Could Giants’ playoff usage of Lincecum inspire a super-reliever experiment?

A month ago, you would have been forgiven for calling this a lost season for Tim Lincecum. Ever since his two consecutive Cy Young seasons, Lincecum has been trending in all sorts of bad directions, and his difficulties came to a head in 2012. His fastball velocity has gradually decreased since he broke into the league. Over the past couple seasons, Lincecum had offset his declining stuff with an ever-increasing understanding of the art of pitching, trading the absolutely ridiculous strikeout totals of his first two seasons for a combined 451 strikeouts, which as absurd as it might sound for Lincecum was just pretty good (he had 526 K’s in his first two full seasons).

In 2012, however, things really fell apart. Lincecum pitched to an ugly 6.42 ERA in the first half, at times looking completely lost. A second half in the high threes dropped his season total to 5.18, a far cry from the Timmy of old. While the underlying numbers show that luck may have played some factor, for the most part he seems to have gotten what he deserved. Lincecum’s troubles were some of the worst a player can have; at least if a team can diagnose an injury or mechanical trouble, they can take steps to fix it.

In Lincecum’s case, no (publicly disclosed, at least) issue was found, so there really wasn’t much the team could do. One suggestion, to stick him in the bullpen, was widely met with criticism, especially early in the season. Most believed that if the Giants were going to win their second championship in three years, Lincecum would have to be a key cog in the pitching staff.

When he was left out of the postseason rotation, no one knew how key a cog he might be. Lincecum pitched 17 and two-thirds innings on San Francisco’s postseason run, meaning he pitched the third most on the staff despite starting only one game. He pitched a huge 6.1 innings of relief in the divisional series, most notably putting up 4.1 innings of one-run ball in a Game 4 where one misstep could have meant the end of his and his teammates’ seasons.

His success prompted Bruce Bochy to give Lincecum a start in the NLCS, and his results looked a lot like the majority of the games he’d started this season, struggling through 4.2 innings and allowing four runs. After that, it was back to the bullpen for Lincecum, where he pitched two 2.1-inning outings in games one and three to contribute to the team’s World Series sweep. All in all, Lincecum pitched 13 innings out of the bullpen this postseason and allowed a single run, a sac fly in the NLDS.

Lincecum’s postseason dominance begs the question of whether this could be a useful strategy for a team during the regular season. The potential problems are numerous, so no team has bucked the recent trend of ever-increasing bullpen specialization and ever-shorter outings for relievers. However, I believe that this role could be a huge market inefficiency for the right team, with the right philosophy, the right manager, and the right guinea pig of a pitcher willing to give it a shot.

If you sort all reliever seasons by WAR (or your own total-value metric of choice), you’ll notice that the large majority of the best reliever seasons in baseball history took place during the 70s and 80s. During a time in which reliever salaries have escalated immensely, the best relievers haven’t been producing nearly as much value as their bullpen ancestry.

As you may have guessed, this is largely a matter of playing time. Names like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers, and Mike Marshall populate the list, mostly as a result of 100-150 inning seasons. These totals were amassed in seasons of 60-70 appearances, meaning the early iteration of the shutdown reliever was generally used in multi-inning spurts. Compare that to the elite relievers of today, whose games and innings pitched totals rarely vary by more than five or so because for the most part they are used in the ninth inning when a save situation presents itself.

This well-defined role has a number of advantages, which make the super-reliever concept much more attractive in theory than it might be in real life. Closers understand when they need to be ready to enter a game, and can spend the seventh and eighth innings mentally preparing themselves with the knowledge that they are almost certainly going to toe the rubber for the ninth in a save situation. Racking up those saves can be a big deal for relievers, as well.

While by now writers of my ilk have rehashed the “don’t pay for saves” argument enough times to make your ears bleed, saves (as well as wins) are still an extremely important part of the arbitration process. Elite pitchers know they can maximize their value in either a closing role, where they can pile up saves, or as a starter racking up W’s. Asking one to enter an in-between role might cause problems with the player or his agent, who have personal factors to consider along with the goal of winning a championship.

Finally, a major issue is the argument that a pitcher who can effectively handle a larger workload than your run-of-the-mill bullpen guy should be maximizing his innings in a starting role. This creates an interesting set of stipulations for a pitcher who might thrive in this role.

1) The pitcher needs to be good. You don’t want to give a less-than-excellent reliever the chance to mess up more innings than he might already in a normal role.

2) The pitcher must be durable and flexible. The role requires a pitcher with the stamina to handle the increased workload, as is the case with a starter, as well as the possibility of pitching on short or no rest like might be asked of a reliever. A pitcher with Lincecum’s legendary rubber arm might be best suited for the role. Lincecum’s said to need as few as ten pitches to get warm and ready to go, suggesting he might have the flexibility to succeed. The pitcher also must be flexible in the sense that they need to accept and embrace the role in order to be successful in it.

