Saturday, August 21, 2004

How To Manage A Bench

Jonah Keri has a new free BP article that's a very good summary of BP's stance on the proper way to manage a bench and bullpen. Essentially, Keri feels that an ideal pitching staff could consist of a four-man rotation, a swingman and five relievers who can pitch multiple-inning outings. He thinks there should be no one-inning "closer" role and no situational LOOGY- or ROOGY- type relievers.

Keri also thinks that the best way to manage a bench would be to eliminate pinch-runner types and "versatile" players who can't particularly hit or field, and to fill those spots - as well as the spots vacated by situational relievers - with real hitters who can platoon with a team's starters.

Most of these ideas make a whole lot of sense. There wasn't really any such thing as a closer until the last couple decades, and there were four-man rotations back then too. Eliminating the fifth starter and streamlining bullpens would (ideally, at least) increase the quality of a team's pitching - fewer innings for Ryan Vogelsong, more for Oliver Perez and Mike Gonzalez.

Keri's basically right about batters, too - there are tons of completely inept hitters on major league benches and tons of decent ones at AAA who don't get to play in the majors because they don't play nine positions or run fast. For example, Nashville alone has Tony Alvarez, Andy Abad, Luke Allen, J.R. House and J.J. Davis, all of whom could outhit dozens of major league bench players if given the chance. (Davis and Alvarez can actually run fast, too, by the way.)

So the quality of bench hitting could actually improve dramatically if players were chosen intelligently, even if more roster spots overall were set aside for hitters. And it makes sense to use those extra roster spots to maximize platoon advantages for hitters rather than pitchers, anyway: a LOOGY will only face a batter a game, but a righty hitter can get three plate appearances while spotting a regular against a good lefty starter. Meanwhile, all these extra hitters could be used as pinch-hitters too.

There may be at least two practical problems with the Keri (I keep wanting to write "Kerry") plan: we don't really know how pitchers accustomed to the five-man rotation or to situational bullpen usage might perform if sweeping changes were made. And perhaps ten pitchers might be one too few, especially for teams with young starters who can't/shouldn't go deep into games. But surely these issues could be resolved over time, and we know the four-man rotation and multiple-inning use of relievers can work, because both have worked before.

These changes would be especially helpful to the Pirates, who might have won last night's game, for example, if Abraham Nunez (who'd be an early casualty of the BP system - he's a perfectly good utility infielder, but do the Pirates really need three of them?) hadn't started and Lloyd McClendon hadn't removed Mike Gonzalez in order to secure a favorable situational matchup against righty Edgar Renteria. The Pirates' bench has been a disaster this year, and Keri offers some sure ways to improve it.

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