Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Hey Neukom! My Giants Business Plan: Good Bullpen

One of the biggest change in the history of baseball, besides digging the long ball, and particularly over the past 20 or 30 years, is the change in how the bullpen is used. When baseball first started, men were men, and men threw complete games. For the most part. Just in case he was tired (or just had too much to drink the night before), there would be a reliever sitting around who would finish up the game for him. It was macho y mano a mano.

And over the long history of baseball, until very recently, that has been the code of baseball, starters finish a lot of games. As late as the 80's, probably the last one famously being Billy Martin and his Billy Ball with the A's, where he had his young starters throw the most complete games to today, that was how games were managed. The main change was the rise in prominence of the closer as a role in the bullpen.

Then, not sure if he was the first or just the first to popularize it for managers, Tony LaRussa then had the bullpen structured to have setup men each pitch the 7th and 8th then have the closer come in to save in the 9th. That was a world change in a number of ways.

One was the closer didn't pitch more than one inning anymore and could expect to get ready if the team is leading heading to the 9th. Similarly for the setup men, when the 7th and 8th rolled up and the team was in the lead, they could expect to get ready if the team had the lead and the starter got into trouble. Meanwhile, the rest of the bullpen had to be ready in the middle of the game for long relief plus maybe see work later in setup should the setup men falter. I'm not sure why having set roles is better for relievers, but there have been many relievers who have stated that this is a good thing.

With this change, the closer became the superstar of the bullpen, instead of just a complementary accessory to the starting rotation. This elevated the closer's role in the game greatly and all teams today have an assigned closer - instead of pitchers the manager happened to go to when closing the game plus there were no co-closers, like the Giants had with Moffitt and Lavelle in the 70's. And the bullpen became that much more important as well, starting the save situation much earlier in the game now that the Hold is the save metric for the rest of the bullpen. A good bullpen is thus obviously important to today's game, but how important are they to winning in the playoffs and especially winning it all?

Tippett Bullpen Study

In 2003, Tom Tippett of Diamond Mind Baseball did a study of bullpens and how it related to the success of the team. Unfortunately, he sold the company and does not appear to write anymore on the site and I had to google to get this study, as it is no longer easily accessible via the main website anymore, so I will go into some of the details since the link could end at any point in time.

What he found was that there was a correlation between a strong bullpen, as measured and defined as OPS allowed by the bullpen, and overall team success from 1998-2002:
  • Of the ten teams that led their league in bullpen OPS, eight made the post season, three reached the World Series and two won it all.
  • Of the ten teams that finished second in their league in bullpen OPS, six made the post season, four made the World Series, and two won it all.
  • Of the ten teams that finished third in their league in bullpen OPS, seven made the post season, two made the World Series, one won it all.
  • Thus, all five World Series winners from 1998-2002 finished in the top 3 of their league in bullpen OPS
  • In addition, 27 of the 40 post season teams finished in their league's top 5 in bullpen OPS and only 7 of the 40 post season teams were in the bottom half of their league in bullpen OPS. None of the teams in the bottom half of their league in bullpen made the World Series.

Admittedly, this only covered a five year period and 40 playoff teams, but the results speak pretty clearly to the fact that in today's baseball, teams rely greatly on the performance of their bullpen. While they still need good starting pitching and an offense that allows them to win a lot of games, teams today need a good bullpen to help them win games and thus to win in the playoffs and win the World Series. A good bullpen is crucial to winning it all.

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