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Your Ideal Bullpen: Assigning Roles

Who’s closing, what’s a LOOGY, and I don’t know’s a setup man.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I collected some data from this community to gauge how you viewed the modern bullpen. I’ve split the breakdown of your survey results into two articles. In the first article, I discussed the various obstacles in the way of bullpen innovation. There are both physical and financial aspects to this resistance. Many of you recognized the value of some of the traditional bullpen roles—72.8% of the respondents would employ a mix of traditional and non-traditional roles in their ideal bullpen.

So what about the actual relievers in the Mariners bullpen? For each reliever, I’ll report your responses and provide some analysis. In general, it looks like Jerry Dipoto has accumulated relievers that fit four broad categories. Personally, I’d rather organize a bullpen around skill sets rather than a leverage hierarchy. This preference may lean more towards traditional roles but I think there’s some flexibility here. I’ve collected the pitchers into those four broad categories below based on how I think their skill sets fit.

RHP Edwin Diaz

An overwhelming majority thought Edwin Diaz should continue to close out games, but many of you commented that the closer role shouldn’t be strictly limited to the ninth inning. Many of you expressed a desire to see Diaz used in the eighth inning when necessary, to get 4-, 5-, or 6-out saves. He pitched more than 90 innings last year and was working as a starter throughout his minor league career until early last season. It’s possible he has more physical stamina than a normal reliever and would be able to handle an increased workload as a modified closer. This comment seemed particularly insightful: “I'd like to see 3 more outs from Diaz. This would be more taxing on his arm and make his ‘stuff’ less effective, so there would have to be a mix of traditional and non-traditional philosophies throughout the season.”

There were a number of responses who thought Diaz should be used as a “relief ace,” entering the game in the highest leverage situation, no matter the inning. Scott Servais has already dismissed this idea but I think it has some merit. With Steve Cishek on the roster, the idea of using Diaz in the seventh or eighth inning becomes more palatable. Any earlier than that and it becomes harder to see it working out. One of the reasons why the Indians were able to use Andrew Miller as early as the fifth inning was because they had some excellent relievers to work after him. If the Mariners use Diaz early in a game, the later innings could become more of a problem as you’re forced to rely on Cishek or Nick Vincent in any other critical situation that comes up.

There’s also a financial aspect to consider. Keeping Diaz out of the ninth inning would limit his earnings once he starts the arbitration process. That feels particularly ruthless and unfeeling. Seeing the Yankees disparage their best reliever this offseason showed the ugly side of the arbitration process. Perhaps an alternative would be a contract extension that paid Diaz more than the league minimum but lower than what a closer would expect to receive.

RHP Steve Cishek

Once Cishek returns from his hip injury, he’s probably destined for the eighth inning. Many of you thought the same. If Diaz remains the closer in the bullpen, Cishek becomes an interesting candidate to be used as a “relief ace.” This comment nails it: “Has former closer experience with success. So given his high leverage knowledge he can come into any situation. Be it setup, tie game in the 6th, or just pitch an inning to hold the 2-run lead.” Historically, Cishek does not have a significant handedness split. He’s limited left-handed batters to a .299 wOBA in his career and actually possesses a higher strikeout rate against lefties too. That should help him work through an entire inning, no matter the lineup. He wouldn’t be able to handle more than one inning however.

RHP Nick Vincent

RHP Evan Scribner

RHP Casey Fien

The charts for Vincent and Scribner are incredibly similar. All three of these pitchers are fly ball pitchers who have struggled with the home run in the past. All of them are able to strike out a healthy number of batters and don’t walk too many (with Scribner’s control an elite tool). Vincent has a bit of a handedness split but Scribner’s and Fien’s are completely neutral. These pitchers would be well utilized as setup men who enter the game at the start of an inning. Their above average strikeout-to-walk ratios should allow them to avoid creating big rallies whenever they enter the game. Because of their home run rates, cleaning up a mess mid-inning could result in even more damage. Vincent and Scribner are probably more suited to high-leverage innings though Fien was the primary setup man for the Twins just a few years ago.

RHP Dan Altavilla

RHP Shea Simmons

RHP Tony Zych

For those innings where a rally needs to be ended, any of these three pitchers would do well. They’re all capable of posting excellent strikeout rates as well as above average ground ball rates. Whether it’s a strikeout against the heart of the order or a double play with runners on, these guys should be used whenever needed. Each of them possesses a fastball-slider pitch repertoire leading to bigger handedness splits which means they might not best utilized for an entire inning if the matchups aren’t there.

LHP Marc Rzepczynski

LHP James Pazos

LHP Zac Curtis

The left-handed specialists. Rzepczynski is a known quantity and should be used almost exclusively against lefties. His effectiveness took a dive last year because he uncharacteristically faced so many right-handed batters. Curtis also seems to fit the LOOGY mold as well. Pazos is a bit of a wild card. His slider is good enough to generate swings from both lefties and righties. If he’s able to show a less extreme handedness split, he could peak as a left-handed setup option down the road.