. I always understood something.   I always knew that the Red Sox had a great team.   If people exaggerated my role in the failures of the team—which they did—wouldn’t that, by implication, exaggerate my role in the successes of the team?   I couldn’t be responsible only for the failures, could I?

It was like people were throwing rocks at me, not realizing that it was raw gold.   I knew this team was good.   If you want to put it on my shoulders. . .hey, I’m good with it.   Pile it on, brother.    It wasn’t worrying me none.

Eventually the Closer by Committee fiasco rebounded to my advantage within the Red Sox organization, not for that reason but for this one.   First, people within the organization—the people who counted—knew for an absolute fact that the association between the Closer by Committee and myself was an invention of the media.   Second, organizations need people who can take the heat when things go wrong.   At times, that was most of my value to the Red Sox:  that I was somebody who could stand in front of the king’s wagon and take the cobblestones without bitching about it.

That’s one of the many things that went wrong with the Red Sox in 2012:  too many people couldn’t take the heat.    Buddy, if you’re going to play in Boston, you’ve got to take the heat.    I’m not knocking on Bobby, but that’s part of what Terry was so good at.    I remember one time Pedro bolted from a spring training game in the middle of the game, and Terry said, "Oh, that’s my fault; I forgot to explain that rule."   Believe me, everybody knew what the rule was.   Terry was a heat shield for his players—the ones he liked, and the ones he didn’t.    And, to a much lesser extent, of course, I like to think that I was a heat shield for some of those around me.

                Let’s go back to the issue itself now, the rights and wrongs of bullpen usage.   Even though my old ideas from fifteen years ago may have had nothing to do with the Closer by Committee, those ideas may still have been right, and they may still have been wrong.    Were there things I was wrong about, things that I didn’t understand back then?

                Well. …yeah, there were some things.   I’ll get to them in a minute.   There is a narrative about the failure of the Closer by Committee that goes like this. . .pretend you are hearing Tim McCarver.     It takes a special person to handle the pressure of being The Closer.  It’s one thing to get outs in the 7th inning when you’re three runs behind.   It’s another thing to be out there on the mound when every man who gets on first is potentially going to cost your team the ballgame.   You’re going to lose the game for your team sometimes.   You have to shake it off and come back the next day and get people out.   Not everybody can handle that.

                To me, that argument is insulting to the players.   I have known very few major league athletes who couldn’t handle the pressure of failing sometimes.

                I reject that argument because I don’t like the argument, but I also reject it because I don’t think it’s generally true.   It’s true sometimes.   There are probably some pitchers who have difficulty with the psychological pressures of pitching constantly in game situations.   I didn’t believe ten years ago, and I don’t believe now, that this is why the Closer by Committee failed.

                As my friend Sam Reich used to say, "If you can pitch in the sixth inning you can pitch in the ninth inning."    But here’s what I really did not understand ten years ago, starting with the broader subject of the sprinter vs. the middle distance runner.  You can run a lot faster in a short sprint than you can run if you are running two or three miles. For the exact same reasons, most pitchers are more effective when they’re throwing 20 pitches in an outing than when they’re trying to throw 130 pitches.     Actually, they’re a lot more effective.  

                It is a simple point with far-reaching implications.    Seventy years ago, I don’t believe that anyone in baseball understood this difference or understood the full implications of it.    It may be that the first person who truly got the implications of this was Casey Stengel, in making a short-outing reliever out of Ryne Duren.

                In 1956, pitching for Vancouver in the Pacific Coast League, Ryne Duren struck out 183 batters in 205 innings.   Not a bad strikeout rate, but pitching for the Yankees in 1958 and 1959 (combined), Duren struck out 183 batters in 151 innings.    When he pitched fewer innings his strikeout rate shot up, even though he was pitching against better hitters.

                As a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, Dick Radatz had ERAs of 3.04, 3.69, 3.79, and 3.50.   Moved to the bullpen in 1961 at Seattle, his ERA dropped to 2.28, and he was on his way toward becoming The Monster. 

                The obvious implication of this is that some pitchers who are not very fast in a two-mile run can run really fast in a sprint.   Therefore, you can get more innings of quality work from more pitchers if you just ask them for a sprint.  

