By Matthew Michaels
One of the greatest questions all teams will try to answer over the next few years is the best usage of relief pitchers. We have seen a recent shift in how premium arms are used out of the bullpen over the last several seasons. The Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series with a trio of highly dominant stoppers. The Yankees tried to imitate that approach last year by adding Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to a bullpen that already starred Dellin Betances.
Relief pitching has experienced a change in usage like no other in baseball. For much of the first century of organized baseball, the starting pitcher was expected to finish what he began and relief outings were reserved for rare occasions of extremely terrible outings, injuries and ejections. Over time, complete games became less common, and more relievers were added to the bullpen with specialty roles being created. By the early 1950s, a new statistic was born and MLB began recognizing saves in 1969.
Closers became leaders of the bullpen, pitchers reserved for late in close scoring games. Closers racked up saves which in turn created a perceived higher value for closers compared to other relief pitchers. During the last decades of the 20th century, closers shifted from frequently pitching multiple innings to becoming solely ninth-inning men.
Late last week, the Yankees won an arbitration hearing against Betances. Betances has been the stalwart of New York’s bullpen since 2014, but he was primarily used as a setup man. It was not until Miller and Chapman were both traded at the deadline that Betances became a closer, which he experienced difficulties with. This offseason, the Yankees resigned Chapman, ending Betances’ run as closer and taking money out of his pocket in the process. Betances was looking for $5 million in arbitration: an unheard-of sum for a setup man in the first year of the process. The arbitrator sided with the Yankees and Betances will instead make $3 million in 2017, a ransom considering what he would make on the open market.
Arbitrators are looking at save totals to dole out money instead of value brought to a team. The notion that more saves signify a better pitcher is an outdated model, but is still relied on too heavily around the sport.
Last year in the playoffs, Buck Showalter never put his best pitcher, Zach Britton, into the AL Wild Card Game. The Orioles lost in the 11th inning because they never used their stud of the bullpen because Showalter was afraid to use his closer in a tied game. Meanwhile, the Indians went to the World Series in part because of Terry Francona’s usage of Andrew Miller, acquired from the Yankees. Although Miller is a closer, Francona used him in high-leverage situations instead of solely for save situations.
Showalter’s decision and Betances’ arbitration case are both signs that old school thought is still prevalent, even when we know a different truth. Dominant relievers should not be restricted by their closer roles to appear only in ninth innings with save situations. In 2017, we will see if managers decide to use their best pitchers in higher leverage situations.