Rays Bullpen By Committee

Speaking at the beginning of spring training on Tuesday, Rays manager Joe Maddon reiterated the idea that the team will use a bullpen committee to close out games this season. There’s a lively debate about how this has worked in the past, but let’s focus on why this could work well for this team now.

First, here are the relevant arms, with some key pieces of information for you visual learners. Click to embiggen.

One thing that immediately jumps out from the list is the fact that there’s no obvious closer. What you’d probably like from your closer is great strikeout punch, average-ish groundball work, and no split problems. Kyle Farnsworth approximately fits the description, but he owns a poor split against lefties and leans slightly flyball. Adam Russell has the best mix of recent success, strikeout punch, groundball work and even splits, but he has only pitched 54 total innings in the major leagues. Yes, some pitchers have succeeded with little major league experience in the closer role, but that doesn’t mean every young pitcher with a few good major league innings can close.

So, you’re Joe Maddon and you’re wearing a sweet pair of glasses, but you’ve got a mediocre mix of bullpen arms – each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Like the plan seems to be in Atlanta with Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters, it makes sense to at least use the platoon splits to your advantage. There’s little drawback other than the possible (probable) backbiting of the traditional crowd looking for their Closer with a capital C. Maybe that’s why Albert Lyu was so excited about Atlanta’s proclamation last week.

Viewing the bullpen through this lens, we see that J.P. Howell‘s health will be tantamount to the success of this venture. Among the veterans, he owns the best career FIP versus lefties. He says he’s on track to be back in the early season, and they’ll need him to be healthy. Lefty Jake McGee, who may not own enough pitches to be the dominant starter we thought he might be, should also be able to own lefties at the least. Work against lefties also might explain what Cory Wade is doing in town – that and his good control.

But platoon splits are not the only way to take advantage of different pitchers in order to close out games. Once healthy, Howell can induce grounders, perhaps to eliminate men on base. Juan Cruz has a cutter, and likes to hit the outside half of the plate against batters of both handedness. Joel Peralta likes to pitch down in the zone. Kyle Farnsworth has that high fastball. Cory Wade can avoid walking the dude if that’s the most important thing. Some of these may be approximations, but the point is these pitchers have strengths, things that they can do at elite levels.

Some made fun of Joe Girardi and his binder, and we know that small sample size issues probably pervade any analysis that focuses on how X batter does against pitch Y on the inside corner, and yet there’s probably a way to leverage this knowledge anyway. By combining the work of his advance scouts, video analysts, and the Rays’ catchers with his own version of the binder, Maddon should be able to pick the best pitcher to exploit the profile of the hitter at the plate, which seems it could be a stronger plan than sticking your Closer in there just because that’s his ‘role.’

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16 Responses to “Rays Bullpen By Committee”

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  1. Casablanca says:

    Farnsworth is a overrated juicer and choker – period.

    Anyone who considers him a closer hasn’t watched him pitch.

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  2. Embiggen is a perfectly cromulent word.

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  3. Ryan S. says:

    Continuing on the topic of Joe’s binder, is it against major league regulation to have a laptop in the dugout? I’m assuming there is.

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  4. Kevin S. says:

    Nitpicking the headline, but isn’t every bullpen a commitee?

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    • Eno Sarris says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      You are correct. Don’t know why, but I’ll leave it. Seems to emphasize the point that the bullpen is a team, and every out is an out, so I guess that’s why I’ll leave it.

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    • Coop! says:

      I think some are working groups.

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  5. teejay1324 says:

    This isn’t the deepest thought out there, but if anyone can make a closer by committee work it’s probably a guy like Joe Madden. And he’s also in a market where he can try and it not get beat down in the media for doing so. This is the kind of experiment that wouldn’t fly with fans/media in a lot of cities.

    I’m a Sox fan so I don’t want it to become the greatest bullpen in the history of bullpens for personal reasons, but as a fan of baseball I’d like to see it work out well here. Then at the least the traditionalists couldn’t just point to the 2003 Red Sox bullpen and go “See! It doesn’t work!”

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  6. anonymous says:

    I agree in a vacuum this is the best route (and for most teams that don’t have Rivera, etc), but I think in general your biggest resistance you encounter is that of the players. They like knowing approximately when they’ll be in the game, and how long they’ll be in the game for. Maddon doesn’t exist solely to appease his players but it’s unknown how much ‘knowing your role’ can affect individual performance and I think the argument should get some consideration.

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    • Sandy Kazmir says:

      I agree with you, but I disagree with the mindset. Guys still have roles, the roles are just better defined as Groundball Guy, Strikeout Guy, ROOGY, LOOGY, All Purpose, Mop Up, Longman. You can tweak what they are there to do, but they should know the symptoms of when they will be called upon. I know these guys would prefer to be 7th Inning Guy, 8th Inning Guy, etc…, but if you’re a team player it’s essentially the same thing.

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    • ttnorm says:

      I think the missing point is that it is about usage and preparation. The worst thing you can do to a bullpen is have guys throwing hard and regularly not getting them in the game. Once in a while, this is fine. But you can’t get your best guy up at the start of the 6th inning expecting to have a situation with two guys on with two out and needing that big out. That is not real life.

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      • Sandy Kazmir says:


        Relievers never get up in the middle of an inning at the first sign of trouble? Stay stretched and be ready to throw a few warm up pitches at a moment’s notice. In other words, do your dang job and shut your mouf.

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  7. Al Dimond says:

    All results-oriented discussion aside, I think it’s funny that “traditionalists” are attached to the role of the closer, given how relatively new it is. I guess fans my age (26) can’t remember a time when there weren’t closers, so it might seem traditional for us. It’s at the very least conventional by now. Maybe the idea of fixed bullpen roles easily resonates with a “traditionalist” worldview, and so has become an entrenched traditional idea despite its conflict with the older traditional view, that pitchers should finish what they start. With all the ballpark ritual surrounding the closer and the way that some pitchers are developed for the role, maybe it’s an innovation that traditionalists were waiting for all along.

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  8. elvis says:

    As a “traditionalist” I think the role of the closer is too overblown. As MLB moves on from the PED era, more games will be decided by fewer runs and it will be impossible to use “the closer” in every game. thereby creating the role of 2nd closer and 3rd closer. Not to mention a lot of managers are also realizing that frequently the “save” is the in 8th inning therefore “saving” your closer for the 9th could hurt a teams chance for victory. In 2010 we saw more 2 inning saves than any time since the 1980’s. which in turn saw more teams with multiple saves from more than 1 bullpen member.

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