                While the implications of this may seem obvious, it took baseball generations and generations to overcome the resistance to it.    I might argue, radically, that even now we have barely started to overcome the resistance to it.   We still would prefer, if we can, to have one pitcher pitch seven innings—the same mindset that gave baseball, for many years, a preference for distance runners rather than sprinters.    We still are not at the point where we are comfortable turning the pitching staff into a series of sprints, rather than a two-mile run with a couple of sprints at the finish line.  

                When I was writing the things that I wrote about relievers ten or fifteen years ago, I either did not understand this sprinter/distance runner dichotomy at all, or I had not come to terms with its implications. Sparky Anderson understood it in the 1970s; Whitey Herzog understood it in the 1980s; Tony LaRussa understood it in the 1990s.   The rest of us have struggled to come to terms with it.

                Closers are sort of "super-sprinters" who come into the game when the finish line is so close that you can smell it.    There are advantages that go with being a reliever, as opposed to a starter, and there are advantages that go with being a Closer, as opposed to a piss-ant reliever.   (My text editor is trying to change "piss-ant" to "puissant."  I don’t even know what "puissant" means.)  Anyway, the Closer is in a unique position because, more than anyone else, he knows when he will be coming into the game.   He can manipulate his adrenaline flow, his heart rate and his metabolism to peak at the moment when he is called on.    He can take a nap in the 3rd and 4th innings, stir around in the 5th, play a little light toss in the 6th, stretch in the 7th, do some calisthenics in the 8th, and be ready to fire in the 9th.    Nobody else can do that.

                Also, the Closer has a more regular schedule than any other reliever.   If he has pitched the last two days in a row, he’s given the third day off (usually).   He knows he has the day off; the manager will tell the press that he probably is not available.    He won’t usually be asked to pitch three innings because the team needs him to.   If he hasn’t worked for a couple of days, he will be given the opportunity to get an inning’s work in even if the team doesn’t need him to.

                Other relievers are given these benefits as the opportunity allows the manager to bestow them, but Closers have priority on them.  This makes Closers different.

                Because they are different, some of them are super-effective.   Records are broken all the time, but there will never be a miler who runs as fast as Usain Bolt.  There are no starting pitchers in history—none—who are effective as Mariano Rivera or Jonathon Papelbon, adjusting for the era and the context.   Because they are sprinting only when they are perfectly prepared for a sprint (overstating it a little), those guys reach a level of effectiveness that no starting pitcher is ever going to match, even Verlander or Pedro Martinez.    Papelbon’s career strikeout rate, per batter faced, is a whopping 32% higher than Verlander’s.

                If I had understood this ten years ago, when people were talking about the Red Sox using a Closer by Committee, I would have been running around yelling "Wait a minute!  Hold on, here!"   I didn’t do that.   I take responsibility for that.    If I knew then what I know now, I would have been an active opponent of the Closer by Committee concept.

                This also reflects on the validity of the ideas that I did express years ago, about maximizing the leverage of the Closer.    You can’t maximize the leverage of the Closer without taking away the advantages that the Closer has in terms of sprinting to the finish line.   Some of what I wrote was invalid because of that.

                There is one more misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the Closer By Committee that I would like to quash while we are here.    People writing about it in retrospect will often say something like the Red Sox bullpen had cost us dearly that season, or that the Red Sox bullpen had lost many games during the season, or something like that.  In point of fact—just by dumb luck, not for any real reason—but just by dumb luck, the actual cost in games of our poor bullpen performance in 2003 was very, very small. 

                I’m not saying our bullpen wasn’t bad.   It was awful.   But it almost never caught up with us.    You remember that series of horrible bullpen performances in the first thirteen games of the season?   Right, but do you know what our record was after thirteen games?   It was 8-5.  After 18 games we were 13-5.

                The Red Sox in 2003 had 21 Blown Saves—about an average number.   The Yankees had Mariano Rivera, saving 40 games with a 1.66 ERA; they had 18 Blown Saves.    Eddie Guardado saved 41 games for the Twins, who won their division; they had 19 Blown Saves.   The Royals had 29 Blown Saves that season and finished over .500, the Indians had 26, Tampa Bay 25, Baltimore 21.   The league average was 19 and a half.

                But the difference was, most of our Blown Saves (in 2003) came in games that we eventually won.    Our bullpen led the league in Relief Wins (30).   Of course, you don’t want your bullpen to lead the league in Wins, but you’d a lot rather have them leading the league in Wins than leading the league in Losses.    If you look at Blown Saves leading to Losses, I’ll bet we were near the bottom of the league.

