In Alex Hall’s Friday post, A’s manager Bob Melvin was quoted twice. To Jane Lee he suggested he might not be wedded to having one closer and to Susan Slusser he indicated he felt the luxury of stretching out his best relievers to get 4-6 outs. Let’s analyze...
It has long been observed that "closer by committee" does not work — it basically never does — but to some extent this is a "correlation is not causation" issue. If you had 3 terrific closers on your roster, I am confident that the trio of Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Aroldis Chapman could manage to hold down most every lead even if selected by virtue only of a three-side coin flip.
"Closer by committee" does not work because managers only go to it when they don’t have any great relievers worthy of owning the 9th inning role. So of course, committees of "three ok-but-not-great relievers" always fail more than good closers do.
However, if you are selecting from among plus relievers to handle 9th inning duties, or your highest leverage situations, then picking the best matchup or freshest arm can be a fine idea. With Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Liam Hendriks, and Ryan Dull in the mix, along with Santiago Casilla, John Axford and possibly Daniel Coloumbe, Melvin truly has a chance to select from relievers who are well suited to pitching in high leverage.
Even if you aren’t big believers in each and every one of those relievers, surely if you picked from who you feel are the best four, or the four with the hottest hand/having the best seasons, you would be in pretty good shape.
Meanwhile, Terry Francona’s expert use of Andrew Miller in the 2016 post-season, and to some extent Joe Maddon’s use of Aroldis Chapman (until he arguably overdid it), may have finally revolutionized the game to emphasize using your best relievers in the most crucial moments, not just in the latest moments, of a game. Will we finally all realize that "9th inning" needs to give way to "most important inning or batter" as the time it is essential to have your best relievers in the game?
This brings us to the epiphany that the game’s most critical moments don’t usually happen at the start of an inning. Innings always begin with the bases empty and no outs, for some reason that perhaps Fangraphs can analyze and report back on, but in the middle of innings suddenly not all innings are equal.
There are clear "crossroads moments" in games where you can clearly see that the difference between a double and a strikeout, or between a single and a double play, is going to change the game very likely in way that will render the following innings relatively unimportant. Based loaded, one out, in a game you are leading by one run in the 7th. 2B and 3B, 2 outs, in a game that is tied in the 8th. The game is on the line now more than it probably will be at any time.
This is why your best relievers generally should not be saved — pun intended — for a given inning, so much as they should be employed to fight the biggest fires before continuing on since they are already in the game. Francona did this masterfully with Miller, whose 4-6 out appearances sometimes began in the 6th inning, sometimes the 8th, depending on the situation in front of Francona. This strategy is not just for a short series; it’s the right way to utilize your best relievers.
The good news for 2017 A’s is that Melvin has a lot of "better than just decent" relievers at his beck and call (although none of them happens to be Rod Beck). The great news is that Melvin appears to be up for the shrewd tactic of focusing on extinguishing fires as a top priority.
Here’s the insight that seems to have eluded so many managers for so many years: Who finishes innings is more essential than who starts innings. Folks, all innings start the same. All innings do not, however, progress the same.
In his two seasons, Ryan Dull has limited RH batters to a career slash line of .168/.184/.332, which is sensational. I want to see Dull come in to face a RH batter with a lead or tie hanging tenuously in the balance, in the 6th inning if need be. Another day, the 8th if need be. I don’t care what subsequent inning he starts or how much of it he pitches; what I care about is when he comes in.
Similarly, if Daniel Coulombe is on the roster, leverage his .230/.282/.262 career line against LH batters by bringing him in to face LHs in crucial situations — be those in the 6th, 7th, or 8th, even if it sometimes means leaving him in to face a few RH batters the next inning. The next inning will start with some margin for error thanks to the lack of runners on base.
Caught in a slugfest where neither starting pitcher is effective and you find yourself up 6-4 in the 5th inning, but facing a bases loaded two out threat in the 5th? Call on Sean Doolittle to slam the door with a fresh arm and then let him handle the 6th. That 15th out is likely to be the one you need to secure in order to maintain a great chance to win.
These practices are made easier by the fact that the A’s happen to have quite a few relievers whose platoon splits are minimal. If they’re good against anybody, Doolittle, Axford, Hendriks, and Madson all handle "opposite hand" batters just fine. (Santiago Casilla has more pronounced splits suggesting that he, like Dull, should really be leveraged more against RH batters.)
In summary, I hope to see Dull, Coulombe, perhaps Casilla, having their platoon splits leveraged routinely to extinguish fires at crucial times. I hope to see 4-out appearances become more normal than "it’s his inning" in order to leverage the importance of successfully finishing innings more than just starting them.
May the A’s bullpen be a true strength in 2017, and may part of it come from Melvin’s understanding that — I’ll say it again because it bears repeating — who finishes an inning is simply more essential than who starts it.