Ozzie Guillen’s Saber Bullpen

The saber prescription for the bullpen seems clear: identify your best relievers based on their component skills and use them in the right matchups according to their handedness and arsenal. Ignore the inning and instead use your best pitcher in the highest leverage moment. Basically, have a relief ace who pitches in the most important moment in the game — and then find role players to fill in the blanks.

There’s some agreement that this would be an improvement over the current set-up man/closer plan. There might never have been a ‘pen that was truly run this way.

Well, until now. Check out Chicago’s South Side.

Is Ozzie Guillen running a saber pen right now?

First, let’s identify the best pitchers in his ‘pen: Sergio Santos and Chris Sale. Santos has a 12.14 K/9, and has improved his control all the way under four walks per nine for the first time. He gives up fly balls, but he’s an excellent reliever. Chris Sale averages more than a strikeout per inning, has a better-than-average walk rate and gets more than half of his contact on the ground. He’s the only reliever on the team who can say that, although Matt Thornton is close. But with Santos and Sale, you have your two best pitchers — and one is left-handed and one is right-handed.

Ozzie Guillen uses Santos in moments that are worth, on average, 1.81 times the average game moment (best on the team), so there’s a notch in Guillen’s managerial belt. Sale is fourth in the team in this stat (1.48 pLI), but over the last 30 days, his leverage index has jumped to tops on the team (1.84 pLI). Maybe the saber-pen has been a recent revelation for the White Sox manager, but he has used Santos and Sale in the most- and third-most- important moments of the game over the past month, and that’s part of the puzzle.

When it comes to leveraging the handedness of his two best pitchers, Guillen has been a surprising star. Let’s look at the past five outings for each of his studs.

Chris Sale Batters Handedness K/BB Result
Aug 13 3 2L/1R 1/0 SV
Aug 9 4 1L/1R/2S 2/0 HLD
Aug 6 5 4L/1R 0/0 HLD
Aug 5 4 2L/2R 1/0 SV
Aug 1 7 3L/3R/1S 2/1


Sergio Santos Batters Handedness K/BB Result
Aug 11 3 0L/2R/1S 2/0 SV
Aug 9 1 0L/1R 1/0 SV
Aug 8 3 1L/2R 3/0 SV
Aug 6 3 1L/1R/1S 1/0  
Aug 3 3 1L/1R/1S 1/0  

Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 should be of particular interest. On Aug. 6, Guillen used Sale with a surgical precision. In a 2-1 game, he inserted the lefty to pitch to a stretch of five batters that included four lefties (Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome). His southpaw dominated the crew — his lineup added four runs — and Santos finished the ninth against a mixed bag of handedness. Aug. 9 was a little more radical. Guillen went with Sale to turn around a few switch hitters and finish off a lefty… and then he brought Santos in for a one-out save against a right-hander. Seeing lefties Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas up in the bottom of the ninth on Aug. 13 meant that Sale got the save, which is not your typical bullpen usage.

Sale has only four saves on the year, and two saves in a half-month for your setup man doesn’t scream “innovation.” Part of what’s going on here is that Guillen is blessed with two relief aces, so he can be more forward-thinking with his bullpen moves. He also has Thornton as a second lefty, meaning he can save Sale for a lefty-heavy ninth inning without losing his flexibility. Clearly, some of the effectiveness of this ‘pen is due to the talent that has been collected.

All of that said, Guillen seems to use his pen the way many of us wish other managers would. He has two relief aces and uses them whenever he needs them most. Sure, he might save Santos for the ninth inning enough to prove that he hasn’t freed himself completely of the closer-driven bullpen strategy. But he has also given Sale enough late-inning opportunities to prove that, for him, winning the game is more important than a single statistic. It’s a radical idea from a radical man.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

28 Responses to “Ozzie Guillen’s Saber Bullpen”

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  1. AndyS says:

    Guillen is good with pitchers. He’s just pretty bad with everything else.

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  2. Jim says:

    Being a Sox fan there are times that I actually feel Ozzie leaves Sale in too long, but I can’t argue with Sale’s effectiveness or the #s you provide above. Also, throw in Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, and Will Ohman to the before mentioned relievers and you have by far the best bullpen in baseball.

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    • therood says:

      I’m not sure I’d say “by far.” The Braves’ pen has some ridiculous numbers this year.

      I was about to say that Ohman is not really as important to the ‘pen as Frasor/Crain, but he’s actually having a pretty good year after his terrible start. Granted, he was used as a mop-up guy for most of the year. But Ozzie’s used him in some high-leverage situations of late and he’s thrown well.

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    • Dan says:

      This is the first full year that Sale is relieving in his life. I think he can handle the innings.

