Let’s start with the Nasty Boys. While famous for their amazing name, Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton are generally regarded as the core of a great bullpen. As such, one might expect them to serve as a model for how to deploy a relief corps. However, as I was gazing longingly at their gaudy numbers, what struck me was that their stats looked little like a modern bullpen. Observe their performance for 1990, the World Series championship season:

Table1

Modern Day Oddities:

  • Five guys on the team had saves on a team that went wire-to-wire and was hardly embroiled in any “closer by committee” drama.
  • The closer got only 60% of the team’s saves.
  • Several guys that made starts (Mahler and Charlton) got saves.
  • The closer and primary set-up man pitched far more innings than they made appearances.

So if the Nasty Boys were a historically awesome bullpen, why don’t more teams manage their relievers like this? Or, to take it back one step further and ask the real question: What is the best way to deploy a major league bullpen?

Bullpen Ideal

While there’s no single answer to that question, we should be able to agree that maximizing the number of high-leverage, game-on-the-line innings pitched by the most effective relievers is a good thing.

Sadly, as with many simple sounding solutions, this is actually a complicated idea to unpack. We’re faced with a double bottom line. Do you want to get the highest leverage innings for your best relievers, or the most innings possible? Both are important, but they tend to work in opposite directions. If you save your top relievers for the highest leverage situations, you’re going to be reducing their innings. If you put your big boys in there as much as possible, they may be pitching when the game isn’t on the line and not available later on when it is.

Fortunately, there’s a fairly effective way of just side stepping this problem from an analytical perspective, at least as a place to start the conversation. First, we need to introduce the concept of leverage and a Leverage Index. Leverage is a shorthand for important. A high-leverage appearance is based on the game situation: the inning, score, number of outs and runners on base. The Leverage Index statistic is designed so that 1.0 is considered a neutral situation. Below 1.0 is a low-leverage situation and above 1.0 is high leverage. The index was developed by renowned nerd Tom Tango.

By multiplying a pitcher’s innings by his average Leverage Index, we create a new concept: Leveraged Innings. This metric combines the two key qualities we want to see in the use of a reliever. There are several ways for a pitcher to earn Leveraged Innings. He might pitch 100 neutral innings or 50 high leverage innings. Either way, he’d end up with the same 100 Leveraged Innings.

So, whether one manages for the highest leverage situations, or the most innings, the optimal strategy would be to maximize Leveraged Innings.

The Long Slow Slide Away from Good

I took a look back at the 1990 relief stats using Leveraged Innings and found that yes, the Nasty Boys were good. Both Myers and Dibble were in the top seven in the league in Leveraged Innings as shown below. The table also indicates that pitchers earned their Leveraged Innings in different ways. Greg Harris had a large number of innings at a lower leverage, while Bobby Thigpen had an insane Leverage Index.

Table2

My next stop, obviously, was to see how well Aroldis Chapman’s usage stacked up under Dusty Baker and Bryan Price. In 2012, Chapman racked up 132 Leveraged Innings, which is far below the heights that the Nasty Boys achieved, but actually pretty good. In 2013, Baker’s last year, Chapman only had 113 Leveraged Innings. Last year under Bryan Price he only earned 91. Adjusting Chapman’s number for the games he missed being on the DL would yield Leveraged Innings of 110 for 2014.

The figure below shows the average Leveraged Innings for the top 10 relievers each year from 1990 to 2014, excluding the strike season. (I averaged the top 10 to smooth out outliers.)

Chart

The decline league-wide is steady and intense, dropping from 172 to 126 over 24 years, with occasional ticks up here and there. That decline indicates that across baseball, managers have decided that getting fewer high-leverage innings from the best relievers is the way to go. Or worse, that getting more high-leverage innings for the worst relievers is a good thing.

Problem, I Name Thee Save Rule

So what does it mean? In the end is this just another stat beating of the zombie closerhorse?

Yes. I wish it were something else, but the modern-day closer is the worst incarnation of an excellent relief pitcher imaginable. It’s hard not to point an accusing finger at the Save statistic. The Save statistic was adopted in 1969. Identifying a single pitcher as the team’s closer who will earn all the saves encourages reduced innings (the 9th inning is all you need for a save) and reduced leverage (only when your team is in the lead, and a 3-run lead still qualifies) for that pitcher.

