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A rant against baseball's use of relievers

We saw it again today: a manager brought in his third or fourth best reliever with the game on the line.

It was a tie game in the seventh inning, the A's had the bases loaded with one out, Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera were rested, and Joe Girardi brought in Al Aceves. Now I like Aceves - he's good pitcher, but that was a big mistake. Not only did Aceves fail to get out of the inning unscathed, but proceeded to kill any chance the Yanks had of coming back.

Oakland won the game today with one big inning... one. If they were merely held in check by scoring only (let's say) three runs there, the Yankees win the game. Instead, Aceves gave up three hits and six runs while recording just one out.

Sitting there in bullpen were the team's top two relievers. On top of that, they were rested: Hughes hadn't pitched in 48 hours, and Rivera in 72.

All this BS about the '7th Inning Guy', the '8th Inning Guy', the 'Bridge', even 'The Closer' has to stop. The game was going to take a major swing in that seventh inning, yet the manager went with his third (at best) option.

Baseball Prospectus puts it succintly:

Despite the statistic's name, saves are not necessarily awarded to the reliever who contributes to his team when it needs the most help, but rather to the reliever who finishes the game with a small lead. The statistic's influence has resulted in managers sometimes using their best relievers in accordance to the rules governing saves, rather than the rules governing common sense.

In an assist to the CYC, Bill James states conclusively that:

The modern usage pattern of a relief ace - the Robb Nen pattern, using relievers in one-inning 'save' situations - is clearly and absolutely not the optimal usage pattern.

The relief aces of [1963-1978] were about 50% more valuable than modern relief aces, mostly because they pitched more innings, but also because the runs that they saved had more impact... than those of modern relief aces.

Why was the value of a run saved higher in [that] era than it is now? Essentially, because

a) the situation in which a run saved has the greatest impact is when the game is tied (in the late innings), and

b) because the relief aces of that era were used most often when the game was tied.

When a relief ace was called in to pitch one inning in a tie game, the winning percentage of his team was .574. When he wasn't called in to pitch that inning, of course, it was very near to .500.

Each run saved in a tie game has more than eight times the impact of a run saved with a three-run lead. If you use your relief ace to save a three-run lead in the ninth inning, you'll win that game 99% of the time. If you don't use your relief ace in that situation, you'll [still] win 98% of the time.

The conclusion of this study is very clear. There are two situations in which the use of a relief ace is particularly helpful: when the teams are tied, and when the team is ahead by one run.

Modern relievers are used to pitch the ninth inning with a three-run lead... an average team would win 97% of those games if they brought in Bryan Rekar [career: 25-49, 5.62 ERA] in that situation.

(bold emphasis my own)

He then concludes with his three optimal uses for the 'relief ace':

  • two innings a game when the game is tied,
  • two innings a game when you have a one run lead,
  • one inning at a time in other games when the game is close at the end and the relief ace [is rested].

So why do managers continue to 'save' (no pun intended) their best relievers for save situations? Unfortunately, it seemingly has a lot to do with money and ego. 'Saves' have garnered a certain amount of prestige, and make a lot of money for guys like K-Rod who, despite setting a single-season saves record, was far from the best reliever last year. He turned that season into a $37 million contract. If I was a reliever, I'd want those saves too. But the manager is there to win, not to inflate players' egos... or is he?