The tiered bullpen is a self-perpetuating monster

We outsiders like to argue that managers should deploy their best relievers at the key moments in the games, whether those moments come in the seventh inning or the ninth or somewhere in between. But insiders will tell you that one of the reasons relievers are so tough — the ones with set roles, anyway — is that they know when to start stretching, when to start throwing, when to gulp down three cups of strong coffee, etc.

I don’t know who’s right, but if a pitcher comes into the game and doesn’t think he’s ready, he probably isn’t.

I don’t know that this is wrong in the short term but, while I’m not really one for back-in-dayisms, the fact that it certainly didn’t used to be this way means this is hardly set in stone. When relievers were expected to be firemen ready to come into a tough spot left by the starter and then pitch multiple innings, that’s what they did. Then the tiered bullpen and closer came along, and players got used to the new roles they were expected to perform.

From what I can gather from watching the multitudes of former player analysts on television, it seems that players, like pretty much everyone, have a strong status quo bias. Which makes sense when you think about it. Everyone dislikes being forced to adapt to lifestyle changes, but I’d imagine it’s especially challenging for a professional athlete whose job is already hard enough without having to worry about being caught up in a major shift in the way managers approach the strategic aspect of the game. Add in a stupid counting stat most of baseball is obsessed with, and you’ve got a big wall to push against if you want to change things.

But the thing about status quo bias is that it’s totally relative to what the status quo is. I’m actually old enough to remember (and I don’t mean that ironically) when crusty old sportswriters whined about bullpen specialization and one-inning-only closers and venerated guys like Goose Gossage. But now that the tiered bullpen has been the norm for over a decade, you turn on MLB Network and you can listen to Mitch Williams tell you how anyone who thinks Neftali Feliz should be a starting pitcher is a moron who doesn’t understand how vitally important it is to have a “proven closer” who “knows how to get the last three outs of a ballgame” while the other logically challenged former players that network employs nod along in silent agreement. Change the norm such that the best relievers are expected to be ready to pitch in high leverage situations regardless of the inning or score, and that becomes the new status quo that reactionaries defend as the One True Way to manage a bullpen.

So concerns about what players want are largely self-defeating. To the extent you base strategic decisions around the way players are used to seeing a game managed, you only prolong the inefficiency and bring the next generation of players up in the same status quo. The way to deal with inefficiencies like the tiered bullpen is pretty simple in concept; banish them from your organization and don’t look back. Yeah, you’re going to meet some resistance along the way, but professional sports are a copycat industry by nature, so if what you’re doing is noticeably better than what everyone else is doing, it won’t be that long before everyone else is doing that very thing.

4 thoughts on “The tiered bullpen is a self-perpetuating monster

  1. Matt

    The tiered bullpen system is just a way for a manager to protect himself. Can't blame the manager if his "7th inning guy" was brought in in the 7th inning and blew the game. It's a ridiculous way to manage, but it seems to be the norm.

  2. Hal Reniff

    Matt is spot on. Amazing how relievers such as Goose Gossage and Sparky Lyle and others who toiled over such "adverse" conditions over the past 60 years were able to be so successful….

  3. I have to admit, I think Neyer makes a somewhat persuasive point. You don't even have to be much of an athlete to realize that routines are generally good for performance, psychologically and physically. That said, however, it doesn't change the fact that limiting your best relief pitcher to situations where he may not be most useful is bad strategy. I think we'll see more and more managers and GMs trying to keep their best relievers in the "set-up man" role, prepared to come into games at any time in the seventh or eighth, regardless of whether his team has the lead. I think we're already seeing that in San Diego, to some extent. Not to take anything away from Heath Bell, but Mike Adams is the most dominant pitcher in the Padres bullpen, and has been for four seasons now.

    • BrienJackson

      I don't think we're disagreeing though. That's what I meant by status quo bias. People adjust to the way things are done, then they resist change to that, but once you change the way things are done eventually they adjust again. Though like I said, it's also possible that Geren isn't communicating with his players and that's adversely their performance. It's not a mutual exclusive thing.

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