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.
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.