Since Tony La Russa invented the one inning closer, bullpens across the league have been growing far more specialized.
Teams now feature lefty specialists, 8th inning guys, and even in some cases, 7th innings guys.
At this point I think pitching staffs could be optimized in two different ways.
For this exercise, I am going to assume that I need to cover roughly 1450 innings, based on dividing the number of innings played last year by 30, and rounding it to a cleaner number.
Proposal Number 1: Go super-specialized
This proposal involves keeping the five-man rotation, and instead choosing to optimize the relievers a team has in order to be ready for any game situation that comes up.
Most team's starters throw between 900-1000 innings, that means that my bullpen has to get between 500-600 innings.
The first role that I would establish in this bullpen, is the "relief ace." This term has been bandied about from a lot of outlets, but is generally not put into use.
The relief ace would come into a high leverage spot, preferably after the 7th inning and get out of whatever situation it may be. The relief ace could preferable pitch up to 2 innings at a time and his workload should be similar to that of a closer, with possibly a tad more innings.
They would account for roughly 80-90 innings.
These pitchers would be responsible mostly for coming into games that are still close, in which the starter has to come out due to ineffectiveness, a high pitch count, or an early high leverage spot that the manager feels the starter cannot handle.
Often a starter will clearly be reeling early in a game, and the manager will leave them in for fear of killing their bullpen. The existence of these two "super relievers," would be responsible not only for getting out of whatever jam they come into, but then pitching multiple innings following that.
Some possible existing candidates would be Wade Davis, Chris Archer (his stuff could be devastating in relief, and he has plenty of stamina), or even Edinson Volquez (.732 OPS first two times through the order, .786 third time). These two pitchers would each throw roughly the amount of a long-man, combining to cover 100-110 innings. I'm now 1/3 of the way to my innings goal for my bullpen of 500-600 innings.
Next up, I would get a groundball specialist for high-leverage spots that need a double-play. This reliever would be able to come in and induce groundballs at a high rate, and potentially be able to pitch about an inning at a time. They would handle the workload of an average middle-reliever, and would pitch 60 innings in a season.
Some examples of this would be Brad Ziegler, Jonny Venters, Cla Meredith, and Jason Grimsley (when he still played). The issues with this role would be: A.) could the pitchers get up on that short of notice, and I would say yes. A mound visit followed by an intentional walk should be enough time for a pitcher to get ready, especially if the manager was proactive and saw the situation coming earlier, and B.) is the small increase in likelihood worth the roster spot?
In 2012, 5.5% of 1-3 runner situations ended in double plays. 6.1% of 12- runner situations ended in double plays, and 6% of 123 runner situations ended in double plays (note that when I say double plays it means GIDP). Obviously to ground into a double play, a groundball must be hit.
Having a pitcher like Ziegler who can have high groundball rates could be extremely valuable to a team. Obviously this isn't a definitive study, but it could be of extreme value to have a groundball pitcher. After this I am at 260 innings, or roughly halfway to my target innings amount.
The next roles would be specialized relievers for both handed hitters. A righty-specialist is a rare breed in baseball, but there are still big-power right handed bats that have platoon splits (right-handed batters had an OPS .50 points higher against lefties than righties last season), and they should be able to be matched up with when necessary.
These two specialists would hopefully be passable against opposite-handed batters, and would be somewhere in between specialists and middle-relievers in their innings numbers. Examples of a righty-specialist would be Jake McGee and Jesse Crain. They would combine for 100 innings, pushing the total number to 360, still 140 short.
My final addition would be what has sadly become a staple in MLB bullpens: the closer. The difference with my closer is that they would throw two innings, and come in at the start of the 8th in a close game (but could still be relieved by the relief ace if the need rises). Examples of perfect candidates would be Mets' pitching prospects Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia, or Cardinals' pitching prospect Trevor Rosenthal. They would throw ideally for 100-150 innings pushing me right around my lower threshold of 500.
This proposal would leave teams with options to get out of multiple baserunner situations with less than two outs, retire big hitters with two outs of each handedness, cover for a bad day for a pitcher, have a defined closer, and ahve a dominant reliever spot to come in in high-leverage spots.
The pitfalls of this proposal are great in number, with the main ones including the fact that there aren't defined roles, and even the ones like closer can be overridden by the relief ace in a tough spot late in the game. This would use a combination of extreme specialists and multi-inning pitchers to try and form a cohesive bullpen unit.
Another issue, as I mentioned above, is that it might not give enough notice in some situations to be able to warm guys up for their proper roles.
I'll discuss a second proposal next week, but for now I'll toss it up to you guys, what do you think? If you could create a bullpen from scratch, how would you do it?