5.10.2005

Finish What You Started



Six complete games for the Florida Marlins pitching staff. Six complete games from only three pitchers, too. That's impressive, right? Yeah, sure, it looks good in the sports section when you're dropping kids off at the water park, and it sounds good when folks talk about it. And, yeah, I'll admit, I get a little fuzzy thinking about the good ol' days my dad and grampa told me about, when folks would throw complete games like the Black Sox threw World Series games, and a guy with 30 wins was only good enough to start when the ace showed up with his lips wrapped around a jug of his pappy's moonshine.

But this is the 2000s, and baseball's a different game. Hitters are stronger, and in better shape than they ever were. (Good thing you bailed when you did, Krukster!) These guys watch hours of video tape, read charts, do calculus, come up with all these crazy ways to make pitchers work their butts off. When you're facing guys like Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, and Sean Casey three or four or even five times a game, you gotta keep them on their toes, and that's where the bullpen comes in.

It's common knowledge that hitters tend to get comfortable when facing a pitcher for the 2nd or 3rd time around - they've seen their stuff, they're used to the pitcher's motion, and they've got a plan of attack ready to be unleashed. You replace that starter with a fresh arm from the bullpen, though, and the situation changes - the hitter's got a whole other set of pitches, a whole new motion, a whole different ball of wax to contend with. The advantage is back on the side of the defense. But you gotta keep your bullpen guys fresh.

Look at Keith Foulke in Boston - he's had an awful beginning to the year, and what's his reason for this tough start? He needs more work. When you got a guy like Foulke asking for the ball, you gotta give it to him, and the same goes for all bullpen pitchers - keep them fresh, give them regular work, and they'll take you deep into the post-season. This is what makes Tony LaRussa a managerial genius. He essentially created the modern bullpen, grouping together a set of guys that can keep hitters off their toes, and make managers burn through their bench. Want to pull out your lefty slugger to counter Matt Morris? Uh oh - here comes Steve Kline to get him out. Maybe you counter with a righty hitter, but now you just used two guys in one AB that might or might not get you what you want. That's the beauty of baseball, the game behind the game. But, right now, that beauty's starting to go away.

I had my friends at the Elias Sports Bureau do a little number crunching for me. They looked at some of the top teams in the National League on Monday, and compared the number of innings their starters pitched with the number of innings the entire staff threw. Look at these resutls:

ATL: 205.2 / 281.0 = 73%
FLA: 173.1 / 249.2 = 69.4%
STL: 197 / 268 = 73.5%
LA: 179.3 / 268 = 66%

Those are some pretty high percentages! The Dodgers have the right idea, getting their bullpen up and running by the 7th. Look at Atlanta and St. Louis, though - their bullpen's getting less than 2 innings of work a night, and that's not enough work to stay effective. Me, I'd need to throw lots of balls before I felt comfortable on the mound - sometimes I didn't get into a groove until late June!

Now, I'm not saying that these starters need to stop throwing well. That's just stupid. What I am saying, though, is that there is such a thing as being too effective. Look at recent World Series champions. Last year's Red Sox team would've gone nowhere without some spectacular pitching from their bullpen. Why'd the Angels win their World Series? Because of their bullpen. And where do you think the Yankees would be without Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill?

Jack McKeon, the skipper of these Marlins, told reporters that he's not worried about pitch counts when it comes to his pitching staff - he only cares about outs. I think that Jack should be worried about pitching counts. Not for his starters, though - his relievers. As last year's Oakland A's proved, a great starting staff can only take you so far.

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