Monday, February 09, 2004

And Bill Never Even Threw a Pitch

Let's talk about baseball, because really, that's more fun. Admit it.

Bill James really got trashed last season. The Red Sox wanted to try something different with their bullpen, it failed miserably, and a lot of the blame went to poor Bill James. Make that rich Bill James. Around the All-Star break, Boston capitulated and acquired Byung-Hyun Kim, a "legitimate" closer, and their bullpen problems settled down quickly. Boston media types chortled, shook each other's hands, and smiled widely at the demise of the "bullpen by committee". For some reason, this experiment made them nervous, and they could relax now that it was deceased. The Red Sox would never attempt such a controversial game approach again in this, the toughest market in baseball. Right? Well get those pacemakers out of moth balls boys, because the Bill James Closer (BJC) might be making a return.

A lot of things were misunderstood in 2003. First and foremost, what the Red Sox attempted to do with their bullpen had really very little to do with Bill James. Theo Epstein was unwilling to pay top dollar for a mediocre closer (take a bow, Ugie), so he opted for multiple hard-throwing set-up relievers. The notion was that Grady Little would make a daily closer selection based on match-ups, hot hands, and availability. Hence the title: Closer By Committee (Not sure how "Bullpen By Committee" got coined -- aren't all bullpens committees?). It was not an inherently bad idea, but it wasn't one that belonged to Bill James. He had stated a few years back, with some fanfare, that teams ought not restrict their closers to only the ninth inning. The most important outs of the game, James argued, sometimes occurred in the seventh or eighth, and it only made sense to ask your best reliever to pitch them. Getting three outs with a three run lead in the ninth was not always the best use of your prime arm. James never said "don't bother to get the prime arm, because boy those guys are pricey", he only suggested that once you had Mariano Rivera, you let him pitch when it mattered most. Completely logical, surprisingly simple, and solidly intelligent. But it never really happened that way. Theo got the wrong pitchers, and Grady Little never figured out how to use them. Instead of identifying his best arm and using it in the game's biggest moment, he spent months figuring out who would pitch the ninth inning, and only the ninth inning. That's getting James about as wrong as you can. So things never gelled, and when the Sox gave up on the system that they weren't even using correctly, the media touted the BJC a failure. Since then, Epstein has come clean about his mistakes. He admits both that Boston is a tough place to try a daring makeover, and that he did not assemble the right pitchers for the job. Whether he had the right manager is another question entirely, but oddly, he didn't speak to that. What Theo was careful to point however, was that he hadn't given up on the idea. "The concept isn't wrong," he insisted. Let's look then, at what the Boston GM has put together for 2004.

By signing Keith Foulke and retaining Scott Williamson, Theo Epstein has added two pitchers who:

  • Have Closed and Set-Up in the Past

  • Can Go Multiple Innings

  • Are Not Concerned With High Save Totals

  • Pitch Several Days in a Row

  • Have Contrasting Stuff

  • Now Theo has said not word one suggesting that he and Francona will try the BJC in 2004. But if, for instance, The Ninth were trying to build a staff that could pull it off, Foulke and S-Willy would be at the top of the list. Because they have both filled many bullpen roles in their career, they would be comfortable pitching in a tight seventh, a breezy ninth, or a decisive eighth. How many pitchers can say that? Also, they're very durable, so a two inning stint to get through a tough order or into extra innings is not out of the question. A couple days in a row. Psychologically as well, these are fairly mature players. They won't gripe if they're out of the limelight of the ninth inning, or if their stats don't look as pretty as some of their peers. And Williamson is fastball/split compared to Foulke's fastball/change. One following the other would be fairly tough to handle. The problem with the BJC has always been that you still need someone to pitch the ninth. Sure it's a nice idea to bring your best guy in when the situation demands, but if that happens to be the sixth inning, what do you do at the end of the game? Consistently losing in the ninth takes its toll, and you need a high quality, confident arm there. The Red Sox would now be able to have that. It's like this: 3-2 in the sixth, Giambi on second, Foulke comes in to get Sheffield. He's pitched there before, he knows how to do it. Keith gets through the frame and shuts them down in the seventh. Then, if the game stays close, you can bring in Williamson for the two inning save. There is not a big drop off in quality, and Scott is more than comfortable in the role. Foulke is the better pitcher and could be used as the primary BJC, but having Williamson available to finish occasional games and set-up in non-decisive situations could really make this work. There would be one closer, but two players who might finish games. The way Bill James intended it.

    Why hasn't Theo mentioned it then, if he and Francona will lead bullpens into the 21st century? Well, after what happened last year, would you?