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BOSTON'S BULLPEN GAMBLE
Daniel G. Habib
March 17, 2003
Spurning high-priced closers, the RED SOX are touting a new strategy and testing the odds with a mix of low-cost relievers to get them out of jams
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March 17, 2003

Boston's Bullpen Gamble

Spurning high-priced closers, the RED SOX are touting a new strategy and testing the odds with a mix of low-cost relievers to get them out of jams

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SAVE COUNT

At week's end only three teams had pitching staffs in spring training that accounted for fewer saves in 2002 than Boston's current crop of hurlers. Here are the teams with the fewest and most 2002 saves in their camps.

FEWEST SAVES

TEAM

PITCHERS WITH SAVES

2002 SAVES

ROYALS

2

2

DEVIL RAYS

3

4

TIGERS

3

4

RED SOX

6

12

A's

4

15

MOST SAVES

TEAM

PITCHERS WITH SAVES

2002 SAVES

BRAVES

3

82

YANKEES

5

81

RANGERS

6

72

DODGERS

5

56

WHITE SOX

4

56

An object lesson in the use of the modern bullpen: Last Aug. 21 the Boston Red Sox, 3� games out in the American League wild-card race and gasping for their playoff lives, were tied 3-3 with the Texas Rangers entering the top of the seventh at Fenway Park. Red Sox manager Grady Little hooked starting lefthander Casey Fossum and inserted righthander Bobby Howry, a failed closer with the Chicago White Sox before being obtained for two Class A pitchers three weeks earlier. Howry faced pinch hitter Todd Hollandsworth, followed by the first five batters in the lineup—six Rangers hitting a combined .289 and averaging 21 home runs apiece—and retired them all. After Boston took the lead in the bottom of the eighth, Little, as push-button strategy dictates, sent in closer Ugueth Urbina, who sailed past Carl Everett, Herb Perry and Mike Lamb (a combined .260, averaging 11 homers each) in the ninth for his 29th save.

This is late-inning division of labor. "Closers come in, fresh inning and bases empty," says Howry, "but the guy relieving the starter in the seventh, with men on or facing the middle of the order, that's the guy in the tough situation. Yet nobody knows who the middle guys are. That's what drives pitchers to want to close. Everybody knows who the closers are, and once you get that tide of closer, you triple your salary."

In bullpen society the pampered finishers such as Urbina—who collected 28 of his 40 saves last season by starting the ninth with a two-or three-run lead and earned $6.7 million doing it—are the leisure class, amassing gaudy save totals and fat contracts while proletarian setup men do the heavy lifting.

Though the formulaic use of Howry and Urbina worked against the Rangers, Boston's pen was dreadful overall, going 15-22 with a 4.25 ERA and 17 blown saves last season; it was largely responsible for the club's 13-23 record in one-run games. Believing that personnel as well as philosophy were responsible, Theo Epstein, after having been the Red Sox' assistant general manager last season and as the new G.M. this year, has made changes all around. He jettisoned the pricey Urbina, replacing him with a corps of low-cost middlemen—lefthander Alan Embree and righthanders Howry, Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Timlin—and decreed that Boston would no longer waste a relief ace in accumulating low-pressure, ninth-inning saves. Instead, top relievers would work the most critical outs, with late-inning tie games atop the priority list.

"The fact that we don't have a high-profile, proven, late-inning relief pitcher is probably a financial decision," Epstein says. "Using our best relievers to get the most critical outs, that's purely philosophical. We could have had closer X, but we would still be committed to using him in the seventh inning on a given day if it was appropriate. Instead of religiously waiting till the very end, we're picking our spots."

That is not a new idea. Not until the 1980s did managers begin their slavish adherence to the conditions of the save statistic. Before that, 100-plus-inning seasons and double-digit win totals, as well as healthy save numbers, were typical of durable relievers like Rollie Fingers and Mike Marshall. But what started as an effort to save wear and tear on relief aces soon devolved into the robotic deployment of the closer as a ninth-inning specialist, and the comfort of handing the ball to a known quantity at the end of each game became a powerful crutch. "When you go to your closer and he doesn't get the save," says New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, "there's no second-guessing, because that's what you're supposed to do."

Little will be subject to lots of second-guessing. Add to his plate the day-to-day tasks of playing matchups and massaging the emotions of his apt-to-be-addled relievers, and the Red Sox have chosen a psychologically taxing course. "Psychology," says Bill James, "is never a reason to behave illogically."

James is the intellectual forefather of much of today's statistically driven analysis. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 1985, with an updated edition issued in 2001, a year before Boston hired him as a senior adviser, is an iconoclastic reconsideration of baseball's conventional wisdom, grounded in empirical methods. In a section of the latest edition entitled "Valuing Relievers," James introduces a computer model that assesses the impact of an ace reliever in several late-game situations; at no time is he more valuable, James concludes, than when pitching in a tie game in the eighth or ninth, when allowing a run is most costly. "The traditional construction of bullpens in recent years has a terrible blind spot with respect to a tie game," he says. "It's focused on protecting the lead, when the most important situation a bullpen faces is a tie game. To treat that situation as an afterthought doesn't make sense."

In James's simulation, a relief ace's pitching one inning of a tie game in the eighth or ninth improves his club's winning percentage from .500 to .574; with a one-run lead in the ninth the team improves from .810 to .867. Yet with a two-or three-run cushion in the ninth—a situation that accounted for 32 of Urbina's 61 appearances last year—the impact is minimal. "If you use your relief ace to save a three-run lead in the ninth inning," James writes, "you'll win that game 99% of the time. If you don't use your ace in that situation, you'll win 98% of the time. So is that a smart thing to do, to use a precious asset in that situation?"

James only reinforced the conclusion Red Sox executives had reached on their own last June, when Little was briefed on the plan to forgo a standard save specialist in '03. The manager responded enthusiastically when Boston soon after acquired Embree from the San Diego Padres for two minor league pitchers and then got Howry.

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