Farrell Talks Bullpen

The Toronto Sun’s Ken Fidlin spoke with Blue Jays manager John Farrell about the team’s bullpen, and more specifically the closer’s role.

We’ll use spring training to come out of camp and head north with an identified closer. It not only serves that individual but it serves the rest of the bullpen well that they know what their role is once the season starts.

Evidence actually suggests otherwise.  In a recent article by Colin Wyers at Baseball Prospectus, he tells us that the closer’s role is relatively new, originating with Dennis Eckersley of the Oakland A’s in 1988.  Shortly after that, the save, first introduced by a beat writer in Chicago, became an official statistic of Major League Baseball, and “now it’s nearly unthinkable that a team would go without a designated closer, a pitcher whose primary role is to pitch in the ninth inning when his team has a lead of three runs or fewer.”

Wyers looks at a ton of numbers, comparing relief innings in baseball from 1950 to today.  He finds that “the modern innovation of the closer has allowed teams to preserve one additional one-run lead in the ninth inning every two seasons or so.”  However, “while teams have gotten better at holding close leads in the ninth, they’ve gotten worse about having a close lead to protect in the ninth.”

In other words, baseball games aren’t as close as they used to be, and Wyers wonders if that doesn’t have something to do with the best reliever no longer being brought in to deal with the most pressing situation, when run expectancy is at its highest, and therefore win expectancy.

Wyers concludes by summarizing:

Teams that hold their most valuable bullpen arms in reserve waiting for save chances may be winning more close games (although not as many as they may think), but the cost may well be staying closer in fewer games to begin with.

Farrell redeems himself somewhat among the stat nerds a little bit later by admitting that Frank Francisco is the favourite to become Toronto’s closer because of his success against both right and left handed hitters.

Numbers bear that out. When you look at the three or four guys in that mix, the fact that he can attack lefties with that kind of success rate kind of gives him the edge coming in, at least on paper.

While fans should be relieved that Farrell’s apparent criteria for a closer shouldn’t allow Octavio Dotel to be put in too many situations against left handed hitting, “the at least on paper” line makes me nervous over the possibility that the manager will place too much value to the small sample sizes that Spring Training offers.

John Lott confirms my fears to a degree in his list of questions for Farrell.  The National Post reporter writes that “GM Alex Anthopoulos says Rauch and Francisco will handle the eighth and ninth innings; their spring performance will determine who sets up for whom.”

Comments (8)

  1. Any chance we can get a copy of that Blue Jays wallpaper Farrell is standing in front of for our own home use?

  2. I’ve always thought this was an area of the game where baseball coaching could mirror hockey coaching. In the latter, coaches who are good at recognizing “who’s going” on a particular night and adjust accordingly inevitably have the edge. Mindlessly trotting out Kevin Gregg two nights in a row when he is basically a completely different pitcher when he hasn’t been rested is just stupid. Not bringing in Francisco with the bases loaded and no one out in the sixth because you want to save him for a close game that may not exist in the ninth seems similarly ludicrous. The designated closer has merely helped certain pitchers and agents make more money than they might have otherwise. The Jays seem perfectly set up for a commitee bullpen filled with people with ninth inning experience and shut-down stuff. It would nice if our fresh manager would buck the orthadoxy a little and just use the guy whose rest and numbers fit whatever game situation they might encounter.

  3. I have no problem with having roles in the bullpen, but tying those roles to innings may be the downfall. The problem teams have with getting close leads to the 9th inning is not so much that they don’t bring in their “closer” early enough, but that they don’t have enough pitchers in the pen who are good pitchers. If the pen is full of good pitchers, you should be OK, regardless of the inning. The guy who blew the game in the 7th did not blow it because he isn’t the closer, but because (chances are) he is not a good enough pitcher.

  4. @Kevin I was hoping for the same thing.

    @RAWagman But every team isn’t going to have five great pitchers in the bullpen. When people talk about bringing in the closer earlier in the game, they’re only doing so because normally the closer is your best reliever. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that you bring in your best reliever when the opportunity for the other team to score is at its greatest.

  5. @Parkes How will you know when that is? How to do you that 2 on in th 6th is going to be their best chance…how will you know that a better opportunity will not come later? the 8th might have 3 on no one out and you’ve used you best pitcher. Bringing in your best pitcher earlier in the game may preserve the lead for that inning but that means there is more chances later against inferior pitchers. There is only one difference between using your best pitcher earlier in the game and in the 9th and that is that the 9th is oppositions last chance. They will get no more. I am not opposed to using a closer earlier in the game but you can’t say that you should use at the best opportunity for the other team to score because there is no way to know that. You can guess, but you simply won’t know.

    I think the best idea is deploy pitchers according to strengths but always keep either your 1st or 2nd best pitcher for the end of the game.

  6. The whole idea of having a closer is pretty silly. It seems that it’s a position borne entirely of the notion that it’s more disappointing to lose a game in the 9th inning than sometime earlier. But, by most accounts I’ve read, modern relievers really get uncomfortable when there isn’t a defined “closer” out there in the bullpen. And if that’s the case, then maybe it’s worth having a capital-C closer in spite of how useless it might actually be. Obviously it’s impossible to quantify the effect of having a bunch of nervous/uncomfortable guys in the bullpen (which may or may not ACTUALLY result from not having a closer), but psychology is a huge part of a bullpen’s success. If it makes them more comfortable, maybe it’s worth it? I still don’t think so, but at least there’s an argument to be made on that side of things.

  7. @Mat: That’s not necessarily true. You can look at situations and compare them to their run expectancy and compare that to the lineup and possible lineups of future innings and how those lineups stack up against the other guys you have in your bullpen. It’s a far more complicated thought process than merely dumping your best pitcher out there in the ninth inning.

    @Ty: If pitchers are getting uncomfortable over their role in the bullpen and that’s affecting their performance, those are pitchers I don’t want on my team to begin with.

  8. Ty, I agree if you have Mariano Rivera in your bullpen. I don’t see a Mariano Rivera in ours. I’d be perfectly comfortable with a rested Jason Frasor finishing a ballgame if the situation dictates.

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