I ran a few regressions (won’t bore you with the details) that indicate back in the early 90s, Leveraged Innings were more correlated with being good (ERA, FIP) than they were with saves, and now it’s reversed. To put it simply, the move by managers to the modern day, save-based closer has reduced the overall number of Leverage Innings pitched by the team’s best pitchers. The determining factor for being assigned Leverage Innings now is how many saves you get, not how good you are. Organizations pay closers based on saves. Managers help their closers accumulate them.

The question needs to be begged and pleaded, when will an organization order their manager to go back to a Nastier model of using the pen?

If a team could get two pitchers the combined 330 Leveraged Innings that Dibble and Myers threw in 1990, it would be like gaining a free elite reliever compared to conventional usage patterns. There’s a real opportunity for a courageous manager to take advantage of how badly everyone uses their best relievers right now. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Bryan Price is going to be the guy to do it.

40 Responses

  1. Matt WI

    Nice post. I’m full on board. I wonder if that would also help pull down “closer” salaries and decrease poorly distributed monies for a team?

    • Jeremy Conley

      Yeah, I think eliminating (or radically changing) the save stat would probably have a positive impact on salaries too. Fundamentally teams should pay for value, and the save stat leads them away from a) getting value (by reducing innings) and b) identifying value (by making some pitchers look better than they are by pumping up a pointless number).

      If all pitchers were paid based on value, like WAR or something similar, you’d probably see more pitchers getting pushed to have more innings, and see their salaries more in line with the value of a starter.

  2. Chris Miller

    Outstanding article! I would only add one thing, and that is, most pitchers probably can’t do the combination of innings and leveraged innings that say, Dibble and Meyers produced. Dibble has written and talked about how he had to take drugs to enable his arm to take the constant beating that it did. You mentioned Chapman in 2012. That was the year that Dusty used him as his go to guy in whatever part of the game he was needed in, because Marshall was still the guy with the title of closer. Once Chapman took that role over in May, his leveraged innings probably dropped immensely.

    • Jeremy Conley

      Thanks Chris. I think you’re right, this is really about the elite relievers. I don’t think that you have to take drugs to pitch 100 innings out of the pen, but probably only the best of the best could do that and still be good enough to pitch in high-leverage situations.

      But when we’re talking about the best closers in the game, we’re talking about the elite pitchers. While I used a lot of numbers (because I like that side of the game) really we’re just talking about giving the ball to your closer in the 7th and 8th innings sometimes when the game is on the line, and giving the ball to the Tim Layanas of the world when you’re up by three in the 9th.

      That would give your closer 20+ extra innings, and get them in the game at more important times.

      • Jeremy Conley

        Good link Kevin. That article also does a nice job of explaining the different kinds of leverage that you can measure. The leverage index that I used for my post was gmLI, or game leverage index, which tells you the leverage of the situation that a reliever is brought in to face.

        I thought that gmLI made the most sense to use for this review because the argument against using closers for more innings is that you would end up bringing them in when the game isn’t on the line and then not having them in reserve for when it is. So I was focused on the leverage of the situation each pitcher was brought in to face.

      • Kevin Michell

        I agree, especially for taking the top 10 averages gmLI is the most demonstrable statistic for this.

  3. WVRedlegs

    I’ve often thought a Nasty Boys style bullpen should be the model for the Reds bullpen. Your articulation of it and how to put one together using the LI is great example. Could you imagine Chapman at 66 G’s with 86.2 IP and what he could accomplish?
    I like the old school fireman. The guys who come in and put fires out. Guys that come in with the bases loaded and one out and get out of the jam without giving up a run. Those are the guys that should earn more, not a guy to come in and get 3 outs in the 9th inning with a 2-3 run lead. When I think of Reds firemen, the likes of Clay Carroll and Pedro Bourbon pop up.
    As the Dodgers and Tigers have shown us recently, a mediocre bullpen in the playoffs gets you eliminated. You can have good offense, defense, and starting pitching, but if your bullpen falters in the playoffs, pack your stuff up.
    Which bring us around to the 2015 Reds bullpen and how it is being constructed. I would have a hard time believing that Jocketty even knows what a Leverage Index is. Other than with Chapman, Jocketty is using the Wing & Prayer method. That his two lefty’s wings have healed and many prayers out that Jumbo doesn’t have a sophmore slump, Iglesias can get MLB hitters out, and Hoover can get his fastball down in the strike zone. And then throw about 20 minor league contracts at the wall and a prayer that one can stick for the last spot. A far cry from the Nasty Boys approach.

