Like All Baseball Experiments, the Relief Ace’s Future Will Depend on Its Success

Look, Jackie Robinson is Jackie Robinson. I’m going to use Robinson as an object lesson in discussing relief pitcher usage; please understand that I am not comparing their relative importance to the game of baseball or to the world. I just think there are some important lessons to learn from Robinson that can be applied to all new innovations in baseball. So, for purposes of this article, we are going to think about Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers as nothing more than a baseball experiment. Of course it was a lot of other things, but for the next few minutes, we’ll only be focusing on the baseball ramifications.

Robinson debuted with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. For nearly three months, he was the only black player in baseball. On July 5, with Robinson hitting .310/.399/.401, the Cleveland Indians called up Larry Doby, who became the first black player in the American League. Hank Thompson and Willard Brown joined the St. Louis Browns later that month, and Dan Bankhead joined the Dodgers in August.

Not all of these players were smashing successes, but Robinson and Doby sure were. Robinson’s quick success surely inspired the Indians and Browns to bring up their own black players, and his sustained greatness undoubtedly helped pave the way for the likes of Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and countless other early black big leaguers.

But what if Robinson had not been so successful? What if Bankhead’s 1947 season — 7.20 ERA in 10 innings pitched — had been baseball’s introduction to non-white ballplayers? Would the Indians have promoted Doby to the big leagues if the benchmark for former Negro Leagues players was a pitcher who got knocked around for four games and then sent back to the minors for two more years of seasoning?

Or, as a less extreme example, how would things have been different if Robinson and Doby hadn’t been Hall of Fame players? Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in his first season and the Most Valuable Player Award in his third. Doby made the All-Star team and/or garnered MVP votes in each of his first eight full seasons.

Six of the first ten black players in the big leagues — Robinson, Doby, Brown, Campanella, Satchel Paige, and Irvin — ended up in the Hall of Fame, and two of the non-Hall of Famers were superstars Minnie Miñoso and Don Newcombe. Mays was the 17th black player, and guys like Banks, Hank Aaron, and Frank Robinson weren’t far behind.

The 'Bullpen Revolution' has not happened as quickly as we thought it might. In the end, like all baseball experiments, its future will depend on its success.Click To Tweet

Simply put, as soon as Major League Baseball let black players in, the players were stars and the league was better for it. The overall racial makeup of big league teams has fluctuated over the years. The number of African American major leaguers has declined quite a bit in recent years, but those players have mostly been replaced by players from Latin America and Asia. The color barrier in baseball was not just breached — it was demolished.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about a white, American ballplayer: Andrew Miller. Miller, in ways that are purely superficial and not at all historically significant, has breached the “relief pitcher barrier.” After a long evolution that began with the introduction of the save rule in 1969, for the past decade or two, teams have employed their best relief pitcher in the ninth inning — and usually only the ninth inning. But for the past couple seasons, the Indians have employed their second-best reliever, Cody Allen, as their closer, opting to use the superior Miller in a “fireman” role — bringing him in when the leverage is highest, regardless of the inning or the score.

In 2016, it seemed like Miller’s usage might open the floodgates for other managers to try a similar tactic. We saw it in the 2016 postseason, when, in addition to Miller, closers like Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman were called on to do more than the usual one-inning save — although both were used in more of a Goose Gossage, multi-inning save manner than a true Miller/fireman role. The 2016 postseason also featured one of the most widely criticized managerial bullpen decisions in history, when Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter infamously left star closer Zach Britton — who had a 0.54 ERA that season and finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting — in the bullpen while trotting out six other relievers because a “save situation” never materialized. One of those relievers was losing pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez (5.44 ERA in the 2016 regular season), who needed just five pitches to allow two singles and a walkoff home run.

