Sports Nut

M-I-D-D-L-E Spells Relief

If you watch a lot of Yankees games, you’ll notice that in the hairiest, seventh- and eighth-inning jams, closer Mariano Rivera is often chilling out in the bullpen while lefty Mike Stanton is on the mound defusing the situation. Then, when the coast is clear, bases vacant, and victory all but in the bag, Rivera comes sauntering out of the pen to start the ninth. For his troubles, Rivera is rewarded with a save and a contract worth $10 million a year. Stanton gets a hot shower and half the paycheck.

It’s possible that Joe Torre does this because he secretly believes that Mike Stanton is a better pitcher than Mariano Rivera. But the likelier explanation is that Torre, like his peers, is a slave to the conventions of the trade. The managerial shibboleth is that the closer’s job is to get saves, and therefore his arm should be reserved solely for occasions when it is possible to rack one up. This not only exaggerates the role of the closer by larding their records with meaningless saves, it leaves the rest of the bullpen, the ones who do the real dirty work, criminally underappreciated.

Middle relievers started becoming an essential component of contending teams when managers stopped letting their starters go the distance. That was years ago. But their importance has grown as the standard for starting pitchers slips ever downward. These days, a starter who gives you seven innings is a godsend. Managers go to bed at night dreaming about fourth and fifth starters who can occasionally survive the fifth inning. Consequently, it’s no longer enough to have a couple of setup guys who can face a batter or two and get a big out. You need a bullpen that can give you serious innings and keep you in the game.

One of the reasons the Phillies have unexpectedly played so well this year is that in the off-season they signed up a couple of totally humdrum nobodies to bolster their relief corps. As they watched big-market teams scramble after A-Rod, Phillies fans can be forgiven for not taking to the streets to celebrate the acquisition of Rheal Cormier (lifetime record: 48-44). But piecing together a bullpen, it turns out, has less to with blockbuster names than it does with a careful balance of quality and quantity. So the Phillies matched Cormier with Ricky Bottalico, Wayne Gomes, and a bunch of other guys you never heard of, and guess what, they’ve found a way to win, despite a starting rotation that’s blighted with unsightly ERAs (here are the figures for their top five starters: 4.53, 4.82, 4.94, 5.00, and 5.54).

Other contenders have embraced the idea of a deep pen, too. The Braves dealt closer John Rocker for Steve Reed, a reliable middle reliever, and Steve Karsay, a formerly shaky closer who has morphed into a middle reliever. The Mariners spirited side-arming Jeff Nelson away from the Yankees, leaving the world champs in a bind. In the weeks preceding the All-Star Game, Joe Torre surveyed a roster sagging with the aged, the infirm, and the otherwise underperforming and decided that what he really needed to kick his team back into first place wasn’t a big bat or a frontline starter, the team’s targets in mid-seasons past, but reliable middle relief. So general manager Brian Cashman scooped up Jay Witasick from the Padres and Mark Wohlers from the Reds.

What should be done to lift the lowly middle relievers from the obscurity in which they labor? A statistical category called “holds” counts the number of times a reliever inherits and keeps a lead (at the All-Star break, Stanton was tied for the AL lead with 13, and the Phillies’ Bottalico and Cormier ranked in the top 10 in the NL). It may not be the most accurate way to measure a reliever’s effectiveness (the excellent annual Baseball Prospectus outlines a number of better, albeit very complicated, formulas), but it’s at least as legitimate as saves. Holds ought to be published alongside saves in the “league leaders” column.

What would make the case even clearer is if managers stopped the special treatment of their closers. In the tightest situations, why not call on the best available pitcher, whether that moment comes in the sixth inning or the ninth inning? The evidence suggests that the trend of only using your closer in save situations is backfiring; a recent article in Sports Illustrated reported that over the last 10 years, as closers have grown accustomed to their present, super-specialized status, the winning percentage of teams that go into the ninth inning with a one-run lead has actually dropped, from 86.4 percent to 83.9 percent.

Consider another stat, recently cited by the New York Times’ Buster Olney: In his first 41 appearances this year, Mariano Rivera retired the first hitter he faced 39 times (one eked out a base on balls, the other got a hit). For Rivera, in other words, the first out is practically automatic. This is an amazing record, but it would be even more impressive if a good number of those outs hadn’t come with nobody on base at the beginning of the ninth inning, when Rivera is usually inserted into the game. How much better might the Yankees be if Joe Torre were bold enough to use Rivera earlier in the game, just for a big out or two when runners are on, then relied on Stanton, who he felt was good enough to be named to the All-Star team, or perhaps even someone else to close out the less stressful ninth? This was how Rivera was used back in 1996 when John Wetteland was the team’s designated closer, and it can be argued that Rivera was even more dominant then than he has been since. There are obvious risks—just imagine how George Steinbrenner will react the first time Rivera gets a key out in the seventh inning only to have Jay Witasick gruesomely surrender the lead in the ninth—but a clean break from convention like this would reveal the true value of not only middle relievers, but those guys we now call closers, too. And it would probably add a couple of games to the Yankees’ win column.