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The Muddled Middle

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I suppose it is possible to trace the evolution of the relief pitcher in a manner superficially similar to the evolution of man. Somewhere out of the primordial goop (variously, cricket or rounders) baseball was born, and then the first traces of the reliever began to appear, although in his original form he was hard to compare to today's reliever and probably lacked self-awareness that he was in fact a relief pitcher. He wasn't much different than that other guy in the funky looking clothes who started the game, except he was healthy whereas the other guy suddenly was not.

Pitchers In A Pinch 6/6
Duke Bowie
BB/9IP 2.05 2.35
K/9IP 2.86 5.87
GB% 50.6 40.9
HR/FB 12.0 12.5
LOB% 65.7 72.4
FIP 5.15 4.90

Assuming the jerks on the other side of the field bought the injury story (not a certainty, of course), our prehistoric reliever could relieve. But, viewing the situation nearly a century-and-a-half later, there didn't appear to be any indicia pointing to any purpose for him entering the game aside from simple roster necessity.

Before I continue, please note I am not a biologist, so by all means bear with me as I demonstrate my ignorance on matters evolutionary. (Indeed, I am not a baseball historian, so please excuse my lapses on matters hardball-historical.) I tried to phrase the previous paragraph sparsely enough so as not to employ words triggering my ignorance, but I hope the image is understandable.

Continuing on, we have various individuals who might in retrospect claim to be the first modern reliever. I encourage you to find a copy of Bill James's original Historical Baseball Abstract for a fascinating essay on this topic; for those tired of my many Bill James references here and/or unable to locate a copy of his greatest work, I encourage you to search Steve Treder's articles at the Hardball Times for a similar review. In the meantime, you can search Senators Nation for information on Firpo Marberry, because he's one of the fellows who holds a claim to the distinction. But there's a line at which the antiquated became modern -- as judged by our current notions of modernity, of course - and none of those guys before the line, Marberry included, qualifies. Some come closer -- or, perhaps better stated, nearer -- than others. Think of Dick Radatz as a Neanderthal man along that path, perhaps.

Anyway, here's a rough sketch of how the reliever developed from glop to modernity. I might be missing a step or two, but that's why we call it a rough sketch.

Replacement Pitcher (by necessity) Came in when the starting pitcher physically couldn't go on.
Replacement Pitcher (by choice) Came in when the manager chose to replace his starter; reliever just another pitcher, a lesser-light.
Early Career Relievers Not deemed good enough to start. And if they were deemed good enough to start, they'd start.
Early Relief Specialists Firpo Marberry is the godfather, I suppose. Notably, however, Marberry didn't exclusively relieve, and his status did not inspire copy-cats.
Starters as Saviors Not every starter could be a top starter, and those run-of-the-mill starters needed top starters to save them.
Early Firemen Mainly dedicated relievers, often effective (if only in spurts), noted for pedestrian stuff or some defining gimmick. See, e.g., Joe Page; Jim Konstanty; Hoyt Wilhelm (best of the type and should be included in the next type, too).
Professional Firemen Clearly career relievers, but, as James noted, for the first time career relievers could really pitch. Included not just junkballers getting by, but also notable fireballers.
Ace Reliever Similar to the previous type, but worked harder and harder. See Mike Marshall for the poster boy. Included greats such as Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle, and Bruce Sutter.
Early Closers Established by Herman Franks's plan to limit Sutter's workload in 1979. Ace relievers continued on, but influential "bridge" closers to the modern era (such as Lee Smith and Jeff Reardon) emerged.
Modern Closer Established by the conversion of Dennis Eckersley to the ace relief role in Oakland -- or perhaps by Steve Bedrosian's Cy Young award in 1987. Came into being in the years around 1990; by 1992, the usage was almost uniform. Marked by the same strategy created for the early closer (compile save situations for the ace reliever), but now closer is reserved almost exclusively for the ninth inning. Sometimes (for instance, Detroit 2006), the closer isn't even the best reliever, the true "ace" reliever, anymore -- although it is indisputably the glory role.