    • wvredlegs

      On the other side of the coin, and giving Jocketty the benefit of the doubt, could Chapman, Iglesias and Jumbo be the makings of a Nasty Boys bullpen in 2015?

    • Jeremy Conley

      I really thought that 2014 was going to be the year that the Reds changed their approach with the bullpen. We had a new manager with Price, and we had two closers in Chapman and Broxton that could have been a really nice Myers and Dibble.

      Then the freak injury to Chapman happened, the rest of the pen imploded, and Price sort of looked like he didn’t know what to do at times. Here’s hoping 2015 is better, but I agree, there are a lot of question marks going into the year.

      But just as a start, if you started using Chapman in the 7th and 8th sometimes, and then gave some 3 run saves to LeCure for example, that would be a great step in the right direction. But then you’d have to deal with Chapman’s agent, because he would be getting “robbed” of those saves.

      The save stat has really burrowed deep into the game now, and it’s going to take a real maverick to dig it out.

      • reaganspad

        Chapman’s agent can kiss my Redleg Nation Tee Shirt.

        You want to get paid. Ask for the ball to start the game. we currently have 2 openings for pitchers desiring to show their worth and give their best to the team.

        Norm Charlton, 154 innings was more valuable than any season Chapman has put in. And I am a Chapman fan, but for goodness sakes, demand the ball.

        Charlton would have toppled Pinella if he tried to hold him to 60 innings.

        And Dibble was the most valuable pitcher that year. He came in to put out fires and few were in the 9th inning.

        My recollection was that Myers was fairly traditional, starting the 9th inning. I never understood why they took Dibble out of those games

      • Jeremy Conley

        Myers was more of the “closer,” but remember, he had 20 more IP than appearances, so he was pitching before the 9th pretty regularly, and he only got 60% of the total saves.

        In 2013, when he was healthy, Chapman got 88% of the saves.

        And that really is the frustrating thing about this: it’s really not that big of a change that could really improve the team. We’re not talking about going back to the deadball era and having 3 relievers total. We’re talking about getting your best relievers about 20 more innings per year, which would effectively take the place of one of your worst relievers at the back end of the pen. Who doesn’t want to substitute Chapman innings for Ondrusek innings?

        And really the only thing you have to do to get there is be willing to give saves to other pitchers here and there. Sometimes to your #2 (Dibble), and every once in a while to some scrub when you have a 3 run lead and it’s the bottom of the order due up.

      • Tom Gray

        Amazingly the Reds traded an even better closer (John Franco) to get Randy Myers. It was a classic trade that turned out well for both teams.

  4. Kevin Michell

    This is great, Jeremy.

    This makes me wonder if any managers are straying a bit from the norms (Joe Maddon comes to mind as one who would be apt to abandon conventional philosophy). Did you find any modern outliers in LI accumulation when you did your analysis?

    • Jeremy Conley

      Looking for outliers is a good idea that I didn’t really get to. There’s certainly a lot more analysis to dig into, this is just a start to the discussion.

      Taking a quick look, here are the top LI relievers over the last 10 years.

      2005, Scott Sheilds, Angels, 177
      2006, Scott Proctor, Yankees, 148
      2007, Raphael Betancourt, Indians, 141
      2008, Francisco Rodriquez, Angels, 145
      2009, Brian Wilson, Giants, 143
      2010, Daniel Bard, Red Sox, 141
      2011, Tyler Clippard, Nationals, 147
      2012, Matt Belisle, Rockies, 134
      2013, Jim Johnson, Orioles, 129
      2014, David Robertson, Yankees, 133

      Not that informative really. From a cursory review, it seems like maybe the Yankees and Angels have been a little better at maximizing LI than other teams, but the issue is that relievers are so volatile, and from year-to-year the leader board is mostly about who has the horses, so it’s hard to pick up any trends.

