There was a time, back in ancient history, when dinosaurs and Gerald Ford and doubleknit pullover uniforms roamed the earth, in which managers used their best relief pitchers in the most critical, highest-leverage situations in the game. Two-men on and the middle of the order coming up in a close game in the seventh? Get Goose Gossage in there! Or John Hiller. Or whoever. They were said to put our fires and became known as “firemen.”
Then a bright young boy named Tony La Russa came along and realized that, in some cases, it may actually be better not to have the best overall reliever come in when things got hairy. Rather, in some cases, a specialist may match up better against the middle of that order — or at least make things more difficult for the middle of that order — than the fireman. A lefty who is harder on a big lefty bat than Gossage or Hiller may be, for example. The best guy still had to pitch, of course, so La Russa gave him the ninth inning to give the opposition an almost humiliating kick in the teeth. “You couldn’t capitalize an inning or two ago, and NOW you have to face my best!” he seemed to say. “I shall now foreclose any chance you have to win!” And thus the modern, one-inning closer was born.
La Russa was a smart, smart lad and he used this approach to great advantage, winning multiple division titles, pennants and World Series and managing himself and a closer named Dennis Eckersley into the Hall of Fame.
In baseball, maybe more so than anywhere else, people copy what the smart young lads do, and many began to copy young La Russa. Except not everyone is as bright a boy as La Russa and, over time, the lessons of his specialization were sort of muddled and watered down and in some cases forgotten completely. Oh, sure, everyone is playing those matchups and talking about specialization, but the tail has come to wag the dog. Managers overwhelmingly start with the idea that their closer must pitch the ninth in save situations only — and getting that save is important! — and then they work backwards, giving those specialists their very own innings, as if their success was based on what inning it was rather than the matchup. In fact, the idea that, if you don’t have a specialist as good as the ones young La Russa had, using your best reliever to put out fires is the best idea has been all but lost to history. Today the best relief pitchers exclusively pitch the ninth inning.
Once in a while, people talk about going back to the old ways and using one’s best relievers as old fashioned firemen rather than just in save situations. It’s an interesting idea that people talk about but rarely if ever do anything about. Some closers, however, don’t even want to talk about it, so convinced that they have become that the ninth inning and the save matters more than anything else.
Like Huston Street of the Angels, who was asked what he thinks about reverting to the old fireman model:
“I’ll retire if that ever happens,” Street said. “If they ever tell me, ‘Oh, we’re gonna start using you in these high-leverage situations.’ … All right, good. You now can go find someone else to do that, because I’m going home.”
“It’s a ridiculous idea. It really is,” Street said. “The fact is, a bullpen functions best when you have roles. If you want to have a good ‘pen, you need three or four guys that you trust. And if you trust them, give them roles, so they know what they have to do every day.
“You talk to anybody that’s ever been part of a bullpen where they don’t know their roles — it’s the most miserable experience, it’s the most miserable season. Every single player — good relievers who know exactly what they’re doing in a ‘pen, know exactly how to warm up — they absolutely hate it as a person.”
He says more on that subject to David Adler of MLB.com. And perhaps he has some good points in there about the importance of routine. But perhaps it’s also the case that the model of bullpen usage he describes as “ridiculous” lasted much, much longer than the model which he believes to be ideal. Which isn’t to say that the old ways are better — they often aren’t — but that, in baseball as in life, the current way isn’t always best either and that changes should be expected as new ideas, strategies and efficiencies are uncovered.
Or maybe he should just retire and leave all of that to players who are more flexible.
(h/t Big League Stew)