                There were two games in the first two weeks that Ramiro Mendoza walked to the mound with a four-run lead or bigger, and gave up four runs quicker than a pig can fart.   But we won both games.   In the second game of the season Bobby Howry gave up a two-run lead in the ninth—but we won the game in extra innings.   That was the way it was most of the year; our bullpen was terrible, but just not quite bad enough to lose the game for us.   We were 26-16 in one-run games, and 11-5 in extra innings.  

                Our bullpen was terrible until September; in September it was sensational, with an ERA around 1.00.    Still, our bullpen ERA for the season was 4.83.   Nobody is claiming that’s a good number or that it’s not important; it was just a fluke thing, that it really cost us very little.

               

                Look, in the big picture it doesn’t matter whether people think I was responsible for the CbyC or not, and I don’t really care.   The press has always been fair to me.  More than fair; generous.    I’ve no complaint about anything that has ever been written about me.   I’m not going to be able to "set the record straight" on this issue, and I’m not going to get frustrated about the fact that I can’t.   I went through those feelings 30 years ago.   Ten years from now, people are still going to be asking me why I favor a Closer by Committee.   There is really nothing I can do to change that. 

                But among you there are a few baseball historians, and there are a great many younger people, some of whom who will be writing books about baseball history when Grady Little and me are six feet under and Theo still isn’t talking about it.   I thought I owed it to you, at some point, to explain what had really happened.   The Closer by Committee wasn’t Grady’s idea, it wasn’t Theo’s idea, and it wasn’t mine.   Like the Great Fire of Chicago and the tilt in the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it wasn’t anybody’s plan for this to happen.   It wasn’t anybody’s idea; it was just something that happened.

 
 

COMMENTS (27 Comments, most recent shown first)

bjames
1) JB Dominicano is conflating two almost entirely unrelated stories--the Bullpen by Committee fiasco, a story which essentially ended in July of 2003, and the Grady Little blunder, which occurred in October of 2003. The Grady Little blunder had nothing at all to do with this story.

2) Responding to CWright, one point in favor and one against. I have pointed this out before, but it is still true: that the use of the bullpen has never in baseball history reached anything resembling a stable consensus. The way that bullpens are constructed and used now is radically different from the way they were constructed and used in 2002--and 2002 is very different from 1992, 1992 is completely different from 1982, 1982 wholly and absolutely different from 1972, etc., etc. We have never reached a point at which managers were content to rest with the dominant strategies. The fact that this continues to evolve and continues to evolve forcefully and radically certainly suggests that we have not yet arrived at anything like a point of optimal effectiveness--thus, that whatever we are doing now is not "right"; it is merely today's experiment, which will be washed away tomorrow.

3) But using Rollie Fingers, 1975, to substantiate a counterclaim? Really? Rollie Fingers in 1975 did not remotely approach the levels of effectiveness of Rivera, year after year, or Papelbon or Gagne. Fingers had a 2.98 ERA in a league with a 3.78 ERA in a park with a Park Factor of 92. The fact that he placed third in the Cy Young vote has more to do with the silliness of a couple of Cy Young voters than it has to do with the effectiveness of Rollie Fingers.

12:32 PM Nov 24th
 
jbdominicano
Well, people think that the bullpen was awful that year because of the way things finished: Grady Little not pulling Pedro before debacle because not having confidence in his bullpen. A movement costly for Little because he was fired a few days after...
8:45 PM Nov 12th
 
Cooper
I wondered if the Rockies weren't also looking for 9 sprinters (ok- maybe 5 or 6) with their attempt at setting up their rotation in a differing way. I would think the way things are going -someone is gonna have 6 or 7 sprinters -use them with regular work and pray they don't get crucified for doing it.