3) There has to be some reason the pitcher can’t start. Is it a pitcher like Lincecum going through a rough patch as a starter? Is it a guy capable of bouncing back to pitch on a regular basis but without the stamina to pitch deep into games? Is it a reliever who can’t fully be stretched out but needs to take on a bigger role in the bullpen? Is it a top prospect the team is looking for a way to integrate in-season, or a team’s sixth starter? I think one is almost certain to be the case, as the team is likely to give the player the opportunity as the starter otherwise.

In addition to Lincecum, there are a few pitchers I could see as potential options who might find success in this role.

After transitioning to the rotation last year and having an excellent season, Alexi Ogando found himself back in the bullpen this year and didn’t miss a beat. The Rangers don’t have room for Ogando in their rotation (who’s already said he’d rather go back to starting next year). With his dominance they would do well to give him a shot at topping the 66 innings he pitched this year (although he missed nearly a month due to injury), and this role could be a way to do it.

Ogando’s teammate, Neftali Feliz made the jump from the closing role to the starting rotation this year, but only started seven games before Tommy John surgery sidelined him for the remainder of next year and likely the beginning of the 2013 season. If the team thinks Feliz may have had issues with the longer outings, a super-relief role might be a good way to get him involved once he returns. Feliz’s average fastball dropped from 96.3 MPH last season to 94.7 this year, and while it’s not clear whether the injury played any part in that it does demonstrate the phenomenon of pitchers’ stuff “playing up” in a relief role, where they don’t have to pace themselves and can instead let it loose.

Aroldis Chapman is basically unlike any pitcher we’ve ever seen. The guy struck out more than 15 batters per nine, ending up with 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings. Chapman’s mechanics may make the Reds wary of trying to stretch him out. If they don’t think he can handle a starting role (or think his velocity would drop too much in one) but want to see him pitch 100 innings, this could be an option. If the Reds were to go all-out and give Chapman a Goose Gossage kind of year, he could potentially win a strikeout title while throwing 150 innings. Obviously that’s not likely but he could be a force to be reckoned with if the role suited him.

The Red Sox attempted to convert Daniel Bard to the rotation this year. Let’s just say it didn’t go so well. Bard started ten games, remaining in the rotation until June before a combination of blister issues and ineffectiveness forced him out. Again, if the Red Sox would like Bard to shoulder a larger than normal workload but are hesitant to give the rotation experiment another shot this could be an out-of-the-box solution.

Finally, Lance Lynn’s transition went much better than Feliz or Bard’s experiments, but he might still thrive in this role. The Cardinals have a number of promising pitching prospects coming up through the ranks. Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller are clearly ready to challenge for a rotation slot, but the team will return each of its starters. If the Cardinals would rather experiment with Lynn and keep their top prospects on a more traditional schedule, they could open up a spot in the rotation by moving Lynn (who already proved his abilities in the bullpen on the home stretch of last season and in the Cardinals’ run to the World Series) back to the pen. They could also potentially use either of the prospects in this role to allow them to acclimate to the majors, but if the move backfired and developmental issues ensued the team’s management staff would have a lot of fairly uncomfortable explaining to do.

Overall, it’s unlikely a team will go back to the future and use such an unorthodox strategy, even if there is potential value in it. In “Moneyball,” Art Howe delivers a line that captures the essence of this issue perfectly. As he’s portrayed (another issue entirely), Howe rejects Billy Beane’s approach, saying that he is “playing my team in a way I can explain in job interviews next winter.” Nobody ever got fired for going with Intel, and I can almost guarantee that no one will get fired for taking a traditional approach to bullpen use, although the sheer amount of creativity coming out of Denver suggests the Rockies could challenge that assumption. The super-reliever will continue to be a playoff fixture, as teams shorten their rotations and look for other ways to use their back-end starters. However, I believe a team with the right situation and personnel to implement this strategy could find it might just tip the scales in their favor.

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Comments

  1. Obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Nice article.  How apropos that you mention Bard, as he was the guy some experts had the Giants picking, even if Lincecum was still available!  Lucky the Giants knew who they wanted.

  2. Doug said...

    That could have turned out very differently. The most important thing the Giants have done on the way to two championships in three years has been not missing on their top picks. When you get a top-10 selection, you have to turn it into major league talent, and the Giants basically got stars with all three, taking Lincecum 10, Bumgarner 10, and Posey 5th overall from ‘06-‘08. Could likely add in ‘09 as well, as the team picked Zack Wheeler 6, and it looks like he’s probably going to be a stud. Just unfortunate it won’t be for the G-Men. Gotta give Sabean, as well as Dick Tidrow, a ton of credit.

  3. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Yeah, totally!

    Also, a major Giants site was openly contrary about the selection of Posey, preferring instead Smoak, that would have also killed these two championships even more thoroughly.

