A funny thing happened on the way to (maybe) a National League West championship: The San Francisco Giants, long noted for their hostility toward all things sabermetrics, decided to run their bullpen just like the sabermetricians say they should.
See, statistically speaking it doesn't make sense to save one particular pitcher for save situations.
The reasons are obvious, I think. Theoretically, you should use your pitchers in ways that will optimize your chances of winning. Thus, it makes more sense to use your best reliever in a game that's tied in the eighth inning than to preserve a three-run lead in the ninth. It makes more sense to use your best pitcher against the other team's best hitters in the eighth inning than against its worst hitters in the ninth. Et cetera. Theoretically.
But no teams, even the most sabermetrically oriented, will do those things. Maybe for good reasons. But it's just not done.
Well, not often. Just like the four- and six-man rotations occasionally show up, only to disappear again a week or three later, sometimes a manager will resort to closer-by-committee, though almost never for long.*
* by the way, it's good to see the term "bullpen-by-committe" dying out, since of course every bullpen is a committee, by definition.
Which brings us to your San Francisco Giants. They opened the season with a set closer, Brian Wilson. He got hurt. They turned to Santiago Casilla. He converted 19 of his first 20 save opportunities, but in his last 17 outings he's given up 13 runs in 12⅔ innings. So Casilla's been demoted to pseudo-setup duties. And while some managers would simply have turned to Sergio Romo -- one of baseball's best relief pitchers since joining the Giants in 2008 -- Giants manager Bruce Bochy is trying something unorthodox. Via CSNBayArea.com's Andrew Baggarly, here's how it works in practice:
They got the job done Tuesday night while protecting Barry Zito’s decision in a 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Bochy tapped Sergio Romo in the eighth inning to get through the right-handed middle of the Cardinals order. After Yadier Molina hit a two-out double, Affeldt took it the rest of the way.
"It could’ve been the other way with Romo," said Bochy, who described the committee in these terms:
"When we get down to the last six outs, it’ll be Romo and Affeldt and Lopez, and if they need a break, it’ll be the other guys."
There are some big X-factors here. One, you really want (and maybe) need buy-in from the pitchers. Affeldt has expressed disdain for such an arrangement in the past, but is saying all the right things now. And two, you really want a manager who knows the right moves to make. Which reminds me, it's always surprised me that Tony La Russa never gave this a shot. Maybe he had his reasons, or maybe he was just so emotionally connected to the one-inning closer -- you know, since he basically invented the beast -- that he just couldn't do anything else.
Anyway, the Giants might have both elements: happy pitchers and adept manager. But still the inertia is strongly the other way. All it takes is two or three straight rough outings by one of the co-closers, and the manager, whoever he is, will probably simply go with the guy who's been pitching well lately.
Even as clubs have gotten smarter about the numbers, they've gotten dumber about relief pitchers, reading more and more and more into smaller and smaller and smaller sample sizes, which is why clubs are now using literally dozens of different relievers over the course of a season. Here's a news flash: THEY'RE NOT REALLY AS BAD AS YOU THINK.
More on this subject some other time, though. For now, let's just hope Bochy stays with this for a while. Life's more interesting when managers are actually using their minds.