The modern reliever must be viewed in context of the closer, the establishment of whom marked the point at which relievers in today's game gained if not true awareness than a certain contemporary savoir faire. I overstate, but perhaps by just a little bit. Every defined bullpen role flows from the closer's - and even those vaguer roles that predated the modern closer's role, such as the long-man or the garbage-man, are eroding as roles flow from the closer spot. The transition is occurring more surely than slowly. Buck Martinez, for one, noted this development on his XM radio show recently; many modern bullpens are ill-equipped when necessity requires a two- or three-inning contribution, because more and more relievers are assigned to more specialized roles - roles divvying up the substantial number of innings left unsatisfied by the closer, but roles made in the closer's image nonetheless.

* * * *

From the "fireman" and "bullpen ace" era(s) emerged the Sutterian closer, the pitcher reserved to protect tenuous leads in the late innings, and from that type of closer emerged his offspring, the Eckersleyian one-inning closer, the man brought in nearly exclusively to save the game, nearly uniformly in the ninth inning. As Treder notes, the transition became essentially complete in the early 1990s. By the mid- to late-90s, the role had become universally accepted, with the last odd or idiosyncratic managerial holdouts latching on to the previous definition (like Sparky Anderson) pushed out of the game; by that point, the phrase "Proven Closer" had come into use - or perhaps overuse to the point of parody, given the satirical use of the trademark symbol that become vogue on places like the Usenet forum rec.sport.baseball.

Sometimes I wonder if there is something so special about having a closer, then why did it take about 115 years of big league baseball for this form of closer to exist, much less dominate so quickly? But is not evolution less about wisdom or betterment than adaption? This is how baseball's bullpens adapted, and in retrospect it is possible to see the influences - ranging from management philosophies to general sports trends to the rise of agents and marketing - that likely contributed to the process. At any rate, the closer system exists now, and it has existed sufficiently long to place closer-era contemporaries and managers, and even ex-closers like Rob Dibble, in the modern media. And so, there is something endearing about the closer. It's a special role, capable of being handled only by those accustomed to it. Whether this is truth, mythology, or merely self-sustaining justification is beside the point.

* * * *

Supporting the closer are all the other guys in the modern bullpen, usually six or perhaps even seven other guys nowadays, and they all have defined roles too, or are well on their way to receiving those roles in the near future. There's the middle men, the set-up men, and the lefties, including the lefty specialist (the lovable LOOGY). There are even foils for the lefty specialist like Chad Bradford, who is essentially a specialist designed to defeat righty batters.

The line between middle men and set-up men has been a touch blurry at times, but the difference is coming into focus. The new term emerging is the "eighth-inning man," who is on the road to becoming the Robin to the closer's Batman in the modern bullpen era. The eighth-inning man is the set-up man but dressed in today's fashions. He's a mini-closer designed to shorten the game.

The set-up man is not a new innovation, of course, and the foundation for the eighth-inning man was not exactly laid yesterday. The Nasty Boys of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds had a famous eighth/ninth combination in (pre-closer) Dibble and Randy Myers. The Yankees have employed a similar one-two punch style for over a decade, first with the Mariano Rivera/John Wetteland combo and then with Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson variously setting the table for Rivera, though the connection has not always been so solid from the eigth-inning side. The difference is in the last couple years most if not all teams, whether good or bad, are speaking in this parlance.

Take the Nationals, for instance. Earlier this season, Chad Cordero struggled in his closer role (perhaps owing to an illness and subsequent death of a close family member), and his set-up man, Jon Rauch, was pitching well. During Cordero’s leave of absence, Rauch served admirably as the closer. Since a set-up man is often viewed as a closer-in-reserve, some people questioned whether Rauch would supplant Cordero as the fulltime closer. This issue was broached to manager Manny Acta, who announced Cordero would be eased back into his role – suggesting a belief that there’s a certain mental or emotional aptitude required for closing – and would pitch in a few non-closing situations before reclaiming the mantle. Fast forward a few weeks, and now it is Rauch who has been struggling. Meanwhile, bargain bin pickup Jesus Colome has been a revelation. Sure enough, a new question has been broached to Acta: should Colome replace Rauch as the eighth-inning guy? So far, Acta’s answer is no.

