The Royals aren’t in quest of a bullpen, no they’ve been working on THE bullpen, a Super Bullpen. This is the Justice League of bullpens. Sure, Superman and Batman can handle some pretty big threats by themselves. But if they team up with each other and the likes of Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Green Lantern, well that changes things. It’s the combination of quality which creates dominance. While it still remains to be seen if the Royals can actually put together a Super Bullpen, let’s assume that they have. Should they change their strategy to suit it?
In general, a bullpen seems to consist of one or two very good pitchers, a specialist or two and then just some guys. While it isn’t likely to happen, let’s say the Royals have 5 or 6 very good pitchers and a couple of “some guys”. Does this change the equation? Is it possible to use that to the teams advantage? Does it even matter?
Somewhere along the lines, baseball has adopted almost completely the fact that you have 5 starting pitchers and 7-8 bullpen pitchers. The starter does his damnedest to get through 5 innings and the manager in general will let him get there unless he’s completely blowing up. Somewhere around 100 pitches he is removed and replaced with a reliever. The relief pitcher is picked almost exclusively based upon an inning/score combo with his recent usage determining if he’s available or not. If it’s early in the game, almost regardless of score the team will bring in one of The Guys. As the game progresses, and if it’s still close better pitchers are brought in. Then if the team is up and ONLY if they’re up and by 3 runs or less they will then bring in their best reliever.
While there are some major flaws in this system, in general it is very effective. Bullpen utilization is possibly the best it’s been in the history of baseball. But with a Super Bullpen the strategy might need some tinkering.
There are two ways to get more value out of the bullpen. You can increase the number of total innings they pitch or you can increase the number of important innings they pitch. Let’s start with the first one.
Simply increasing the number of innings a bullpen pitches will allow you to get more total value out of the bullpen. It’s a pretty simple equation. If you can put your Super Bullpen in the game more then you’re getting more out of them. In 2011, Joakim Soria, Aaron Crow and Greg Holland combined had fewer innings on the mound than Jeff Francis. If you could have replaced one of his 1.47 WHIP innings with one of their combined 1.20 WHIP innings then you’ve just improved your team.
There is a risk of diminishing returns, however. There is a reason, presumably, that Soria and Holland are not starters. They are not equipped to pitch as many innings as Jeff Francis. The nearly unanswerable question though, is how many can they pitch? Is 60 the perfect number? Is it actually 50 or 80 or 90? My gut says that it’s more than 60, but it’s not my job on the line if a $4m arm explodes from over-use.
The other way to get more value out of your bullpen is to get them into more important innings. Quite simply, important innings are those where your team has a good but not great chance to win. A 0-0 game in the 9th is important, a 3-2 game in the 7th is important, a 9-6 game in the 9th is somewhat important and a 15-0 game in the 8th is not important.
There are two ways to skin this particular cat. You can create more important innings or you can try and slot your best pitchers into the most important innings. In general, though they get a lot of flack, teams do a pretty good job of having the best pitchers in the most important innings. They seem to underrate the importance of a one-run game in the 4th and overrate the importance of a 3-0 game in the 9th. Beyond that they seem to do a fair job. Of course the first thing is to completely ignore the save statistic and stop using your best pitcher with a 3 run lead.
For example in 2011, Joakim Soria came into games 24 times when the Royals were either up or down by 3 runs or more. 40% of his appearances came in games that the outcome was nearly already determined. Whether it was Soria or one of The Guys, it wouldn’t have made a huge amount of difference.
One reason we see this happen is that pitchers need some regular usage. If there aren’t important innings late in games for a week, then you have to get your closer in there at some point. What most managers ignore is that when they have a day where one of their top relievers needs to be used, there is always at least one inning where the score is close: the 1st. You’ve been blowing out or have been blown out for a week. Joakim Soria absolutely has to get in a game. So you start him. Let him pitch 1 or 2 innings. They’re likely to be low pressure, but yet important. Managers obsess about “shortening the game”, well shorten it from the front end. After he is done, bring in the regular starter for his 5 innings.
The second option is to produce more high leverage innings overall. It would be great if the Royals could just take a 12 run lead in the 1st and never look back, so what we’re really talking about is the reduction of large deficits. Improving the offense or defense ways to get this done, but that’s not the scope here. The other is to avoid allowing a pitcher to go longer than he should. If a starter is struggling in the 3rd and the game is within a run or two, then have a quick hook. Put the Super Bullpen in immediately and without hesitation.
For example, if some inter-galactic army of shape changers is attempting to destroy the earth and the only person fighting them is Batman, the Justice League isn’t going to wait until the earth is in ruins before they jump in. No, they get in there as soon as they’re needed.
Baseball is slow to change and the risk for a Manager or General Manager is great if they go outside the commonly accepted strategy to win games. They’re likely to get less credit for the wins and more credit for the losses. So, I don’t expect the Royals to do anything different to utilize their Super Bullpen. I don’t know that I would do it if I were in Ned’s shoes either. Being the manager of a team is a pretty awesome job. I don’t believe that they have to go all-in on this strategy though. Just do a few more things to get the bullpen (if it is indeed Super) more innings and more important innings. Nudge that slow-moving boulder just a tiny bit. It just might mean the difference between a good season and a great one.
– Nick Scott