On April 19, 2004, Jake Westbrook took over in the first inning of a game against the Tigers and pitched seven innings of perfect baseball. There is a reason that has not happened since, other than the fact that retiring 21 batters in a row is difficult. The main reason is that somewhere in the past eight years the position of long reliever has vanished from the Indians’ roster. I am not sure why this is the case, but I think it is an enormous mistake.
How many times in the past few years have the Indians used up most of their bullpen in a game that was lost? If the starter gets knocked out in the second or third inning, their standard procedure is to use as many as five guys for an inning or two each. Simple logic dictates that one of those five guys is going to be needed in a close game in the next day or two and will not be able to go. Why not have a couple of guys in the bullpen to handle all of the mop-up innings and save your most valuable relievers for the innings that can actually impact your won-loss record?
It’s not just the blowout losses that would be ideal for these guys. If the Indians are up six and the starting pitcher has 110 pitches after six innings, let one of your long men finish the game instead of using one man in the seventh, one in the eighth and one in the ninth. I would also be tempted to use these guys in extra innings, as well. Usually we have used most of our key guys getting to extra innings, and the normal move is to go two innings with guys who are accustomed to only pitching one. Letting a long man start the tenth and go as long as he can go may work out better for winning that game, as well as preserving your bullpen over the long run.
Back in the 70′s and early 80′s, every pitcher who came up for the Orioles did a stint as a long reliever before he joined the rotation. Long relief is generally a low-stress position; you are usually coming in when the starter has flat-lined, so there is little chance of winning the game. That gives a young pitcher a chance to work on his stuff against major league hitters without a lot of pressure. In my opinion, the only way to learn how to get major league hitters out is to get major league hitters out. There is a mental aspect to the task, learning how to minimize pitch count and to set up hitters so that you don’t have to throw your best pitch too often. Contrast that with the Indians’ recent tactic of having all their extra starters at Columbus. Good pitchers don’t have to do that in Triple-A; they have enough stuff to dominate without thinking too hard. I’m not saying guys like David Huff and Jeanmar Gomez would have become consistent major league starters if they had been handled differently, but I do think their chances would have been better.
If I were a major league manager, I would designate four relievers to handle the pressure at-bats. These guys would seldom pitch before the eighth inning, and never before the seventh inning, and they would only pitch if the score was within three runs. If you figure that two of them at most would pitch in every close game, that would be 60-70 appearances a year each, not an unreasonable burden. Last year for the Indians, these four guys would have been Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, and Esmil Rogers. I would use my long relievers to make sure that these guys never pitched in any other situation.
The basic standard of a successful start these days is to go seven innings, which should be achievable in 100-110 pitches, so if your starters have their act together, you can get by with two guys in this role, giving you a staff of 11 and an extra bench guy. How many times would an extra right-handed pinch hitter have come in handy last year (as long as his name wasn’t Brent Lillibridge)? Of course, we had enough short stints from our starters last year that we might have needed half a dozen long men, but that is where you use your Columbus shuttle. If one of the long men pitches two or three times in a week, just rotate someone else into his spot for a week or two until his arm is fresh again.
The long reliever spot helps rest your key relievers, provides a better training ground for a young pitcher than Triple-A, and it could save you a roster spot for another offensive player. If there’s a downside that trumps all of that, I don’t see it. The Indians would be smart to consider adding one to their bullpen for 2013?