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Your ideal bullpen: resistance to change

There are some major obstacles to the bullpen revolution

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, I asked you, dear Lookout Landing community, to tell me how you would utilize the Seattle Mariners relief corps. I received 279 responses to my survey. What I wanted to gauge was how this community viewed the modern bullpen. Because sabermetric analysis is a core value of this community, I expected a pretty advanced understanding of reliever usage. The starter-setup-closer model has certainly proved itself over the past few decades but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon.

I’m going to split the breakdown of your survey results into two articles. This first article will deal with the more general question of whether baseball, and specifically the Mariners, are ready to move past traditional bullpen roles and start utilizing relievers in unconventional ways. Next week, I’ll dive into the responses you provided for individual relievers and give you my thoughts on how I would employ the team’s relief corps.

Innovation in any arena is inherently contentious. To up end the status quo requires great risk on the part of the innovator and an audience that is receptive to change. Historically, baseball as a sport has been incredibly resistant to change. Just think about how long it took for the modern closer to become a regular role in the bullpen. The specialization of the relief pitcher and the sabermetric revolution has created another tipping point.

After the Indians acquired Andrew Miller at the trade deadline last season, we witnessed Terry Francona experimenting with the best reliever in the game. This unconventional usage was highlighted during the postseason but it started in August and September. A third of Miller’s regular season appearances with the Indians came before the eighth inning and he entered a game as early as the fifth inning during the postseason. Even the postseason usage of Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman went against common practice—each recording more than three outs in a majority of their appearances.

It’s not surprising to see that this community is quite receptive to unconventional reliever usage.

A vast majority of you indicated that you would be comfortable utilizing at least one reliever in a non-traditional role (81.4%)—that includes both a mixture of traditional and non-traditional roles (72.8%) and a completely unconventional bullpen (8.6%). That second number is pretty telling however. While many of you are ready to embrace some form of innovation in the bullpen, there a very few of you who want to see a complete shift in bullpen usage. That isn’t surprising either. Innovation for the sake of change isn’t necessarily a good thing. There are some ways major league teams could utilize their relievers more efficiently, but the traditional bullpen roles established in the last few decades are common for a reason.

In any workplace, consistency and predictability are keys to success. That’s why most jobs have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Humans are creatures of habit and knowing what to expect day in and day out can be vital for productivity. The major league bullpen is no different. In a recent episode of The Ringer podcast, Twins closer Glen Perkins talks about the value of having a regular routine in the bullpen. From his perspective, understanding your role and responsibilities is a great source of predictability. A closer knows he’ll need to start mentally and physically preparing to enter the game in the ninth inning, not an inning sooner. The middle reliever might start that process earlier in the game.

There’s also a financial aspect to the resistance to the bullpen revolution. Closers are simply paid more for their work than other relievers. There’s a valid argument against the save stat but it’s part of the reality of the game today. This financial incentive has affected both managerial on-field decisions and roster choices made by the front office. For players with fewer than six years of service time, accumulating saves is a great way to increase their potential earnings during their arbitration years. Of course, that gives teams an incentive to install veteran closers in their bullpens

With all these things in mind, it’s no wonder teams and players have been resistant to changing bullpen roles. What do you think? Are these obstacles big enough to prevent teams from innovating? Are traditional bullpen roles more important than modern analysis might believe?

Next week, I’ll work through the Mariners bullpen to see where innovation might be possible and report on what you thought.