I thought maybe a bad team would try it, but in doing so the chances of success go way down (see 2012 Rockies). Somewhere out there i think we'll see 3 starters who go 3 innings and 9 sprinters....maybe with a 14 man staff or good use of bringing up players. Heck, it happens in the minor leagues and spring training on a regular basis. Are we that far from such a thing? Who gets first mover advantage? Who gets the reward of watching the first mover go down in flames while the 2nd mover (the cat bird seat) gets to learn from mistakes made?
11:53 PM Nov 5th
 
Brock Hanke
The "closer by committee" term dates back to at least the 1985 Cards, when Whitey Herzog got tagged with it (as if you all don't know this). He didn't like it any more than Bill does, but didn't have full faith in any of his relievers. Then someone at AAA told him that a kid named Todd Worrell was failing as a starter because his fastball lost about 5 mph after his third inning out there. Whitey had Worrell converted to a closer and that was the end of the committee. This cost him in Game Six of the World Series, when he had Worrell out there with Dane Iorg, who couldn't do anything except cream righty fastballs, coming up to pinch hit. Ricky Horton, a master of lefty slop, was ready in the bullpen, but Worrell was the "closer." Two RBI later, game over.

I also wonder whether the unending string of relievers we see now isn't related to the "sprinter" concept. It seems like everyone's middle relievers can all hit at least 95 on the radar gun; I wonder if that's because they are able to "sprint", throwing as hard as they can for their inning or two. That's at least some sort of reason for all the pitching changes.

There is a practical limit to using a sequence of sprinters. I asked Tony LaRussa once why he had given up on his three pitchers / three innings each concept in Oakland. He said that no one, especially his aces, was willing to start, because a starter has to pitch five innings to get a win. No one, regardless of their ERA, wanted to negotiate a contract based on 54 starts with a 0-12 won-lost record. So, unless the rules change, you're going to have to have a rotation that can handle five IP per start.
3:29 AM Nov 2nd
 
CWright
RE: Schneider's concern

You only need clairvoyance if you need perfection to justify moving away from the emphasis on using your best pitcher to close a game.

You only need logic to realize that if your couch is on fire and threatening to burn down your house, that the odds favor the wisdom of using your fire extinguisher rather than saving it on the chance that you MIGHT have a bigger fire later.

Also, in regard to Marc's concern that if a lesser pitcher messes up the 9th inning, then you have less time to make it up -- it is also true that a lesser pitcher in that situation has less time to mess it up. We have had a surprising number of minor league free agents who have shown they could protect a lead fairly well in the 9th inning. It's really not that hard, and it is a shame to constantly assign that fairly easy task to a high quality reliever who might better serve his teams in the "ace fireman" role of the old days.

9:59 PM Nov 1st
 
Marc Schneider
A lot of bullpen usage makes no sense, such as not using the closer on the road in a tie game because you are waiting to get a lead. And, of course, you may end up losing by leaving your best pitcher on the bench.

But, it seems to me that the issue of using closers (ostensibly your best relief pitcher) in an earlier leverage situation is more complex than many think. For example, let's say you have a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning with runners on base and you bring in the closer to get out of the jam, thus (at least under current usage) making him unavailable for later innings. Then, you have lesser pitchers pitching in later innings; if one of those pitchers fails later, you have fewer innings to make up the runs. So, perhaps it makes sense to save your best pitcher for the later innings, granting the possibility that you blow the game earlier (or, conversely, that your team scores a lot of runs late so that the 9th inning doesn't matter.) It sort of requires the manager to be clairvoyant about whether a given situation earlier in the game will be the most high leverage.


9:42 AM Nov 1st
 
CWright
I think the article makes a very questionable leap from the reality of some pitchers being well suited to short relief outings as being an argument for designated closers. Bill sees them as "... sort of 'super-sprinters' who come into the game when the finish line is so close that you can smell it." I am utterly unconvinced that the use of "super-sprinters" is best tied to closing games as opposed to using them to defuse the most dangerous situations regardless of whether it is a closing situation.

In regard to the advantage of the regular work given to "closers," I do not see the difficulty in getting a short reliever regular work while seeking out critical situations as opposed to just closing situations.

The argument about manipulating "adrenaline flow, heart rate, etc" by knowing when you are pitching the 9th is more creative than convincing that it has significant value. Is such manipulation even possible? And think of all the great middle relievers who managed to get by without that luxury. In 1996, middle reliever Mariano Rivera made 14 appearances in the 6th inning, 20 in the seventh inning, 20 in the 8th inning, and 6 in the 9th or later. All he did was have one of the greatest seasons of his career. Now think of the great ace relievers of old who were not so firmly bound to closing situations. Rollie Fingers pitched great in relief in 1975. He had the second lowest hit rate of his career and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Yet he came into the 9th inning only about a third of the time (26 of 75 appearances). Goose Gossage also had a lot of great years like that. I'm not saying I can prove that it is not a meaningful factor, but I also don't see the logic for suggesting that it is.

