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Should managers play Scrabble with relievers?

The cry from baseball’s numbers fringe never abates when it comes to relief pitching. The philosophy is simple, the delivery incisive and the message blunt: The modern bullpen, as run by major league managers, is total bull … well, you know.

The Twins decided to go with veteran Jon Rauch as their closer after losing Joe Nathan to injury.
(Jim Mone/Associated Press)

Relief-pitching management, the bleating goes, is full of stupid decisions made by stubborn men who eat dogma for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The dunderhead managers think a high-leverage situation is when someone balances atop a teeter-totter. They say blindly follow the patron saint of overmanaging, Tony La Russa, who ruined baseball when he implemented Dennis Eckersley as his one-inning-only relief specialist.

Second guessing bullpen usage is nothing new, of course. Managers are guilty of every infraction. Pulling a guy too early. And another too late. And for the wrong guy. And in the most nonsensical situation. Nothing demoralizes players and fans alike quite like a bullpen blowup. Bullpen management makes and breaks reputations, saves and loses seasons and, on occasion, gets someone fired. It is a permanent struggle, and it’s why more than 20 years after the game’s La Russafication, the Minnesota Twins, one of baseball’s best and smartest teams, are at the center of the philosophical debate on how to run a bullpen.

On one side is the numbers faction, armed with logic. When Joe Nathan(notes), the Twins’ star closer, tore the elbow ligament in his right arm during spring training, the team found itself with myriad options. The sabermetric set advocated that, in lieu of a paint-by-numbers closer-centric ‘pen, the Twins utilize their relievers in a leverage-dependent fashion. That is: If they’re ahead 3-2 in the seventh inning with runners on second and third and one out, bring in the team’s best reliever and not necessarily the pitcher who usually throws the seventh. Summon, in effect, the pitcher who normally would be deemed the closer, to presumably lock down game-saving outs. Makes sense.

Opposing them is convention, a tenet to which longtime baseball men adhere as if super-glued. The Twins chose this route, naming veteran Jon Rauch(notes) their closer and keeping Matt Guerrier(notes), Pat Neshek(notes), Jesse Crain(notes), Ron Mahay(notes), Brian Duensing(notes) and Alex Burnett(notes) in their respective roles, even if that means, say, using the low-strikeout Guerrier in a situation that calls for one. It is outdated thinking, the managerial equivalent of locking yourself in a room and throwing away the key, and yet deviating from it is not as easy as the numbers people want to believe.

There is an area of baseball yet to be plumbed by the objective thinkers: the brain. And more than anywhere else in their bodies, arms included, the brains of relievers dictate their effectiveness. Pre-La Russa, relief pitchers considered themselves silly putty, malleable to inning, score and situation. Today, they are bred to believe the bullpen is a class system, from mop-up guy to long man to lefty specialist to set-up man to closer. Every pitcher is given a role, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It’s the mental thing,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “I’ve had times in the past where I’ve had eighth-inning guys warm up with two outs in the sixth and they ask, ‘What are you doing?’ Guys are so accustomed to their roles and what they’re doing, they gear themselves mentally toward a time in the game.”

So when Nathan blew out, Anderson conferred with manager Ron Gardenhire and assessed the situation. They considered going to a bullpen-by-committee, a variation on the leverage-based ‘pen that allows flexibility instead of committing one pitcher to almost exclusive ninth-inning duty. They scrapped that idea after a day.

Convention won. It was just a matter of picking a ninth-inning pitcher. Rauch had done it before, and even though Guerrier asked to close, he was too effective an eighth-inning pitcher, Anderson said, to consider moving out of that role – the anti-Peter Principle, if you will.

The Twins’ bullpen was set, flexibility be damned.

“We at least tried to give everybody their role and make sure they know kind of where they fit,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve always said that makes them a little bit more comfortable and easier for them all. We’ve pretty much stuck with that.”

It is, as sabermetricians contend, positively illogical for a team to keep its best pitcher on the bench at a critical juncture in an earlier inning, especially with a deep bullpen such as the Twins’ that can match up well and dispatch effective relievers top to bottom. The philosophy extends to awful bullpens, too, such as Kansas City’s. The day after the Royals blew a five-run lead in the seventh inning, manager Trey Hillman was asked whether he considered using his only effective relief pitcher, closer Joakim Soria(notes), outside his eighth- and ninth-inning comfort zones.

“There’s a thought there,” Hillman said, “but No. 1, it’s a very unusual time for Joakim Soria to pitch in a ballgame. No. 2, you’ve still got those same bats coming up in the ninth in a higher-leverage situation – because it is the ninth, even if there are no runners on base.”

Actually, the higher-leverage situation is in the seventh inning, when those runners are on base and the Royals’ lead is in jeopardy. Hillman tried. He really did. He’s merely a victim of baseball’s culture of convention. He and Gardenhire and every other manager not named Joe Maddon are handed relief pitchers developed in a system where role (get outs in a specific situation) matters as much as deed (get outs, period).

The blame falls on the organizations, not the managers.

“I had somebody tell me that we can save a game in the seventh as well as we can in the ninth,” Anderson said. “OK. Well, if our closer saves it in the seventh, who throws the ninth? You’re in helter-skelter. You’ve got three guys down there saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s me.’ Even though you’d like to, we’ve never, ever thought of it.”

Everything returns to the mentality of the reliever, and Rauch, the Twins’ new closer, is unique in his career path (tallest player in big league history at 6-foot-11, and yet his fastball barely cracks 90 mph) as well as his flexibility. The right-hander has started, mopped up, been a long man, set up and closed.

“I’ve just never been a lefty specialist,” he said wryly.

For him, outs are outs. Others cannot, do not and will not operate that way. Since Eckersley turned the closer into a glory position with huge salaries for comparatively meager contributions, the ninth inning has taken on even more of a beast-like aura. Even if the three outs there are the same as three outs in any other inning, a meaningless misnomer of a statistic – the save – has turned ninth-inning duty glamorous.

“It’s just three outs,” Rauch said. “I’m not trying to say I’m a closer. It’s not a defined role. If they want me to pitch at the end of the game, I will.

“If it’s a situation where they feel I’d be best suited to go in the game, like in the seventh inning, I’d try to go in there and do my job. You’ve still got to get outs, regardless of when it is in the ballgame.”

Rauch’s attitude is healthy, and he has embraced the role, allowing two runs in nine innings. Duensing has given up the same, Guerrier is even better (one run in 11 1/3) and Neshek and Mahay have combined for 10 shutout innings. Even Burnett, the rookie, has held opponents scoreless in four of five appearances.

With a 2.37 ERA, the Twins’ bullpen is the best in the American League. They’ve walked the fewest hitters, allowed the second-fewest home runs and held batters to a .233 average. Gardenhire isn’t gloating to his critics or praising the rebuttals. He is simply going on without Nathan, his security blanket, happy to gorge on dogma as long as it works.

The way relievers are bred, it’s not as if he has much of a choice.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Apr 26, 2010