Monday night, Derek Lowe, in his first appearance for the New York Yankees, posted a save. This was unusual enough for Lowe -- he's been a starter since 2002, after posting 85 saves for the Red Sox from 1998-2001 -- but it was rare for another reason as well.
Lowe threw four innings in relief of David Phelps, a reliever who's made a few spot starts this season. Phelps had his longest major-league outing -- five innings, allowing two runs -- and after 78 pitches, manager Joe Girardi went to his bullpen with the Yankees up 5-2.
Modern major-league managers, in situations like that, would typically allow a "middle reliever" to go two innings, a "setup man" to throw one inning, and a "closer" to pitch the ninth. When the Yankees extended their lead to the eventual final score of 8-2, Girardi chose to leave Lowe, who as a starter was used to being extended for multiple innings, in to finish the game. He did so in efficient fashion: two hits, four strikeouts, just 44 pitches thrown.
It was just the second four-inning save posted in 2012; Jerome Williams of the Angels posted the other one, in relief of Ervin Santana July 30, and he wound up getting hit hard, though it didn't matter in a 15-8 Angels win.
Saves of three innings or more -- which, by rule, you can post no matter how many runs your team leads by -- used to be fairly common. As recently as 2000, there were 49 such saves in the major leagues, but by 2011, that number had dropped to just 10, and so far this season, there have been nine.
The reason I bring this up is: why don't GMs and managers construct pitching staffs, which these days all include at least seven relievers, in a way that you'd have a guy like this around? With bullpens that large, why shouldn't every team try to find someone like Lowe? That would be, in most cases, a veteran starter who can pile up large numbers of innings, throw a few innings to save the rest of the bullpen when a starter is knocked out early, perhaps start a game every now and again to give the regular rotation an extra day off (hint: a guy like this would be perfect for the Washington Nationals if they wanted to give Stephen Strasburg extra days between starts), and in times when that bullpen is overtaxed, do exactly what Lowe did Monday night: put up a four-inning stint for a save. There are pitchers currently in the major leagues who could be capable of being a "super-reliever"; Baseball Nation's Marc Normandin wrote about several of them last December.
Too often in modern baseball, managers manage bullpens driven by the save statistic instead of game situations. Three-run lead, heading to the ninth: closer in, no matter how well the previous pitcher has set down the opposition. It's said that pitchers work better when they have defined roles. While that might be true, sometimes sticking to that rigid idea of roles hurts your team, because that eighth-inning guy might have great stuff one day when your closer doesn't -- resulting in a defeat.
One recent pitcher who performed that split role well was Terry Mulholland, who did it effectively for several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There's no reason it couldn't work in the 2010s, if there's a manager bold enough to do it.
Good on you, Joe Girardi. Maybe you've started a trend.