In the end it comes down to this. Limiting your best reliever to closing games is logically a poor use of that resource. I need convincing evidence to give it my endorsement, and I've never come close to finding it or having it presented to me.

6:29 PM Oct 31st
 
Jefreee
Enjoyed reading this. I'm wondering if we'll ever see a day where teams, or even one team, have a staff of pitchers who only pitch 2-3 innings per outing.

I guess that's a long time down the road.

Part of it would have to be pitchers worrying too much about who would be credited with Wins under those circumstances.
1:01 PM Oct 30th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I realize this is a bunch of defensive-sounding bullshit, coming from you, but coming from me, it's okay: I think you just got unlucky. No-name relievers have good years all the time, and you could have easily had good seasons by a few you pulled out of nowhere, and they could have had an especially good April instead of an especially good September. Relievers for decades had spectacular years not knowing if they were going to pitch the 9th or the 8th or be asked to start a game at the last minute, and I just can't buy that a guy will play well if he knows the inning he'll play but NOT whether he'll pitch at all that day. Your idea may have died, but it was killed by bad luck most of all.​
4:36 PM Oct 29th
 
gerryi
for goodfriend.. i too hate hearing about "the curse" and i blame dan shaughnessy for it. at least i dont recall ever hearing that until his book came along
1:07 PM Oct 27th
 
LesLein
I have a related issue. It's more about "sprints" than closer by committee.

In game 5 of the NLDS Gio Gonzalez struggled with his control in the fifth inning. I agreed with the decision to replace him. What didn't entirely make sense was that Johnson brought in a different reliever to start every inning (sprints). When writing about the 1985 World Series Bill James wrote that most managers don't like to change pitchers a lot, because eventually you stumble across one who has a bad day.

Now the conventional wisdom appears to favor sprints. But I'm still wondering if Johnson should have stuck with one of the early relievers for a couple of innings. For example, Jackson looked good after first allowing two hits and a run. I might have been tempted to hold on to Jackson for dear life as long as he had good stuff.

Of course, Johnson's approach almost worked. And Drew Storen was the regular closer.
12:32 PM Oct 27th
 
shthar
Good article.

Unfortunately History isn't what happened, it's what people THINK happened.

So you'll probably still be the CBC guy a hundred years from now.
2:31 AM Oct 27th
 
mauimike
Good article, Mr. James. Your usual mixture of facts, numbers, reasoning and opinions. Then in the comment section you went off the rails and brought religion into it. Religion is about belief for good or bad and perhaps ugly. (I think a Mormon priest is called a Morbid). While we're on the subject of belief, do you still believe that Secret Service Agent, George Hickey, shot JFK, with his AR-15, by accident?
12:16 AM Oct 27th
 
bjames
Repeating my earlier post, but I just thought of a better way to phrase it. If I were to say that Mitt Romney's religious faith was a fine thing, and that I liked him rather more because of it as opposed to less, this would not make me a Mormon, let alone making me a Mormon priest. I've been portrayed as the priest of the Closer by Committee concept. I was trying to say that that's just not right. It's not accurate. My having on some occasions expressed tolerance for the concept does not make it accurate.
7:14 PM Oct 26th
 
bjames
Responding to Michael. . ..yes, saying that we did fail to communicate would be one way to handle it. We clearly had a failure, and I hope it is clear that I'm not trying to dodge responsibility for that failure. Trying to figure out exactly WHAT the failure was ...if Chad Fox had had a 1.89 ERA, there would never have been a failure. If Ramiro Mendoza had pitched as well for us as he had for the Janquis, there would never have been a failure. I think the best interpretation of the failure is that the pitchers we signed were not as good as we thought they were. But anyone else's interpretation is as valid as mine.

Responding to "those". ...surely you understand that there is a difference between tolerance for a concept, and advocacy of it. Let us say that I might have a person in my family who is a Scientologist or a Mormon or a Holy Roller, and I might say that I love them and that their religion has been a wonderful thing for them. Is this the same as advocating Scientology, or advocating Mormonism, or advocating snake-handling or whatever?