I suppose I’ll save for a rainy day an extensive search of past Sporting News issues (via the Paper of Record website) to determine, if possible, when this managers began openly mulling this eighth-inning role, but I’m of the mind that it’s a very recent development. As noted, you heard of the excellent eighth/ninth inning combos along the way, and surely teams have employed set-up men for years, but I don’t recall so many teams aiming to place a single pitcher in that spot expressly as the closer’s dedicated assistant. The Nationals even market Rauch as such on those laughable MASN smack-talk spots.

Granted, the set-up man is a little harder to locate than the closer. The set-up man does not have a recognized money stat like the save upon which to hang his hat, and he doesn’t make closer money from which to buy an even better hat. As such, I’d imagine it’s harder to determine the usage patterns of modern set-up men, since the term "eighth-inning man" is still a descriptive rather than literal term, though it must contain a good measure of truth these days. At any rate, while I have not seem exhaustive research on non-closer innings pitched to games ratios, I do know Rauch’s ratio was 1.08 innings (91) per appearance (85) last season. According to Treder’s research, this is precisely what the average closer’s ratio was as recently as 2004.

* * * *

Set-up/eighth-inning men like Rauch tend to be worked harder than closers, although the policy basis undergirding this tendency is readily apparent. The practice is to save your closer as much as possible for "save situations." This is not always practicable – I was amazed at how few save opportunities Mariano Rivera had coming into Sunday night’s game, for instance – but even a poor team will give its closer a reasonable number of save opportunities. Recall the Pythagorean formula; poor teams are significantly outscored, tend to get blown out more than enjoy blowouts, and therefore tend to win a sizable chunk of their games in close or relatively close contests.

With this practice in mind, closers aren’t going to have a stake in very many leads blown in the eighth inning (since that’s generally outside his common jurisdiction), so those are games in which the closer won’t appear whereas the eighth-inning guy most likely will. Moreover, having set aside one pitcher to a particular purpose, can a manager do the same with a second? Not exclusively. A set-up man will pitch "outside his role" a little more than a closer will, or at least that’s my impression. Rauch has certainly done so more than Cordero, and I’d imagine Acta’s bullpen usage is fairly normal, or at least as normal as possible given the paucity of innings his starters gave him in the early season.

Given this background, Rauch’s role appears to consist of:

  • preserving leads for Cordero
  • doing whatever else Acta wants him to do when it is not possible to preserve leads for Cordero, keeping in mind his primary role is to preserve leads for Cordero

The second part of the second bullet point might seem like a tautalogy, but it’s really more of a statement of jurisdiction. Taking a look at Rauch’s gamelog (through June 5), Rauch has made 30 appearances, with half of those appearances confined to the eighth inning.

Keep in mind this ratio is somewhat skewed owing to Rauch’s temporary closing stint. On May 11, after four days’ rest, Rauch closed out a 6-0 win. The next evening, Rauch entered a 3-3 game in the ninth and recorded a victory after pitching a scoreless inning. (That was the early-morning Zimmerman grand slam game.) In the next three contests, Rauch closed out wins, earing saves without incident. If we remove those five appearances (or at least view them in a different context), then Rauch has entered in the eighth inning in 15 out of 25 appearances (60%), and in none of those appearances has Rauch pitched beyond the eighth inning.

The point is, the eighth inning is his.

