Last season, I was watching a random Pittsburgh Pirates game. The Pirates were up by a couple of runs in the top of the seventh (they were at home), and as such their excellent setup guy/temporary closer Mark Melancon had begun warming up.
Except he wasn’t warming up the traditional way relievers warm up. Instead, what Melancon was doing could best be described as “dry work”. Melancon was basically repeating his motion again and again without actually throwing a baseball. The Pirates television crew explained that Melancon does this before all of his appearances as a way to prepare himself not just physically but mentally as well. For Melancon, the dry work served as active visualization for his upcoming appearance and, as the Pirates broadcasters also noted, it was a vital piece of his preparation as he warmed up to pitch.
The point of this isn’t to argue the value of dry work or active visualization for a professional athlete. In fact, the biggest benefit Melancon derives from this practice is probably the peace of mind and comfortability that comes with working through a routine he’s likely had for most if not his entire career.
The bigger point here, and some might say the problem here, is that in order to go through his dry work routine followed by actually throwing the baseball to get loose, Melancon needs to know far ahead of time when he is likely to enter the ballgame. If Clint Hurdle were to call out to the bullpen in the bottom of the seventh to get Melancon up and throwing to enter the game in the top of the eighth, he would not have enough time to go through his dry work and then his actual throwing. But since Melancon knows before the game even begins that he will be pitching in the eighth inning if the score is close, he can give himself enough time to go through his entire routine before Hurdle even picks up the phone.
Despite all the recent sabermetric handwringing about managers being held hostage by the seemingly arbitrary Save statistic, the closer-by-committee isn’t a new idea; it’s inception came about not too long after the inception of the one-inning closer itself. But here’s the dirty little secret behind the closer-by-committee approach:
It doesn’t work.
In theory it’s a fantastic idea. Of course a team should use its best reliever in the highest-leverage situation. Whether that situation comes to start the ninth inning with a one-run lead and the heart of the order coming up or in the seventh with the bases loaded with one out or whenever else shouldn’t matter. It makes sense for the best reliever to be used when the situation calls for it, whenever that situation occurs.
But it just doesn’t ever seem to work out that way. Preseason plans that garner stories like this (from 2003) tend to end in the team trading for Byung-Hyun Kim. Teams always end up defaulting back to set roles.
There’s an important correlation-causation differentiation to make here. The teams that lack stellar closer options are usually the ones that turn to a committee, so it’s tough to make the distinction between a bullpen struggling because the individual relievers lack defined roles or the individual relievers lacking defined roles because they’re not all that good to begin with.
But as the Mark Melancon example shows, relievers today are conditioned to knowing exactly when they will enter a ballgame. It’s not as simple as telling a guy like Melancon, “you’re going to pitch when we tell you too”. These are human beings, and human beings, even human beings who play baseball for a living, are full of quirks that must be accounted for. This isn’t MVP Baseball 2005. It may be suboptimal that a guy like Melancon has to go through such an extensive routine before pitching a single innings. But the Pirates are not going to kick a guy who posted a 1.39 ERA in 2013 to the curb just because he needs to know what inning he’s going to pitch in before the game starts. It may not be statistically savvy, but for now, teams are more or less resigned to having designated bullpen roles for the near future ($).
Right now, the Indians are working with their own version of the closer-by-committee. Bryan Shaw got the first opportunity on May 11 against Tampa Bay, but for what it’s worth, Terry Francona has been mum on who will get the next save chance. His claim that he wants John Axford to retake the role despite his terrible terribleness only makes the situation that much more unclear.
But whatever happens, don’t expect the committee approach to be around too much longer. Whether it’s Bryan Shaw or John Axford or Scott Atchison (#AtchisonForCloser y’all), someone will step up and take over the role. And it won’t be because of statistical shortsightedness by Francona or Chris Antonetti. It will be because that’s what’s best for everyone in the bullpen. For now at least.