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Baseball is one of Your Humble Blogger's passions; I expect that I will write about it as often as the brilliant and necessary Jon Carroll writes about cats. Enough to annoy those who read this Tohu Bohu for its rigorously wrongheaded philosophical enquiry, but not enough to turn it into Aaron's Baseball Blog.

Anyway, given my preference for rigorously questioning things I believe, I naturally fall into the so-called "stathead" camp of baseball fans, although my actual skills and statistical analysis could generously be described as non-existent. What it actually means is that there are a bunch of things traditionally held to be true (for instance, that a lot of RBIs is a sign of a good player, who you can expect to get a lot of RBIs if he's traded to another team) which I no longer believe to be true. I have been, in these cases, convinced by people who do know something about statistical analysis that things which appear to be true, and which are intuitive, do not hold up.

So. Bullpen use. The Boston Red Sox have, more or less, rejected not one but two ideas about bullpen use. The problem with that is not only the risk that they might be wrong (and traditional use might be right), but that if they have no success, they will have no real way of knowing which idea led to the failure.

One of the ideas concerns the efficient use of the resources already existing in the bullpen. Most teams have a Closer, one go-to guy out of the bullpen whose job it is to come in when you really really need him. Except ... most teams use the guy only in the ninth inning, when ahead by one, two or three runs. A save situation. Some analysis shows that the time when you absolutely need a fireman is in the seventh inning of a tie game, when no manager in the major leagues would use a Closer. The arguments in favor of the New Idea � are primarily statistical; the arguments for the current conventional wisdom are primarily about the emotional and physical state of the people involved. I would be very interested to see what happened to a team that tried the New Idea� consistently for a year.

The problem is that the GM, Theo Epstein, has endorsed the other Idea which I have thought for a few years now, that having a Closer in the first place is not worth the money. Rather, I would put it that there are only two or three Closers worth the money at any one time, and there are 30 teams, so there are a bunch of teams overpaying their closer. So the Sox decided that they would spend their money elsewhere, and have no one fantastic relief pitcher in the pen, but a bunch of mediocre guys. The reasoning, by the way, is that no matter how you use him, a closer really only helps in close games, and it's better to have a team that regularly crushes their victims, not one that regularly wins close ones. We'll see about that, but so far...

  • Game one: lost 6-4, bullpen blew it.
  • Game two: won 9-8, bullpen nearly blew it, but held on.
  • Game three: won 7-5, bullpen successfully holds lead.
  • Game four: won 14-5, bullpen not really relevant.
  • Game five: won 8-7, bullpen dreadful but good enough.
  • Game six: lost 2-1, bullpen blew it.
  • Game seven: won 12-2, bullpen not really relevant.
If current trends continue, the Sox will win 116 games and have a bullpen that stinks on ice. Current trends won't continue, of course, but I think it's worth noticing that in seven games, the bullpen stunk four times, twice was fine but didn't really have much impact, and only once really contributed to a victory. And the Sox are 5-2. Still, that doesn't tell us anything about the best time to use a Closer, if you have one.

Thank you,


I should mention (and why not talk to myself here, as I do so often in Real Life), that the reason for my musing on the topic in the first place is that the media have been focusing on the whole business, generally referring to it as "closer by committee."

You've previously been a fan of what I suppose you could call "big ball", i.e. not relying on "small ball" tactics like steals, sacrifices, and so on. Do you still hold that view? Regardless, is it a "stathead" position?

Yep. I'm a fan of the Big Inning, and not a fan of small ball. The Run Expectancy Chart (which is a very basic thing that shouldn't be straightjacket, and which should almost never dictate individual decisions, imao, but which is instructive in the Big Picture) says that stealing at anything less than a 60% rate is going to cost you runs over the long haul. Sacrificing an out is just scary, and the only times I think a manager should do it is if (a) the out is almost certain anyway, that is, if a pitcher or JTSnow is up, or (2) the next run to cross the plate ends the game. Even then, perhaps a moment of silence for the out, and the walk that could have been, is in order.

I think the "stathead" position is pretty strongly anti-steal and anti-bunt. All of those attitudes change a lot, or ought to, depending on the situation, so playing for one run in the Juice Box against Livan Hernandez in the first makes no sense at all, but playing for one run in the ninth against Mariano Rivera in Tigertown might.

For real statheads, check out the Baseball Primer or the newly expensive Baseball Prospectus.

Thank you,

Actually the cutoff for the usefulness of a SB is substantially higher than 60%. Two-thirds used to be the general guideline, and with the offensive explosion of recent years, there are some indications that 70-75% is more like it these days. But yes, it is very situational dependent. Don Baylor having his #2 guy sacrificing in the bottom of the first at Coors was probably the case that's drawn the most mocking that I've ever seen.

As for small ball vs. 'large ball', while the statheads have certainly adopted the cause, it goes back quite a ways. After all, Earl Weaver summarized his strategy as "pitching, defense, and the three run homer."

Thanks, Jeff. Actually, there's a discussion on the value of steals over at the Baseball Primer right now. One of the interesting arguments is that the ability to steal is subject to some very harsh dimishing returns. This fellow says that the "typical" player is far more valuable (as a base-stealer) than a slug, but that a great base stealer is not that much more valuable than a typical one. Both halves of that surprise me.
Thank you,

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