Hardly. It is too long steps away. The first long step is embracing the religion FOR ONESELF--that is, becoming a Mormon. The second long step is advocating that religion FOR OTHERS.

If I were to say that I think Mitt Romney's religion is a fine thing for him, would that make me a Mormon priest (or pastor, or whatever the hell a Mormon holy man is called?)
6:35 PM Oct 26th
 
Michael
Great article Bill, thanks.


It seems the basic problem was that management made a decision to not communicate, communicate in full.



In this case communicate that "frankly, you did not know who the closer was".
2:07 PM Oct 26th
 
tangotiger
those: it seems to me that when talking about the 1990 Pirates, with a team that had no obvious star relief pitcher, it doesn't make sense to annoint one. So, we can support the "closer by committee" if that's all you have to work with.

I'm sure Bill doesn't support platooning at every position, but if all you have are equally talented players, then platooning them would be an effective solution.

But, I'm sure Bill can explain himself better.

The ideal setup in the bullpen is to have a GREAT deal of variance of talent. That's how you can leverage things. It doesn't make sense to have two RHH catchers. It doesn't help if all five of your OF are RHH. The more variance, then the more you can leverage that.

But if all you have are five guys in the bullpen, all that look the same, then closer-by-committe is a good idea.
1:02 PM Oct 26th
 
mskarpelos
Last month I asked you whether Bochy's use of the bullpen by committee in the aftermath of Wilson's Tommy John surgery and Casilla's blister problems corresponded to how you envisioned using a bullpen. You gave the somewhat vague reply, "Well, no, your understanding isn't correct. It's always been my view that there are different optimal strategies with different assemblages of talent." Now I understand why you gave me a vague answer, and I very much appreciate your willingness to write in more detail about the topic. It was definitely worth the wait. Thanks.
12:50 PM Oct 26th
 
meandean
Bill, I've been hoping for a long time that you'd give us a peek behind the curtain on this... fantastic stuff.

I don't think there's any doubt that what you say is true: that treating the closer in the current manner maximizes the performance of the closer.

My questions would be:

- As you say, the closer has priority on various benefits. That helps him, but does it hurt the other guys in the pen? If the schedule and workload of Joba Chamberlain/David Robertson/etc. are devoted to making sure Mariano Rivera is Superman, does that negatively affect their pitching? Also, there's the issue you refer to when discussing not wanting to prematurely declare Fox the closer. Is it undesirable psychologically to have one reliever who is The Guy and paid like it, while the other relievers are not?

(I suppose the obvious response to the schedule/workload part of that is what in fact seems to be happening: define *everyone's* roles. i.e., you don't just have a 9th inning guy, you have an 8th inning guy and a 7th inning guy, too. But at that point, what are you sacrificing in terms of the ability to get the best matchups?)

- Perhaps more importantly, isn't the issue of how to maximize your closer's performance inextricably tied with when he's being used? If bringing in your closer with a three-run lead in the ninth is like using your best lawyer to negotiate fire insurance, isn't it almost even worse if you've set up your entire system with the goal of making that guy super-duper-mega good at negotiating fire insurance? I know you're not claiming here that the save rule perfectly coincides with the ideal times to use your closer, but I'd love to see the two strands brought together...
10:48 AM Oct 26th
 
those
First of all, I have never advocated a Closer by Committee—not in any book, not in any memo, not in any speech, not in private communication, not inside the Red Sox organization, not outside of it, not anywhere. Not only have I never advocated a Closer by Committee directly, but I have never advocated any vaguely similar idea. Nothing I have ever written is correctly understood as advocating a Closer by Committee.

Bill, in the Baseball Book 1991, in the Bill Landrum comment, you wrote the following:

"Leyland didn't use a closer last year, using all five relievers in save situations. Actually, eight pitchers had saves for the Pirates last year.

"I like Leyland's arrangement, and wouldn't suggest that Landrum should be the closer. Leyland is telling all five of his relievers, in effect, 'I have confidence in you. I'm not afraid to use you when the game is on the line. ' By using all five men in this way, he isn't making any one of them a star, as he would if he gave somebody forty saves. This way, they're all working together toward a common goal, rather than one guy doing the dirty work and one guy getting the glamour job. There's less jealousy and backbiting, less reason for it. There's less [i]pressure[i] on each pitcher. I like it."

