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The Revolution of the Reliever

Baseball Prospectus featured an outstanding piece today on the growing importance of the reliever in our sport.

Writer James Click shows statistically how many teams now have better relievers than starters, using the Angels as a prime example, saying:

On average, bullpens have now surpassed the average starting pitcher in terms of quality of pitching. Consider the playoffs this year. If you were an opposing manager, would you rather face: Jarrod Washburn or Francisco Rodriguez? John Lackey or Brendan Donnelly? Tom Gordon or Jon Lieber? John Smoltz or Jaret Wright?

It's a fascinating argument, especially as it pertains to the A's because our little scrappy Moneyball boys are exactly the opposite of what the current trend is.

Click goes on to run through statistical proof, which I won't rehash here (you SHOULD have a subscription to BP so you can read it yourself), but his conclusion is this:

Whatever the reason, many teams across baseball now feature stronger relief men than starters, and the number of teams that do so is increasing every year. Depending on the quality of the starting pitcher and relievers who may not be available because of recent overuse, working the pitch count can still yield the added benefit of forcing the opposition to use a pitcher of lower quality. However, the frequency of that situation is dwindling with the increase in effective relievers. While it's unlikely that this recent trend signals a significant shift in roster construction or usage patterns for pitchers, it is clear that one of the theoretical advantages of plate discipline isn't so beneficial as it may appear.

So, not only is the A's current pitching configuration contrasting many of the playoff power teams in baseball, but it appears as though there may be a flaw in our batting philosophy. Because getting to the pen isn't the advantage it once was. The assumption of the weaker pitcher in the pen doesn't exist anymore. Sure, working the count can often lead to a better pitch to hit in general, but in terms of the AL West, getting to the bullpen definitely wasn't an advantage. To take Click's thoughts and apply them deeper in the AL West, who would you rather face, R.A. Dickey or Francisco Cordero?

This ultimately says to me that it wouldn't be such a bad idea for the A's to audition a bright young starter like Joe Blanton as a closer. Blanton's got a great assortment of pitches and has excellent control, which means that the dreaded ninth-inning walkfest isn't likely to happen. Granted, Huston Street has been groomed for the role, but there is no telling if he is major league ready yet. Blanton seemed to address those questions with a couple of great performances in relief down the stretch, minus a grand slam.

So, the A's pen facelift of 2005 could essentially come from the existing minor league system. Especially if the A's can't find any takers for Mark Redman. They won't have any place else to put Blanton if Redman isn't moved.

You put Blanton or Street as closer, give Garcia a shot as a seventh inning reliever. If you resign Dotel, he can go back to his natural and successful role as a set-up man.

And suddenly people might be questioning whether you'd rather face Barry Zito/Mark Redman or the power arms of the A's young pen in Blanton/Garcia/Street.