Modern-day bullpen usage, can be maddening to baseball fans. Tigers fans blame Jim Leyland for the team's bullpen problems this year, and maybe some of that criticism is legitimate, but many of the things they complain about are pretty standard in Major League Baseball today. The closer role, in particular, is set in stone.
All teams have a primary closer and each has the same job description. They come into games in the ninth inning, typically at the beginning of the inning with no outs and the bases empty, with a lead of three runs or fewer. If they are able to close out the game with their team still in the lead, it is considered a success even if they allowed base runners and runs in the process.
It doesn't generally matter if another pitcher on the staff might seem to be a better fit for the particular situation such as a left-hander facing opposing left-handed batters in the ninth instead of the right-handed closer. Similarly, if the set-up man strikes out the side in the eighth and the closer has been struggling as of late, the ninth inning guy is still going to handle the ninth. Generally, the only way a closer doesn't pitch the ninth in a save situation is if he has pitched too many days in a row and the manager decides that he is unavailable that game.
Not only do closers handle all save opportunities, but they are seldom used in any other scenario. They are rarely used in tie games or with runners on base, two situations where it would seem to make sense to employ your supposedly most reliable reliever. They also almost never pitch more than one inning.
A good example is Jose Valverde, the Tigers reliever who was designated for assignment just yesterday. I'll go back to 2011 when he had is best year in terms of converting save opportunities into saves - a perfect 49 saves in 49 opportunities. In every single case, he entered the game in the ninth inning with nobody on and nobody out and got three outs. He had 15 leads of three runs, 18 of two-runs and 16 of one-run. There was not a lot of creativity going on there. He did pitch in 26 other games, but they often came in blow outs where he was only used because he needed work.
One might argue that his role was logical that year as he was successful in it and was not pitching well in non-save situations. However, it made less sense last year and this year when he was being used the same way even while struggling to close out games.
In the case of truly dominant closers, it makes even less sense on the surface to restrict them to one role. Why automatically use your best reliever with a three-run lead and nobody on base and never bring him into a game with runners on base in earlier innings? Why not use him in a tie game?
The answer we are usually given is that pitchers are more comfortable in set roles and thus specialization makes a bullpen more effective. While it may make for happier pitchers, I don't believe there is any strong evidence that teams are significantly better at holding on to late-game leads today than they were thirty years ago when bullpen usage was a lot different. Like it or not though, the closer role is probably not going to change anytime soon, not until some daring and influential manager commits to changing it.
It hasn't always been like this. Prior to extreme specialization or La Russarization, bullpens were used more creatively and seemingly with just as much or even more success in some cases than today. Examples can be found on two of the best Tigers teams in the past 40 years - 1984 world champions and 1987 division winners.
The Tigers had their glorious 35-5 start in 1984 and went on to win 104 games before plowing through the Royals and Padres in post-season. Willie Hernandez, their primary closer that year, was so good that he won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Whether he really deserved either award is arguable, but he was dominant in 1984 posting a 1.92 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in in 140 1/3 innings.
Hernandez also converted his first 32 of 33 save opportunities that year with his only blown save coming on the second to last game of the season. The 32-save streak was actually a big deal at the time and probably the main reason why he won awards. So saves were revered back then as they are today, even if they were not accomplished in such generic fashion. .
The first clue that Hernandez was used differently than modern closers that year was his 140+ innings pitched. Of his 80 appearances, 44 were for more than one inning and 15 were for three or more innings.
Manager Sparky Anderson was not afraid to use his exceptional left hander with runners on base. He inherited runners is 23 of his appearances including 10 of his saves. Because game-finishing relievers of that period were often brought in with runners on base in tight games, they were generally referred to as Firemen rather than closers.
Another divergence from today's convention was the use of Hernandez in tie games - 16 in all for the season. This was one of the main reasons for his 11 wins that year..
While he was the Tigers primary fireman, Hernandez was not the only Tigers pitcher with a lot of saves that year. He was frequently unavailable due to pitching multiple innings in previous games and sometimes Anderson preferred to go with a righty against certain teams. Thus, portly right hander Aurelio Lopez was able to net 14 saves in 15 opportunities. Lopez also won ten games while posting a 2.94 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 137 2/3 innings.
Senor Smoke also was not used anything like today's closers or set-up men. He was a true fireman entering games with runners on base 29 times in 71 games for a total of 52 inherited runners. He pitched more than one inning 41 times including 17 games of three plus frames.
With Lopez gone and Hernandez no longer effective or healthy, the Tigers had a different situation in 1987 than 1984. They had no primary closer or fireman for most of the year and Anderson had to mix and match with young right handers Mike Henneman and Eric Steven King and and southpaws Hernandez and Mark Thurmond. None had as many as ten saves, but this didn't prevent the Tigers from winning 98 games and an American League East division title.
They surely did not suffer in close games that year as the the Tigers were an an American League best 26-16 in one-run games. No Tigers fan of the time will ever forget the drama of four consecutive one-run victories versus the Blue Jays which secured the title in the final week of the season.
Two of those late-season victories were completed by Henneman, their most effective closer during the season's second half. He was not dominant with his 2.98 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 96 2/3 innings, but the 25-year old rookie helped steady a shaky bullpen after his debut on May 11 bailing the Tigers out of jams time after time.
Henneman only had seven saves and finished just 28 of 55 games, but he inherited an incredible, by today's standards, 71 base runners including eight games with the bases loaded. He also pitched 30 games of more than one inning, including 11 of three or more. He won 11 games - 5 where he entered tie games, 3 when the team was down and 3 when they were ahead before the 5th inning was over.
We will likely never see the big innings totals for relievers like Hernandez and Lopez in 1984 which might be wise, but a mix of today's more modest workloads and the creativity of earlier years seems achievable. I, for one, would like to see it.
Data for this post were extracted from Baseball-Reference.com.