Tampa Bay best illustrates why money and bullpens don't equate so well. One season after fielding the worst bullpen in the expansion era (6.16 ERA), the Rays went into the 2008 World Series with a seven-man relief corps (righthanders Grant Balfour, Chad Bradford, Edwin Jackson and Dan Wheeler, and lefties J.P. Howell, Trever Miller and David Price) that cost them a total of $7.6 million, or not much more than what the Tigers on average are paying Benoit per year. Last season the Rays' pen was the AL's most efficient. "There's no way you could have told me five days before the season started last year that we'd be Number 1 in the AL," Maddon says. "Sometimes you have to catch lightning in a bottle."
The Rays are on the lookout for more lightning this spring. They must replace six relievers who gave them 292 innings over 360 appearances last year, only to leave as free agents for $67.65 million worth of contracts: Soriano, Benoit, Balfour, Wheeler, Chad Qualls and Randy Choate. Says Maddon, "I'm going in pretty much looking to do it by committee. If somebody wants to jump up and be the closer, I'm all for that."
The father of the modern, multilayered bullpen is Tony La Russa. As manager of the A's in 1988 La Russa won 104 games and the AL pennant by using five pitchers at least 49 times each in relief. He was the first manager ever to use so many relievers so often. (It has been done 122 times since then.) La Russa constructed a bullpen with two lefthanders (Greg Cadaret and Rick Honeycutt) and two righthanders (Gene Nelson and Eric Plunk) in front of his closer (Dennis Eckersley).
In that 1988 season relief pitchers were used for an average of 15.66 outs per game (both teams combined) and obtained 25.9% of all wins and losses. As other clubs adopted the La Russa model, bullpen usage grew steadily, reaching alltime highs of 18.87 outs per game in 2007 and 31.1% of all decisions in 2004.
An influx of young starting pitchers has helped pare bullpen use in recent seasons. Relievers picked up 17.59 outs per game last season—throwing 1,047 fewer innings than in 2007—and factored in 28.2% of decisions, the lowest rate in seven years. Overall bullpen ERA is also dropping—to 3.93 last year, the fourth straight year of improvement and the lowest mark since 1992.
But as bullpen workload is trimmed slightly, another trend has emerged: Baseball has created more relief specialists than at any time in the sport's history. Teams build bullpens with roles that have become as specific as positions on the diamond: the closer, the eighth-inning guy, the lefthanded specialist, the righthanded ground-ball pitcher, the second lefty, etc. Of the 635 pitchers who appeared in a major league game last year, 362 of them, or 57%, worked exclusively in relief—the highest percentage in history. There were virtually twice as many relief-only specialists last year as were used in 1989 (183).
The growing emphasis on specialization has created a scavenger hunt among general managers to find the 2010 version of Benoit—cheap options who don't have the skills to start but can be effective for one batter or a full inning. Benoit, whose changeup makes him effective against lefthanders, isn't cheap anymore, but he is especially valuable because he matches up well against hitters from either side of the plate. "The neutral guy is extremely valuable," Maddon says. "But there's probably no more than about one per team. If you have two neutral guys, that's a lot."
Specialists—guys who match up against like-sided hitters—are far more common, though their paths to such roles tend to be uncommon. In April 2009, for instance, the Rangers claimed sidearm righthander Darren O'Day on waivers after the Mets cut him. O'Day was 26 years old, had been signed three years earlier by the Angels as an undrafted free agent and threw his fastball below 90 mph. But his unique delivery made him tough on righthanders. "We knew as an undrafted player, he was an overachiever," Texas general manager Jon Daniels says, "and that he was extremely intelligent. He scored well on both law-school and medical-school exams. We heard a lot of good things about him, but we didn't know how good he would turn out to be."
In his first season with the Rangers, O'Day had a 1.94 ERA in 64 games and 55 2/3 innings of work. Last season he helped Texas reach the World Series for the first time with a 2.03 ERA in 72 games and the sixth-lowest WHIP (0.89) among AL relievers. He has pitched in 275 major and minor league games—all of them in relief. The rest of the Rangers' World Series bullpen included a rookie converted outfielder (righthander Alexi Ogando), a 25th-round failed starter (lefthander Derek Holland), a career 5--15 pitcher (righthander Mark Lowe), a rookie with 14 career games (lefthander Michael Kirkman), a 40-year-old lefthander (Darren Oliver) and a converted starter and rookie who was made the closer only after the Opening Day closer faltered (righty Neftali Feliz). Total price for a pennant-winning bullpen: $6.1 million.
In another era Feliz, who has the arsenal and training to be a starter, would be near the front of the Texas rotation. But now the Rangers value the 70 innings he can give them as a closer more than the 200 innings he might give them as a starter. "Now the club expects to win, he's a known quantity, and do you mess with success?" Daniels says. "I think there's a good chance Feliz will be able to be a very good starter in his career. The question is, when?"