Eight of those 15 eighth-inning appearances resulted in a hold; the remainder were closing out road defeats, or garbage-time appearances, or both. Rauch’s other hold occurred when he entered the game in the seventh inning, which he has done four times: once for that two-inning hold on May 6, once for a two-inning hold-then-blown-save on May 19, and twice in road defeats. Rauch has a smattering of other appearances in the ninth and tenth innings, but his job is nearly as straightforward as that MASN spot makes it out to be. Except when he expressly isn’t the eighth-inning set-up man, Rauch’s job is to be the eighth-inning set-up man, unless circumstances dictate there won’t be need for an eighth-inning set-up man and Acta determines he needs him anyway.

It should be noted this is nearly precisely the stream of logic that gave us the modern closer. This logic has been adapted to other roles, and I suspect it will be adapted (albeit more loosely by aforementioned necessity) by some to still more roles. Who will be the team's stated "seventh-inning man" five or ten years from now?

* * * *

This is all very boring reading, I’m quite sure, but I’m just about to sting Bob Carpenter a little bit, which should perk some ears, I’d guess. During Sunday afternoon’s game (yes, it was raining viciously here in Richmond, too), Carpenter was discussing Rauch, our set-up man; for some reason, he compared Rauch to Duane Ward, who was cited as an example of a particularly effective set-up man. Perhaps I missed some context where Carpenter was trying to compare and contrast the two, but I don’t think so. If not, the comparison was born of ignorance of what the set-up man really is in contemporary baseball.

Other than in title (set-up man), Ward and Rauch are not comparable. Or perhaps better stated, they’re comparable in function but not in role, or perhaps that should be stated vice versa. Whatever. Rauch is a bicycle courier zipping around city streets from office building to office building. By comparison, Ward was a semi chugging down the interstates. There’s really no comparison. They were pitchers in different eras – although Ward’s career straddled the modern bullpen era – and, come to think of it, aren’t comparable in role or function. The kind of set-up man Ward was bears little relation to the type of set-up man Rauch is.

* * * *

I first remember Duane Ward’s picture appearing in a set of Richmond Braves baseball cards from the mid-80s. He was a goofy looking dude with some dorky looking glasses. Ward was traded by the Braves to the Blue Jays for Doyle Alexander, and by 1988 Ward emerged as a somewhat unbalanced force in Toronto’s bullpen. He walked 60 batters in 111.2 innings, but what is noteworthy for the purpose of this post is that he compiled all those innings in 64 appearances – and with 15 saves, to boot.

From our 2007 perspective, the Jays’ bullpen might have been located on Mars for all we know, but – cracks about Exhibition Stadium’s bizarre configuration aside – all evidence points to an Earth-bound bullpen. It was merely different than what we see today; quite different, in fact.

In 1989, Ward appeared in 66 games, logged 115.2 innings, and recorded another 15 saves. In 1990, Ward upped his totals to 73 games and 127.2 innings, though he saved only 11 games. Only eleven, huh? Other than by injury/ineffectiveness afflicting the first-line closer, how else does a set-up man get to 11 saves in today’s game? Toronto’s closer, Tom Henke, was neither injured nor ineffective. Henke saved 32 games with a 2.17 ERA.

In 1991, when Henke was limited by injury (but still saved 32 games), Ward appeared in 81 games, pitched 107 innings, and saved 23 contests, probably a dozen in Henke’s absence. In what was probably his finest season, 1992, Ward pitched in 79 games, logged 101.2 innings, and saved a dozen games.

Henke left via free agency prior to 1993, and Ward shuffled into the closer’s role. Ward’s numbers that season look pretty much indistinguishable from those of a modern closer, with essentially a one-to-one ratio of games to innings and 45 saves. Ward blew out his arm in 1993, and very brief comeback in 1995 was all that was left in his career.

