A Bullpen Usage Revolution

I threw this idea out on in a Fangraphs post where it was discussed how many teams’ bullpens fail them each year and how bullpens can often be the death of contending teams as late inning leads slip away. I think the common logic is that relievers are not good enough to be starters, hence they are relievers.  Using this thought process, I begin my hypothesis of what if we just didn’t have "relievers" anymore and had a pitching staff comprised entirely of starters? Instead of thinking of a game as nine innings with someone to start and someone to finish, what if we looked at games as three part three inning outings. If someone is perfect, they will face each batter only once before a new fresh pitcher comes out. Looking at the A’s last year, here is how the club as a whole did each time they faced a hitter a second and third time:

1 PA 2.25 .244 .306 .359 .666
2 PA 2.05 .234 .298 .356 .654
3 PA 1.78 .259 .326 .424 .750
1 PA 2.15 .245 .324 .390 .713
2 PA 1.83 .301 .355 .482 .837

It follows basic thinking that the more times a hitter sees a pitcher eventually they will do better against them, and this holds largely true here (despite the very slight improvement the second time around for A’s starters in 2010). Also it is worth noting how regardless of the situation, starting pitchers pitched much better than relievers. Starters facing a hitter once, pitched much better than relievers facing a pitcher once, and the same holds true with a second go round. Furthermore starting pitchers – who I allege are better pitchers in general than relievers fared better in their second go at a hitter than relievers did in their first.

What if there never was (or there was just a severely curtailed) second plate appearance? The numbers would be quite impressive in theory. Last season the A’s hurlers threw 1431 2/3 innings. In any given year, teams should be somewhere around 1458 innings pitched, this is because some games will be fewer than nine innings (road losses that last 8 ½ innings and weather shortened games) and some will last longer. So let’s say we created a plan aimed at maximizing starting pitcher and minimizing the amount of times a hitter faces any given pitcher. The simplest way would be to have every pitcher pitch only 3 innings. And go in a rotation of pitching three innings. If we divided the 1431 2/3 innings into a reasonable 180 innings pitched we would need to have roughly eight pitchers (it comes out to 8.1 for those of you scoring at home). So what would a rotation like this look like? Let’s take the 2011 A’s. What if you did this using the first week of the season as a guide:

Fri April 1st vs. Seattle: 1-3 Cahill, 4-6 Anderson, 7-9 Gonzalez.
Sat April 2nd vs. Seattle: 1-3 Braden, 4-6 Harden, 7-9 McCarthy.
Sun April 3rd vs. Seattle: 1-3 Outman, 4-6 Ross, 7-9 Cahill.
Tue April 5th @ Toronto: 1-3 Anderson, 4-6 Gonzalez, 7-9 Braden.
Wed April 6th @ Toronto: 1-3 Harden, 4-7 McCarthy, 7-9 Outman.

This week probably as it stands now will be:

Fri April 1st vs. Seattle: Trevor Cahill
Sat April 2nd vs. Seattle: Brett Anderson
Sun April 3rd vs. Seattle: Gio Gonzalez
Tue April 5th @ Toronto: Dallas Braden
Wed April 6th @ Toronto: Rich Harden

Let’s assume everyone does their three innings of work (I am not sure how I’d handle things like extra innings yet, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll assume everything ends in nine innings) let’s compare their usage to what their average start length in their careers (this is rounded to the nearest third) has looked like:

Player Traditional Usage Model Revolutionary Usage Model
Trevor Cahill 6.0 6.0
Brett Anderson 6.0 6.0
Gio Gonzalez 5.2 6.0
Dallas Braden 6.0 6.0
Rich Harden 5.2 6.0

So despite being used more frequently, these pitchers aren’t being used more.

There was a time prior to Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley that the one inning save was a crazy notion. There was a time when a LOOGY or ROOGY would seem like a wasted roster spot. Is it possible that all relievers are a waste? The 2011 Oakland A’s have a very good bullpen and they are paying for it: the 2011 pen will cost Oakland:  $17,086,500 (I used Cot’s Baseball Contracts to come up with this figure, taking the actual salary numbers for all the relievers and using the league minimum $414,500 for the others, I excluded Josh Outman and I assumed Brandon McCarthy would be a reliever, anyone who has yet to make their major league debut was also excluded).

What if instead of spending $17,086,500 for the bullpen we invested that in three other starting pitchers. Who could be had this offseason for that money? Basically you could get: Carl Pavano ($8.25), Aaron Harang ($4M) and Vicente Padilla ($2.0M) with some change left over.

Cumulative  A’s ’10 RP 2.15 .245 .324 .390 .713
Carl Pavano 2.71 .255 .301 .345 .646
Aaron Harang 2.29 .246 .316 .398 .713
Vicente Padilla 4.33 .196 .253 .297 .550

Now your roster looks completely different. You have only eight spots awarded to pitchers, maybe a ninth to prepare and account for injuries, or for handling extra innings and so on, and you have fourteen spots for hitters which could allow for tons of flexibility in the field.

But I wonder how over the course of a season, a team doing this would fare. Wins would truly be a meaningless statistic for this group as whomever started the game would never pitch long enough to earn a win. Saves may all come in the three inning variety and may be spread among every pitcher on the staff. But for the opposing team, you would be facing lefties and righties, you couldn’t platoon guys, you’d get one look at the guy and then maybe not see him again for two weeks and these are your best pitchers in theory.

I am not advocating any team go out and do this, but I wonder if this could be something that could ever work. When I threw the comment out on Fangraphs (albeit a very brief version), there was just one response (not much time has elapsed but maybe people just don’t care also) which was "Mariano was a terrible starter". That may be because I wrote something about starters being better than relievers by and large with Mariano Rivera being an exception. But, that to me truly proves what I am getting at. Rivera didn’t work as a starter but when his focus was narrowed, he became the greatest closer in the history of baseball, and to me one of the few that actually has been a true difference maker in the history of the game. What if all our starters became focused like that on only three innings, could they see a similar transformation from passable to lights out?

Also, would this sort of pitching schedule be something that could save Justin Duchscherer and Rich Harden and other pitchers who have experienced arm trouble?

I am curious as to what others have to say.

Cross posted at: The Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan

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