So after Showalter’s Blunder and the Postseason of the Fireman, the 2016-17 offseason was full of articles about how bullpen usage was changing. Then the 2017 season came and … nothing really changed. The best relievers remained closers, and closers still came in with a lead of three or fewer runs in the ninth inning. Of the 30 pitchers who led their teams in saves in 2016, 16 of them led their teams again in 2017. I’ll list the 14 who didn’t, and you can tell me if you see anyone who was moved out of the closer role for Miller-type reasons:

I see a few injuries, a suspension, and a lot of pitchers who just lost their closer jobs. Simply put, not a single team made a significant change to the structure of their bullpen in 2017.

So Miller breached the barrier, but he did not demolish it. If Jackie Robinson had been the lone great black ballplayer, it would have been pretty easy for teams to chalk it up as a fluke and keep doing things the comfortable, conventional way. When it comes to relief pitchers, there are some legitimate concerns about using your best reliever as a fireman, which leave managers feeling inclined to stay within their — and their relievers’ — comfort zones.

For one thing, one of the reasons the “Miller as fireman” situation works so well for the Indians is that they have Allen serving as a traditional closer. Terry Francona has not done away with the closer — he just has two of them, so he uses one of them as a fireman. The fact that he uses the better of the two is notable, but it’s perhaps not as revolutionary as it is sometimes portrayed.

There is also significant opportunity for backlash in this system. What if a manager uses his best reliever in a high-leverage situation in the seventh inning, and then a higher-leverage situation arises in the eighth or ninth? What if a manager uses his fireman for two innings one day, and then he’s unavailable in a big spot the next day? With conventional bullpen usage, a manager can feel pretty confident that over the course of a season, there will only be a handful of times that his closer isn’t available when the manager would normally want to use him. But it is impossible to use your best reliever in the highest-leverage situation of every game, so the fireman system requires either some crystal ball gazing or some guessing. And when a manager guesses, he’s sometimes going to guess wrong. If there’s one thing we know about managers, it’s that they are often more comfortable staying off the hot seat than employing high-risk/high-reward strategies.

Not to be forgotten, we have the fact that the relievers themselves need to buy into the system. Unfortunately, salaries are still tied somewhat to outdated stats like saves, especially in arbitration. If you take your best reliever and tell him, “You’re going to pitch in a way that will help the team win more games, but it will ultimately cost you significant money because you won’t have the big numbers to talk about in arbitration or free agency,” that reliever is likely to tell you where you can shove your revolutionary idea. One of the reasons the system works with Miller is because he has already signed a big contract — not as big as it would have been if he had been a closer for the Red Sox rather than a dominant setup man, but big enough that he’s not as worried about his financial future as, say, Edwin Diaz, who is making around the league minimum with the Seattle Mariners this year and is still almost two full seasons away from arbitration. As long as Diaz is on the arbitration path and the arbitration system remains the same, it would be completely contrary to Diaz’s best interests for him to serve in a fireman role.

So for the Relief Ace/Fireman/Super Bullpen Pitchy Guy role to become mainstream, it needs to work in more than just the one instance of Andrew Miller. As it currently stands, it would take a special set of circumstances to make it work: you need a reliever who is already being paid a lot of money; the pitcher needs to be comfortable with the unpredictability of the role; the team needs to have another good reliever who can serve as backup for the fireman, either in a traditional closer role like Allen or to serve as a fireman on days when Fireman Prime is unavailable; and you need a manager who is comfortable enough with second-guessing to go for it. There are not many teams that fit the bill. There might just be the one.

Of course, things can change. If the arbitration and free agency incentives changed, that would eliminate a huge obstacle. If more managers were doing it, it would be easier for more managers to do it (thanks, Yogi Berra!). I do think this is probably the wave of the future, but it seems like the tipping point was further off than we all thought back in late 2016. Remember: even with the preponderance of evidence, it was nearly seven years after Robinson’s debut before half the teams in baseball we employing non-white players, and more than 12 years before every team had come around. Closer usage doesn’t have the built-in resistance that baseball’s color barrier did, but it also doesn’t have the clear-cut benefits.

In the end, like every baseball experiment, the modern fireman will only be widely accepted as quickly as it is widely successful. Will Andrew Miller be Jackie Robinson, or will he be Masanori Murakami (the first Japanese major leaguer, 30 years before the second)? Only time will tell.

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