One of the biggest failings of every manager in the eyes of his fanbase is the way that he manages the bullpen. Increased specialization over the past 25 years has led to more and more defined roles in the bullpen – the seventh-inning guy, the setup man, the closer.
A crusade that has been fought by the sabermetrics movement is to eliminate these roles to a certain capacity and instead pitch with a "relief ace" who would be brought in at the highest leverage situations when a team really needed an out.
This summer, the team I broadcast games for, the Fayetteville SwampDogs, is employing this strategy. The SwampDogs are a summer collegiate baseball team.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of summer collegiate baseball, there are leagues all around the country whereplayers go to play when school ends and for a lucky few – when they return from Regionals, Super Regionals, and the . The most famous of these leagues is the Cape Cod Baseball League.
The team has been struggling all season to find length from their starting pitching. In 32 games, a starter has finished 6 innings three times. This is taxing on the bullpen, and going with a traditional bullpen construction was not getting the job done. The seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-inning guys all were good, but bridging the gap to get to them was a major issue.
"We don’t have a traditional bullpen," head coach Zach Brown said in a pre-game interview last week. "With our starters not getting length, if I sense we can win, we’re throwing our best guy out there no matter what inning it is."
Case and point was when All-Star reliever Kodi Whitley entered a game in the fifth inning. Friday night, Alex Siddle, who recorded two saves earlier in the season, was brought in from the bullpen in the third inning.
The situation the SwampDogs found themselves in that necessitated this bullpen move is unusual – no major league team of recent vintage has found themselves with a starting staff averaging around four innings per start.
The maneuver by Brown has been a success to a certain extent. The team is still mired in a losing season, but by moving bullpen pieces around, games have remained close and the offense has actually been able to come through with comeback wins in some games.
Let me be clear – Brown is not doing this move because he is a strong believer in the concept, it is purely a move from necessity. This experiment does show a couple of things. First, it shows that moving away from a defined closer role can be something that is successful when put into practice. For as much as "guys like to know their roles" is thrown out as an excuse, it doesn't seem to be affecting anyone’s performance.
Second, it lays a framework for what would have to happen for a manager at the major league level to adopt the concept at this point. As more managers who embrace the strategy enter the game and move up, we may begin to see teams go to this, but until then it is going to take some extraordinary circumstances for a manager to make the move. The 2012 Colorado Rockies during their 4-man rotation experiment could’ve tried employing this, for example.
As the second half of our 56-game schedule continues, I’m interested to see if the bullpen continues its success or begins to falter. I’m not naïve enough to think that if the relief ace bullpen remains successful that it will start to spread, but it will serve as one positive practical application of the strategy.