Now, to be honest, that does sound like someone advocating the closer by committee. But you wrote it, and you'd know better than I would what you were trying to convey. What are your thoughts on what you wrote?

7:06 AM Oct 26th
 
raincheck
To me the benefit of the closer role and modern bullpen roles is pretty much what you said about the sprint. I have been in management jobs most of my life, and people are a lot more successful when their role is well defined and they know what to expect. If I know, hey, usually I get used in the 7th or 8th under these circumstances. Or I'm a closer and the job follows these rules. Then I can wake up in the morning and prepare myself accordingly and be ready when I am needed.
A manager trying to maximize the leverage of his best reliever will have a reliever whose work day is entirely too unpredictable and whose mental and physical preparation is much harder. How do I time peak preparation? Not to mention that my manager may have me up and down warming up all night.
Modern bullpen management works better for humans. Max leverage would be great with cyborgs. Or Torborgs. But humans like to have control over their work days.
12:29 AM Oct 26th
 
tangotiger
I recommend this excellent article by Rob Wood, written just several weeks before all the Redsox hoopla started back in 2003:

http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/primate_studies/discussion/robw_ood_2003-02-04_0/​
6:59 PM Oct 25th
 
Trailbzr
BillJ may not be the person to do it, but I would be interested in learning how the roles of starter and reliever have diverged, and what it takes to make one or the other. A starter gets unlimited warm-ups (pre-game) to prepare four pitches from two deliveries for seven innings. A reliever gets 15-20 throws to prepare two pitches from the stretch for one. The effect this has had on staff construction, is something I'd definitely like to learn more about.
4:36 PM Oct 25th
 
wovenstrap
Thanks for this, Bill. Speaking as someone who has read most of what you've published, I think my thinking circa 2003 was that you had a dysfunctional rewards system in place for relievers. Four guys pitch equally effectively, and yet one of them has a magical "35" in the saves column and the other three have figures like 2, 3, 5 in the saves column, and the first guy gets paid $7 million a year and the other guys get paid something a lot nearer $1 million. It's not strictly rational, or does not seem so, and seems to argue in favor of deemphasizing the mystique around the Saves statistic. I think you had pointed this dynamic out someplace or written stuff that seemed consistent with it if you thought about it at any length. On top of that you had also written some stuff about maximum leverage, the 5-2 game example. I should also hasten to add that you had also written that (a) a lot of effective baseball has to do with roles and players knowing their roles and (b) you have also shown humility about the parts of baseball you do not understand and that baseball people really do understand. So in any case I think at the time, I myself would have been capable, in explaining the CbyC situation to a less intense baseball fan, of stating that you had persuaded some people to rethink the closer concept at the very least. Ultimately what you write here rings true, you were NOT likely to advocate a wholesale rethinking/experiment involving the bullpen based solely on some back-of-the-envelope calculations about a 5-2 lead versus a tie game or whatever. It wasn't crazy for an astute Bill James fan to conclude that "the bullpen ace" might belong in the same general category as "clutch ability" or "the supreme importance of the stolen base" but despite that, it was not an accurate or entirely reasonable conclusion -- i.e. it was a conclusion that one would have to treat pretty provisionally at best. In fact, unlike clutch ability, which you have pretty much railed against mercilessly, it would be impossible to find a comparable body of work in your writings that argue against the primacy of the closer, it does not exist, as you point out. And yet I think people felt like they were completing a sentence you had started. Just the way things go when you say blunt things about what you perceive, i.e. that a 5-2 game might not be the best leverage for a closer -- people went and completed the thought, way beyond anything you had written.
2:52 PM Oct 25th
 
CharlesSaeger
Or, it's not that you don't want to use a closer, it's in what situations you use the closer. Don't waste him in a 5-2 game for the save; pitch him in the 9th of a tie game for the win.
2:40 PM Oct 25th
 
GOODFRIEND
I'm pretty sure "Closer By Committee" came from the same general place as "The Curse" and is just as correct, meaningful and infuriating - at least to me.
2:28 PM Oct 25th
 
tangotiger
Great stuff! I remember taking your side on this issue immediately in 2003, but, back then, blogs didn't have the reach that the mainstream had.

puissant is french for powerful

2:25 PM Oct 25th
 
 
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