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    • enemyoftheworld says:

      “…and you have by far the best bullpen in baseball.”

      Here’s some White Sox bullpen statistics for you:
      ERA 3.54 (14th in MLB)
      W-L 16-16 (t-19th in MLB)
      BAA .239 (11th in MLB)
      HR 31 (t-14th in MLB)
      SV% 67 (16th in MLB)

      They are 5th in MLB with a 2.51 K/BB.

      I know the above stats don’t paint the whole picture (best I could find quickly), but regardless I don’t know how you can make an argument that they’re the best bullpen in the AL Central (Cleveland’s appears to be significantly better), let alone “by far the best in baseball”. Atlanta has the best bullpen, in my opinion, with San Francisco and the Yankees close behind. The White Sox are somewhere in the 70th percentile, I believe.

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  3. David says:

    Bear in mind also that the ChiSox pen was a disaster early in the season. Everyone who was supposed to be good … wasn’t. At least not for a month or two. As such there hasn’t been much public sentiment for any one guy to be THE closer. The reverse, in fact, was largely true. ChiSox fans were in the mode of “play anyone, just get outs”. With actual production being largely the reverse of contract size, no one much cares that Thornton is now the 2nd lefty. Whether he wanted to or not, Ozzie’s been forced into managing his bullpen the way that he has.

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    • juan pierre's mustache says:

      he’s been forced to throw guys in different roles than were expected, sure, but he could just as easily just be saying that sale’s the 8th, santos is the 9th, and not be playing the matchups and leverage situations nearly as well as described above. he hasn’t been “forced” into this any more than bobby cox is forced to never ever ever put kimbrel in the game without a 1-3 run lead in the 9th or later, even if avoidance of that means using sherrill in high-leverage situations

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    • Dan says:

      The ChiSox defense was a disaster early in the season.

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  4. TheGrandslamwich says:

    Bah, I took Sale as a late round flyer in one of my fantasy leagues, hoping he would take over the closer role. I had to drop him as soon as I could once he wasn’t taking it. Frustrating…

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  5. Frank says:

    If I remember correctly Ozzie also did this in his first season with the Sox in 2004. Billy Koch (ugh!) was originally set to be the closer, but eventually lost the job due to being Billy Koch. As the season progressed I remember Ozzie rotating between Shingo Takatsu and Damaso Marte as closers depending on the sidedness of the opposing lineup. Takatsu ended up with 19 saves that year and Marte had 6 (Koch had 8), so it looks like Ozzie erred on the side of Takatsu (which makes sense given that his ERA was over a run lower), but I think by the end of the year he was platooning them at closer pretty consistently.

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  6. CircleChange11 says:

    Isn’t using LHPs versus LHBs and RHPs versus RHBs pretty standard? It just so hapopens that Ozzie’s 7th/8th inning guys are just really, really good … and their former 8th Inning guy now closer (Thornton) hasn’t performed as expected.

    I would “believe it when I see it” if Sale was traditionally the closer, and Ozzie brought him in for the 7th inning to face a lefty with RISP and the game on the line. That would be convincing.

    The ChiSox bullpen has always been based on very hard throwers, and they’ve had Thornton to squash LHBs.

    The CWS do seem to have good success with performance of relievers, including some no names that performed well in roles (Cotts, Linebrink, Jenks, Thornton, etc).

    Earlier in 2011, the defense was killing the CWS in late-game situations. The lack of a “true” closer in the 2011 bullpen may be the cause. If Thornton had pitched as dominantly in the 9th as he has in the 8th (previous seasons), Ozzie might just have assigned innings to Santos, Sale, and Thornton.

    Even on offense, if Pierre was his usual 2.5-3 WAR, Dunn being 3+ WAR, and Rios being not a complete negative … they’d be fine.

    IMO, it goes to show how much needs to go right to win the division … without saying that Ozzie is a good manager.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Using relievers for the platoon advantage is standard. Doing so in the ninth inning with a save on the line is not! Stupid sounding when you say it that way, really.

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    • whatdoiknow says:

      pierre has been his usual self on offense since the whole team’s terrible start, its his d thats brought his war down, and lack of stolen bases

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  7. Mac says:

    Anyone else seeing some correlation/causation issues here?

    Not counting extra inning games, the last time Santos made an appearance where he didn’t close out the game (record a game finished) was June 10 when he imploded. The next most recent non-GF appearance was May 11th. He has and is continuing to be used exactly as a traditional closer.

    Santos went through a pretty heavy workload in late July. Turning to Sale as the next choice for closer when Santos isn’t available only shows that the Sox have started using their second best reliever as the back-up closer when Santos is unavailable (possibly factoring in handedness).

