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.