    My research showed that even picks that high (1-5) don’t turn out to be good players over half the time, so the Giants nailing it on so many of them really appears to be an outlier.

    I would also note that if that knucklehead didn’t purposefully slide into Posey and take out his legs, the Giants probably would not have had to trade Wheeler for Beltran, as they would have had Posey still, they might have been able to get away with a lesser trade and kept Wheeler, as they were actually in the lead without Posey at the time of that trade, so with Posey, they should have had an even bigger lead and would only need an average RF upgrade instead of feeling the need for Beltran.  So that irresponsible slide not only costed the Giants Posey (potentially forever, at that time) but also Wheeler.

  4. @Bobbleheadguru said...

    Rick Porcello would fit this role as well.

    However, I am not sure you wait for an opportunity for him mid-game. You simply pitch him through the 1st nine… and give him the “opener” role.

    Slot him into the rotation spot right before Verlander (when relievers are unlikely to be in huge demand two days in a row) and tell him to go all out through nine batters. It could be 3 full innings.. or it could be less.

    The key is that you leverage Porcello’s ability for a limited number of batters and reduce his exposure when he sees the same batter the second time. Contrast this to waiting until the 5th or 6th after he has already given up 3+ runs and has runners on. I believe that Porcello (and other pitchers) would benefit from knowing they have exactly 9 batters to get out. By not “stretching” him to get the win, I think he ERA goes down.

    Ideally, you would have to couple him with a LH pitcher (perhaps Smyly?) who would take the next nine batters.. before using the rest of the bullpen.

  5. Nivra said...

    I think another major issue here is number of pitches.  One of the big reasons pitchers who could be stretched into starters don’t ever get the chance is they don’t have enough pitches.  Even a super-reliever would likely not turn the lineup over, so if you have a pitcher with the endurance, but doesn’t have 3 good pitches, he would make a good candidate for a super-reliever.

  6. Doug Wachter said...

    Nivra,

    That’s a great point. I didn’t speak to it in the article but the size of a pitcher’s repertoire is often a deciding factor in whether he becomes a starter or is in the bullpen long-term. Understanding how pitchers do the second or third time through the lineup is a key component of finding the right role for them, and your point about the pitches they throw and whether they can fool hitters on multiple occasions is a huge part of that.

  7. Hank G. said...

    Interesting article, but you should look up what “beg the question” really means. Hint: it does not mean “raise the question”.

  8. Michael Van Kleeck said...

    If there were a way to quantify the super-reliever’s success, I think you could see the concept take hold. Time for the stat nerds to come up with something!

    Holds are ridiculous, as we all know.

    I’m thinking of some sort of point-based metric, where a reliever gets points for the difficulty of the situation and the number of innings the reliever pitches while under stress. Something easy to count and measure that incorporates situational data.

    It could also be an effectiveness rating of some kind, based on the points for the situations and the points the reliever amasses or loses in those situations.

    If there was some sort of metric that pitchers and agents could take in to arbitration, they might be willing to take on this role.

  9. Doug Wachter said...

    Michael,
    I totally agree that a good metric to understand the value of relievers needs to have some relation to either leverage, win probability, or something similar that shows the difficulty/importance of the situation. I just think that whatever that metric is it’s going to require a lot more calculation than anything arbitrators are willing to consider. Teams get a very limited time to make their arbitration argument (believe it’s an hour but might be totally wrong on that) and from what I’ve heard it seems like they generally don’t want to spend that time trying to educate an arbitration panel that may or may not even consider whatever statistic they present to be a valid representation of the player in question.

  10. Marciano said...

    I’ve done my best to keep up with your articles, Doug, and I think this is one of the best yet. I agree on pretty much all your examples, but I think there is one thing holding teams back: if a pitcher can’t make it as starter because the team is especially deep (e.g. the Cards), it might make more sense for the team to trade that pitcher. Starters are in demand around most of the bigs, and the Cards (or whoever) could get a lot of value out of a trade like that.

  11. RoundHeadedKid said...

    I mentioned to my friends that this was how I’d like to see Timmy used in the future. They mentioned salary as a possible hold-up as Michael was trying to address with his metric. How valuable was Hernandez to the ‘84 Tigers?! Ever since LaRussa had Honeycutt and Eckersley to shorten games all managers think the same even without the personnel. Maybe not everyone can do it, but Lincecum has the arm and the head for it I believe. Bochy seemed to have a feel for using him that way too. Hope they can break the mold!

  12. Steve Millburg said...

    It might work better in the American League because of the DH. You could let the super-reliever pitch as long as he was effective without having to pinch hit for him in a close game. An intriguing idea. One-inning (or one-batter) reliever usage patterns force teams to give a lot of innings to their ninth-, 10th-, 11th-, and 12-best (sometimes even 13th-best) pitchers. But as a Cardinals fan, I would be stunned if Mike Matheny did anything this unconventional.

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