      That’s why the the average of the top 10 guys is so interesting. Pretty much every team shows up on the list at one time or another when one of their relievers has a great year, but overall, the number of LI that the best guys get just keeps going down.

      • Kevin Michell

        Yeah, there’s just so much bullpen turnover and turmoil for some teams over a season or series of seasons it seems pretty hard to draw trends from the individuals.

        Seeing how dramatically the Top 10 average has fallen over the years makes me think it could be a substantial advantage for a team if they were to deploy their relievers in a sort of LI-based hierarchy. Like the Royals, for example. People were saying this without explicitly saying this last year I think, especially in the postseason- when you’ve got three horses like Holland, Davis, and Herrera, mixing and matching based on the situation seems really smart. I wonder if, properly employed, doing this could actually result in a win or two more over the course of a season.

      • THEGAFFER

        I think the take away is that high leverage is often NOT the closer.

      • Kevin Michell

        @thegaffer, partially. Leverage exists independently from the label of closer, set-up man, et al. The ninth inning will still be a high-leverage situation in a one-run game, but less so than, say, two on, one out, in the seventh with the same score.

        The takeaway should primarily be that you eradicate the connotation of closer and instead consider your bullpen in terms of ace, #2, etc. For my example of the Royals, Ned Yost could have employed Holland in the highest-leverage situation to arise, Davis in the next highest, Herrera after that (or flip the last two, if you like Herrera more than Davis). Thus, if Kansas City is about to face the heart of the Tigers’ order in the eighth, Greg Holland should come in to face Martinez, Cabrera, and Martinez over Wade Davis because he’s your bullpen ace.

      • Jeremy Conley

        Yeah, that’s more or less what I’m thinking. A team with a decent rotation should be able to get most of their relief innings from the top 3 relievers on their team.

        The Reds in 2014 had the fewest relief innings of any team (because their starters were doing well and staying in games) but the 5th highest bullpen ERA. I think a lot of that is due to having these set, one-inning roles for guys, and not using the best relievers more.

        The Reds bullpen threw 422 innings last year and Chpaman and Broxton threw 102 of those. Granted Chapman was injured and Broxton was traded, but they wouldn’t have pitched a lot of innings if that hadn’t been the case because they were getting one or less innings per appearance.

        Compare that to the 160 innings that the Reds got from Hoover, LeCure, and Ondrusek, and it’s clear that something isn’t working well.

        I think you should shoot for at least 70IP from your best relievers, if not 80+. That means that your best guy, Chapman, won’t be available some days because he will have thrown multiple innings the day before, and thus can’t get a save. That’s why you have the Broxton’s of the world. Remember, Myers only got 60% of the Reds saves in 1990. That’s the key. If you separate the elite relievers from the save stat, they become much more flexible, and two elite guys should be able to handle most of the high leverage situations that you have.

  5. lwblogger2

    Money and perception are the two things that drive the save stat. As you said, relievers are largely paid on how many saves they can accumulate and instead of leverage in its rawest form, relief pitchers are considered 7th, 8th, or 9th inning guys. You’ll hear managers, coaches, scouts, and even front office personnel uttering phrases like “Oh, we think that Smith should be a solid 8th inning guy.” all the time. It’s rampant all around baseball. Players talk the same way. Those late innings are perceived to be of a higher leverage. Now part of that is due to the fact that blowing a lead late is always painfully frustrating but it’s way, way overblown.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see it changing anytime soon and certainly not on a team who has an “established closer” with some years under his belt, in their bullpen. No, it’s going to have to be a team with a young pen where nobody is making a lot of money. The coaching staff and front-office have got to also be willing to try something different. It is only in that circumstance where the bullpen will be managed based on the leverage of the actual situation and not the particular inning. It doesn’t matter how much the analytics departments scream for it to be any other way. They are just “math geeks” who have “never played the game” and “aren’t living in reality”. I’ve heard all those quotes from players and ex-players alike and was even guilty of saying the same thing back in the day when I didn’t know any better.

    • wvredlegs

      I agree with you that it’ll take an organizational philosophy change from the front office down to institute a change of this magnitude.
      The A’s GM Billy Beane is the man to do it. Moneyball 2: The Bullpen and Devaluing the Save.
      If a team were to institute such an approach, would this increase or decrease the need to have several power arms (96-99MPH) in the bullpen as has been trending over the least few years?