For a five-year stretch, however, Ward was an animal of a set-up man, and I guarantee you he wasn’t confined to a role capable of being summarized on a television spot. Let’s take a look at his last season in the set-up role, 1992, since maybe that season would reveal the most modern of his usage patterns in that role. Ward appeared in 79 games. In 18 of those games, he appeared in the seventh inning. Ward pitched two or more innings a quarter of the time. On three occasions, Ward pitched more than two innings (and on one occasion, three innings), every time picking up a save that Henke could have garnered (either by rule or if Ward had actually given up runs, which he didn’t). There was certainly a large component of holding leads for Henke; Ward notched 24 holds on the season. Furthermore, in many instances, Ward did actually what Rauch is called to do: enter in the eighth and hold a close lead. But Ward did so much more. Ten times, Ward recorded what you might call a seventh/eighth-inning hold. He entered close games in which the Jays trailed and held the status quo. He pitched a couple innings to finish out ballgames, wins or losses, saves or non-saves.

Just for the heck of it, let’s look at that 1988 season, where it all began for Duane Ward. You know what? Ward appeared in 64 games that year, and in only 18 did he pitched an inning or less. That’s right; forty-eight times Ward pitched more than an inning when he came to the mound. Five times, he pitched three innings. Three additional times, he pitched at least four.

Back then, a set-up man wasn’t merely a set-up man, although he didn’t realize this, of course. By today’s standards, he was a set-up man, a middle-man, a long-man, and sometimes a garbage-man, all in one. To compare Rauch to Ward misses the point entirely. The bullpen has evolved, and roles have become defined. Even if Rauch could be Ward, his role wouldn’t permit it.

* * * *

The thought occurs to me that my comparison of Rauch to Ward is uncharitable to Rauch. By appearing in 85 games last season, for instance, Big Jon has already surpassed Ward's career high. Perhaps on that basis it is Rauch who is the tractor trailing hauling oranges from Florida. At any rate, it's a different role.

It's fascinating to watch big league teams as they juggle bullpen management issues. Bucs Dugout recently noted that Jim Tracy has swapped out Salomon Torres for Matt Capps in the set-up to closer exchange. As Charlie from BD notes, Tracy offers a rational basis for the switch (aside from Torres blowing the role); Torres is the more durable pitcher and thus can be used to bridge the gap somtimes in the seventh inning, whereas Capps cannot. I doubt Torres will be used in that manner an extraordinary amount -- he's rubber-armed and makes tons of appearances, but he essentially averages an inning per appearance -- yet it is fascinating to see managers who state they want a little bit more out of a set-up man than just holding an eighth-inning lead.

Charlie also bemoans the pro forma use of a closer, all in the name of collecting saves it seems. I feel his pain, so to speak, but I'd hard to imagine the practice changing any time soon. As Treder contends in his Hardball Times articles, the development (or evolution) of the modern closer is apparent in hindsight, even if its usage often seems counterproductive. Looking back on the last half-century, you can see how we got here. And, depending on your perspective, we've either been here almost twenty years (dating to Eckersley's conversion to relief), or over fifteen years (when Bobby Thigpen established the single-season saves record), or over a decade (in which the usage of the modern closer, in terms of innings/games, hasn't changed too much at all). I'm not sure things will change any time soon, both because teams have gone about as far as they can go with their closers (without expanding rosters or some other development) and because managers have no real reason to rock the boat now that a closer is not only commonplace but considered common sense. "Bullpen by committee," whatever that is, is now derided. The only other place to go is in defining roles for the other relievers, and I believe we're well on that path.

Yet, I wonder if these more newly defined roles like "eighth-inning man" will have an unexpected effect, and this is the thought on which I will close this already too-long post: If the role of eighth-inning set-up inheres in it the same or similar traits now ascribed to a closer -- a mental toughness, an innate ability to hold a lead under tough circumstances -- such that some people have earned the spot and have to be shown incapable of the role in order to be displaced (as is hinted in the Rauch-Colome article), then would such shared traits no longer make the closer seen as . . . special? If so, might holding a lead in the eighth inning be seen as a similar accomplishment as recording "the last three outs"? And if so, might this perceived extra layer of specialization begin to chip away at the very aura of the closer in the first place?

Just a thought.