one of the most impressive teams in the first week of the season was the Twins, who went 5--2 against the Angels and the White Sox, two squads expected to contend for division titles. Minnesota has its bullpen to thank: At week's end, Twins relievers had a 1.45 ERA, 12 strikeouts and just one walk in 18 2/3 innings, including seven scoreless frames in consecutive one-run wins over Chicago.
In the absence of Joe Nathan, who is out for the year with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, the bullpen was expected to be a weak spot for Minnesota. Rumors persisted throughout March that the Twins would try to trade for a closer, with the Padres' Heath Bell the name most frequently mentioned. Instead manager Ron Gardenhire gave 6'11" middle man Jon Rauch the job, after flirting with the idea of not naming a closer at all.
Gardenhire's decision to funnel saves to one pitcher isn't unexpected. But it isn't efficient, either. The save-centric model of bullpen assembly has been around for two decades, ever since Tony La Russa created the modern closer by using Dennis Eckersley almost exclusively in save situations for the A's in the late 1980s. The success that Oakland enjoyed began a trend that has warped pitcher usage to today's extremes, when managers routinely let games slip away in the seventh and eighth innings because they insist on sticking to rigidly defined roles for their relief pitchers. Never mind that being tied in the eighth inning is a more critical scenario than having a three-run lead in the ninth; the best relievers in the game are routinely held out from the former situation so that they can be available for the latter.
That anomaly exists because a statistic—the save—is driving the process. When it comes to adhering to that process, Gardenhire is no better or worse than his colleagues, most of whom would have done the same thing he did. However, more than many other managers, Gardenhire could easily move to a strategy based on matchups because he has such depth at his disposal. The Twins have five effective relief pitchers now that Jesse Crain and Pat Neshek are fully healthy. And all five bring different skill sets to the table.
Rauch converted all four of his save opportunities last week, but he's still a risky pick to close because as a fly ball pitcher, he can be homer-prone and therefore a dangerous choice in one-run games. However, his big breaking stuff is a weapon against fastball hitters at any point in the game. Crain would be the best choice against a tough righthanded hitter (righties have hit .238 against him in his career) or when a ground ball is needed. Jose Mijares is the best of the group against lefthanded batters (they hit .158 against him). Neshek has the highest career strikeout rate. No matter how strong Rauch has looked so far, Minnesota's depth and breadth of skills cry out for a bullpen built around something more substantial than the save rule.
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