Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Committing to a Committee?

Over the weekend, Ron Gardenhire related to reporters that he plans on opening the season with a "closer by committee" approach at the back end of the bullpen. This means that rather than having one reliever dedicated to save situations, Gardenhire will divvy up ninth-inning duties based on who's available and who matches up best against the hitters scheduled to bat.

I have a couple reactions to this. My first is that I'm not entirely convinced Gardenhire actually intends to follow through with the plan. While I generally like him as a manager, one of Gardy's most annoying flaws is his stringent adherence to traditional baseball tactics. He'll repeatedly trot out a No. 2 hitter with a sub-.300 on-base percentage, he'll waste good hitters by calling for needless sacrifice bunts and he'll insert demonstrably bad players into his lineup or rotation based on phantom intangibles like hustle and veteran presence. Sure, Gardenhire is saying that he'll run an organic bullpen this year with no designated closer -- something he has never done in his career as a big-league manager -- but my sense is that this is just a smoke screen.

My second reaction is that I hope the first one is wrong. Because I think a closer-by-committee approach is absolutely the right decision, at least initially. Heck, I think it would be the right decision -- in some form -- even if Joe Nathan were healthy.

It has been discussed ad nauseum in other places, but the role of the closer is vastly overrated in contemporary baseball. The strategy surrounding closer usage seems more concerned with helping a particular player accumulate a relatively meaningless statistic than actually winning ballgames, which is sad. While the ninth inning of a close game carries extremely high leverage and is often the ideal time for a team's best reliever to take the hill (as illustrated by the extremely high WPA figures posted by players in this role), there are plenty of times when a hurler like Nathan could be more optimally used earlier in a game, or saved for the next day. Managers will default to their closer in almost all save situations, even one where their team leads by three runs while the opposing club is sending a weak part of the lineup to the plate. Meanwhile, those same managers will not even give a thought to calling upon the closer in, say, a seventh inning situation where the game is on the line and the opposing club has runners on base for the best part of their lineup.

Of course, Nathan won't be around this year so the above paragraph doesn't necessarily apply to the situation at hand. Yet, the core argument remains. If Gardenhire is truly planning on implementing a committee for this year, he can more optimally utilize the options available to him without the restriction of being forced to save his best reliever for the end of a game in preparation for a save opportunity that may no longer exist because inferior relievers blew the lead in the middle innings. If the Twins enter the ninth inning with a one-run lead and the heart of the opposing lineup due to bat, use whichever reliever has generally been the most reliable. If the opposition is sending up a pair of tough lefty hitters in the ninth, give the ball to Jose Mijares. If the "save situation" that presents itself is one where a pitcher will be coming in to face the bottom of the lineup with a three-run lead and the bases empty, use anyone -- even Clay Condrey -- while saving the top relievers for the next day. It is extremely rare for any reliever to blow a lead under these circumstances.

One could basically always feel comfortable sending Nathan out to protect a slim ninth-inning lead, because he is good enough to be trusted in basically any save situation (and, as mentioned before, perhaps too good to be wasted on some save situations). However, the current candidates to replace Nathan in the closer role all have their own sets of strengths and flaws that will make them well suited for particular save situations and ill suited for others. With that in mind, an adaptive committee approach is the correct solution, at least until someone (perhaps Jesse Crain or Pat Neshek) emerges as a reliever dominant and reliable enough to be regularly trusted with high-leverage ninth-inning duties.

Even then, I'd love it if Gardenhire would avoid committing himself to the restrictions involved with using his designated closer in each and every save situation. But, knowing his tendencies, that's probably just wishful thinking.

11 comments:

Vegastwinsfan said...

Love the blog and I agree with everything you said100%....

Anonymous said...

I agree with you but this is just a stall tactic until someone wins the job. First and foremost Gardy considers himself players manager and that usually means, favoring veterens, playrs knowing their role, and rookies knowing they don't have a role until they've taken it from a vet... Look Slama might very well be the best candidate for the job but until he's given a shot... No chance he has a shot while starting the year in the minors. It's maddening!

MC

Anonymous said...

A little devil's advocate since nobody around here takes the other side and it's so boring reading the same shit over and over.

First, most managers prefer that their relievers begin and end an inning. Over the long haul, it saves mileage on everybody's arms I assume. You're going easier on your best reliever's arm by not making him get ready for a bunch of one-out appearances over the course of a season.

Second, you're not going to have your best reliever start the 7th inning. If he's going to pitch one inning of a tight ballgame, it should be the last inning. Then you know for sure his performance will count. If you have Nathan and Crain for the 8th and 9th, and Crain blows the lead, you lose but at least Nathan is more fresh for the next game.

Nick N. said...

First, most managers prefer that their relievers begin and end an inning.

Of course that's the preference, but unfortunately there are times when a pitcher needs to be relieved in the middle of an inning (part of the reason they're called "relievers). These jams can be the toughest to work out of and they're where games can be lost, so it's where you want your best pitcher going.

Second, you're not going to have your best reliever start the 7th inning.

I don't think I ever suggested that. I said that I'd rather see my team's best reliever be used to work out of a tough jam in the seventh than come on in the ninth with a three-run lead and nobody on board. Use your best pitchers in the situations that bear the highest leverage.

Anonymous said...

I said it based on the first premise of avoiding having your best pitcher warm up a bunch of times to take over midway every inning that a lesser reliever shows signs of struggle. Nathan's results are partly due to the way he is used. Letting relievers in the 7th and 8th work their way out of jams (and sometimes fail) allows Nathan to stay fresh. It will annoy fans when other relievers blow leads with Nathan on the bench, but the alternative may be worse.

I understand your point and agree to an extent, but people who make your point usually ignore the benefits to Gardenhire and Anderson's approach.

Beau said...

The way managers can stall the game with slow walks to the mound and fake pickoff moves, there probably isn't a great need to warm up a reliever just in case. Need Nathan in the 7th? Have a player get a Charley Horse to delay the game a few minutes.

Anonymous said...

The 8th Inning/setup man by committee did not work so well for the twins in years past. It Seems the pitchers would rather know what roll they have, so they don't have to worry about what happens when they have a bad outing.

Jewscott said...

"But, knowing his tendencies, that's probably just wishful thinking."

I think that pretty much sums up most people's thoughts on this. A committee worked for Pittsbugh back in the early 90s, but Jim Leyland is almost chess like when it comes to making the right moves. Gardenhire has always been more of a checkers guy, and all of our greatest fear is that he's going to jump the gun and name someone the closer role.

I'd like to forward him a copy of the movie "The Kid With the Broken Halo" so he can study Gary Coleman's astute handling of the bullpen. Bring out Rauch to start the inning, then moving him to first base so Mijares can get the tough lefty them bringing Rauch back in to pitch may come into play at some point.

Jewscott said...

Well, that didn't take long.

Nick N. said...

Well, that didn't take long.

Heh, no kidding.

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