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      The point is taken — it’s really, really close to normal usage. However, August 13th, Santos was well-rested and available. And going to Santos for a one-out save is not quite normal either. I’m not really saying anything that should have correlation/causation problems, I’m just pointing to the fact that he’s not the typical manager when using his closer… and that his particular brand of using the pen is more saber than most.

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      • Mac says:

        Fair enough Eno. In my mind Ozzie hasn’t yet done enough to earn the title Champion of Sabermetric Reasoning. But it’s certainly an exciting development, so props to you for catching on to it. If anyone were to risk their job bucking convention, it’d be Guillen.

        In the name of science, I hope Ozzie continues to manage bullpen unconventionally. And then read your Fangraphs article analyzing the full results!

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  8. OneandOnlyBig Daddy says:

    Ozzie really doesn’t trust his former shortstop is the bottom line he would tie him with fat boy Jenks if he was still here first Thorton then sale he will find someone else when sales fails

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  9. OneandOnlyBig Daddy says:

    Eno speaking of closers if one had to go who would it be Madson, Nunez, Guerra or Santos in my 5×5 roto

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  10. Sophist says:

    Ozzie saves Santos for the 9th inning a lot, yet still refuses to call him the closer.

    Meanwhile, I’d like to see the Sox be so saber-smart next year that they put Sale in the starting rotation, so they can tap into his value better.

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    • I think that’s the plan. I like how they’ve managed Sale so far, adjusting his arm to a major league work load. I really like his upside, and am estatic to see what he can do as a starter.

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  11. mikecws91 says:

    My patience with Ozzie has begun to wear this season, but it’s true that he’s fantastic at managing pitching. I just wish we could get him to take a class on WPA and ship Oney overseas to where they don’t have internet.

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  12. jpg says:

    @ Eno- I respectfully disagree with this article. This is not a sabre revolution by Ozzie. He simply doesn’t have “complete faith” in one particular guy. I’m surprised you only mentioned Thornton in passing because his awful start to the year is the reason we’re seeing this “sabre approach” by Ozzie. If Thornton (or Sale for that matter) had gotten off to a fast start and was shutting the door consistently early on, Ozzie would go to him in every save opportunity. I see people are saying that the ENTIRE bullpen was awful to start. Wrong. One guy was unbelievable from the start and that was Santos. The guy didn’t give up an earned run until May 20th. It’s the only reason he started closing games to begin with.

    “Using relievers for the platoon advantage is standard. Doing so in the ninth inning with a save on the line is not!” Umm isn’t going with the platoon advantage in save situations the very definition of a “closer by committee” approach? I dunno Eno it doesn’t seem all that uncommon to me. Its what most managers when their closer either needs a brake, goes down with an injury or is ineffective and they don’t have another shut down reliever to turn to.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      You could be right since the sample is small, but there are some key differences between the standard ‘closer by committee because crap I have to’ and this one.

      1) The struggles that would have precipitated such a closer by committee are way in the rear mirror. There hasn’t been a recent blow-up by Santos where we can say, oh, yeah, he’s really worried about Santos. If it was, it was one bad game and it was buried deep in Ozzie’s head.

      2) Without such a period, can we say that Ozzie is really using Sale because he doesn’t trust Santos? It seems like his use of Sale has been organic. In other words, he’s just used Sale in higher leverage situations slowly and likes him against lefties more than Santos. That’s not necessarily a diss against Santos, it could actually be a deeper understanding about the worth of the platoon advantage vs the worth of having an established closer out there every time.

      And, last, I’d say that running a bullpen by committee (especially doing so without talking about making a full-time change at the position) is rarer than you make it sound. Running a bullpen by committee for a full year has happened maybe two or three times (tops!) since we went to the closer model, and if we even give the BbC those kind of numbers, Ozzie has done it once before. My recollection of most bullpens by committee is that they were precursors to a closer taking over.

      And yet I don’t think Sale is on his way to becoming the closer here.

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  13. jpg says:

    Your response is fair though I’d still say it’s more of faith/workload issue with Santos and Sale. If he had an established closer or if Thornton had been the shut down closer they thought he would be, Ozzie would trot that guy out their for every save opportunity. As good as Santos has been as a whole, he’s not an established closer. If this was a progressive manager like TLR or Bobby Valentine doing this I could buy “….a deeper understanding about the worth of the platoon advantage…” argument. But this Ozzie Guillen. Father of Oney. His use of of an oft ineffective Bobby Jenks the last few years tells me that Ozzie is a man of convention….well with his bullpen anyhow.

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