Thursday, October 09, 2003

Closer by Committee -- or the Murderer's Row of Relief?

The supposed Closer-by-Committee approach by the Red Sox this year, suggested by the great Bill James' paid observation to Red Sox GM Theo Epstein that the solo-Cowboy-Closer was an overrated and overpaid position, has been much-maligned this year. I suggest this is not because of the concept, which after all is how the game was played for eighty years until the early 1980s, nor especially the committee in question -- more about this below -- but in retraining the field manager in the art of situational pitching management. Closer by committee is simply putting the best pitcher for a situation in the game; it results in saves being distributed across a larger number of individuals.

One of the most inaccurate readings of the effect of James, et alia, on baseball is the belief that meaningless statistics now rule the sport. On the contrary, meaningless statistics like the Win, RBI, AVG, etc. ruled the sport for decades; the most meaningless of them all, the Save, has threatened to ruin it for the past thirty; only now that James' influence is being felt in the front office are the meaningful stats being watched and the meaningless ones gradually discarded. And a great example is the alleged Closer by Committee.

"Committee" is the wrong word for this year's Red Sox pen. A committee brings to mind images of bureaucracy twiddling its thumbs and impeding progress. This no-designated-closer approach is the greatest form of Team relief pitching, and this year's Red Sox have been, first and foremost, and in marked contrast to Sox teams past, a true team effort.

Yesterday we were treated to the ludicrous observation by Tim McCarver during the Fox broadcast, when Scott Williamson entered the game in the 9th, that "you can't make a closer in October". McCarver has been slipping seriously in recent years, and in this case he clearly hadn't checked nor remembered that Scott Williamson has been a closer, for the Cincinnati Reds.

In fact, let's take a look at the arms the Red Sox have available:

Guys on the LCS roster:
Pitcher      Saves   Closing Experience          
Todd Jones   184     1995-96 part time, Houston; 1997-2001 Detroit; part-time Minnesota 2001; All-Star
Mike Timlin  116     Toronto 1996-97; Seattle part-time 1998; Baltimore 1999-2000
Derek Lowe    85     1999, 2001 part-time; 2000 full-time, 45-save season, lead league in saves Y2K
S. Williamson 54     1999, 2003 Cincinnati; spot duty 2000-2002
Tim Wakefield 22     1999 half year, occasional spot closer 2001-2003
Alan Embree    7     Spot-saves as lefty specialist, seven teams, 1993-2003
S. Sauerbeck   5     Spot-save as set-up man for Pirates, 1999-2003

Guys not on the LCS roster:
B. Kim        86     2000-2002 part to full-time, Arizona, 2003 part-time Boston; All-Star
Brandon Lyon   9     Brief stint in 2003 as Boston closer
Robert Person  9     Brief stint with Toronto, 1998

Holy cow! The active Red Sox playoff staff have more combined saves than any single "closer" in history except Lee Arthur Smith! They have one, two, three, four, five guys who have been full-time closers for at least two years. They have guys who've saved games for 16 different clubs!

You can quibble with how this pen was put together and how it performed off and on during the year, but arguably the major problems were when the Sox were violating the 'committee' concept and trying to nominate one particular guy as the 'Closer' (Kim, Lyon, et alia). And their success in September and thus far in October has been because Grady Little went with the guy for the situation - Timlin, Williamson, Lowe, without worrying about whether he was a 'starter', 'closer', or whatever. Hell, even Pedro warmed up in the pen in game 3 of the LDS.

This isn't closer by committee -- it's the Murderer's Row of Relief, the greatest assemblage of arms -- and minds -- that have successfully finished games for their teams in victory.

There have been three prevailing trends in pitching in the last 25 years.

First has been the switch from a four-man rotation to a five-man rotation. Not having learned the lesson of Dazzy Vance, major league managers spent most of the century squeezing just a bit more out of starters' arms than they ought, resulting in early ends to careers and considerably fewer pitchers in overall numbers who lasted more than a half dozen years as effective major leaguers. Moving to the five-man rotation upped the ante, even if it did technically weaken the quality one day in five.

Second has been the emergence of the "closer". Dominant relief pitchers were around in abundance from the 1920s, and particularly since WWII, but they would pitch multiple innings, switch between starting and relief, and generally filled a utility role. The number of games they pitched in was higher than that of "closers" today, and they were generally put into the most critical game situation, not the "save" situation. But in 1969, when the Save stat was invented to try to give relief pitchers some extra credit, the situations dictated by this ridiculous rule started to dictate the use of a single pitcher to always finish games. The reductio ad absurdum treatment of this concept has been that the 'dominant' closer MUST be brought in but ONLY in situations where the rule qualifies it as a save. So the 50+ save season came about.

Finally has been what I'll call, for lack of better education on my part, "LaRussaism". LaRussaism of course is the use of specialty pitchers in specific game situations, even to the point of using three pitchers in one inning to get three outs. The late 80s A's were the team infamous for this approach, one in which a "committee" was used in a game -- but in a tightly-choreographed approach of having the most favorable match-ups, often with very specific roles assigned to each pitcher, such as 7th inning righty, 8th-inning lefty, and closer, etc. etc.

LaRussaism was both forward-looking and retro at the time. It was based on the concept of the best pitcher for the situation, but it articulated very minutely what the situations were and dictated training pitchers ONLY for those specific roles. So it paradoxically emphasized the dominant closer theory, to the point that you have the 1992 Dennis Eckersley as the apex of the species.

But I daresay LaRussaism has been the downfall of many teams, including the LaRussa-lead Cards. For this approach to work, you have to have the right pitchers up and down the lineup for all those situations, you can't have injuries that force drafting of new pitchers for roles they're unaccustomed to, and it requires a stability of playing conditions and opposing lineup configurations that is frankly highly unrealistic. Stuff happens and one has to adapt.

That's where the genius of this year's Sox bullpen arrives. I believe the genius of the Bill James-Theo Epstein bullpen approach is inherently conservative, retro, and downright humanistic. Rather than viewing pitchers as tools -- 7th inning, get out socket wrench lefty, eighth-inning, get out spanner set-up man, ninth-inning get out screwdriver closer, complete assembly of victory -- they are instead used as if colors on a palette. The pitchers were acquired because they've been effective in a variety of roles. The starters are willing to pitch in relief, the relievers are willing to convert to starters. Instead of playing to the players' stat sheets, the team is played to Sox victory.

This approach requires artistry, and like most arts, practice. Situational pitching isn't necessarily all intuition, nor is it all checking the stats sheet for match-ups. The experienced painter knows from thousands of hours of practice what color will be called for in a particular painting, but may have to experiment with mixing a bit in order to understand exactly how to apply it. Grady Little and Dave Wallace, not having been given a palette at any of their managerial stops before and coming into the season with the Toolkit mentality, had to get experience in understanding -- rediscovering -- the painter's art.

And that's the point I think the 2003 Sox are at; this not being rocket science, Little has arrived at how to use the rich palette in front of him. The danger, I think, at this point is if he reverts to the conventional wisdom and tries to go with the "hot hand" as the "closer" -- in this case, right now, Scott Williamson -- in all situations. He might get lucky and get away with it, but it doesn't reflect the true strength of this 2003 Red Sox bullpen -- which is that it's not even just a bullpen, it's a pitching staff, and it's very much a team concept, and not a collection of individual specialists.

The Save rule may be the worst thing that's happened to competitive baseball in the past three decades. Ignoring it may be the best.

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