      • Kevin Michell

        I would imagine it would increase flamethrowers’ value on the whole, since the highest-leverage situations are coming in with runners on and less than two out wherein the most valuable thing is to strand those runners.

        In making a bullpen to fit this strategy, I’d probably want 2-3 guys able to crank it up to 96+, and 1 or 2 guys who have a plus-plus silder, sinker, splitter, or two-seamer, using the former to get outs in the highest-leverage situations and the latter for coming in to start innings after the 5th with a slim deficit or more than a one-run lead.

      • tct

        Oakland has already been leveraging the over valuing of the save, especially in regards to arbitration awards. Over the last couple years, they had a couple young, arb eligible guys, like Cook and Doolittle, who were their best relievers. But they knew if they allowed them to rack up high saves totals that their arb salaries would go up drastically. So they tried to bring in veterans on fixed salaries to close for a year and then let them walk. They tried Jim Johnson last year, but that didn’t work too well. But still, the principle is sound.

        With Aroldis in his second year of arbitration, the Reds probably could have saved a few million by making him a high leverage, multiple inning, non closer because arbitration values the closer and the save.

    • Jeremy Conley

      The crazy thing to me is how quickly the save-based closer has become gospel. It feels like I’m writing about guys in the 1890s, but it’s just 25 years ago that the Nasty Boys were much closer to the norm than the exception (Charlton pun intended).

  6. THEGAFFER

    All those years of trotting out the closer in meaningless innings just to get him a save always irritated me. Dusty has admitted that he did it to give the players more stats to get paid more. That is counterproductive to making a good team! Heck, isn’t it better for more people to let 3 guys each get 12-15 saves. Then you have 3 3-5 million dollar guys and not 2 1 million and 1 12 million.

  7. Nathaniel

    It will take thinking outside the box from a smaller market team to change the current way of thinking. I personally don’t like the 7th inning guy, set-up guy in the 8th, closer in the 9th.
    Just my crazy idea…
    We have accepted the 5 man starting rotation, why not try a 3 man closing rotation? 2-3 innings per game, rest a game or two and it’s your turn again. You’d have your ace closer #1, You’re solid dependable closer #2, and the guy with electric stuff but maybe some control issues #3. Just like the starting rotation you want your ace to have the most appearances. This could benefit a smaller market team that can’t afford a top tier closer & set-up man but can swing 2-3 good dependable closers. Over time could reduce the number of arms needed in the bullpen by one possibly. This means throwing out the whole lefty vs. righty etc. argument.

    • Jeremy Conley

      I like your crazy idea. This is pretty much exactly what I’m arguing for, what I call “The Nasty Bullpen.”

      The key is having a manager that is willing to give a 3-run save to a long man. If you use the Nasty Bullpen model, you have to give your relief aces rest when the game isn’t on the line, so that they can go multiple innings when you need them to.

  8. jessecuster44

    Loved the Nasty Boys.

    BTW, Evan Gattis traded to Houston for 3 prospects. Gattis could have been that big bat in LF… But Byrd is the word. Sigh.

    • earmbrister

      Gattis is the proverbial square peg for the Reds round hole. The Reds need a one year solution for LF, not 4 years of Gattis. Heck, why don’t we go back to talking about how the Reds could have had Kemp in LF. Neither player works in terms of contract length or cost. And Kemp, who sucks in the field, looks like a GGr compared to the butcher that Gattis will be.

      Winker will be here soon enough and until then Byrd is a nice stopgap.

      • jessecuster44

        My fingers are double crossed that Jesse Winker will play well at the ML level then. Seems like all eggs are in the Jesse Winker basket.

  9. mikemartz

    MLB is going to air a 1 hour special about the 1990 Cincinnati Reds Nasty Boys on 1/20/15 at 8:00 p.m. central time.

  10. mikemartz

    Corky Miller officially hired as a roving catching coach for the Reds organization as of Wednesday. He will be based in Dayton but will travel around the organization sharing his knowledge with all the catchers in the system! Great day for the Reds!

    • lwblogger2

      That’s great! The fact that he’s in Dayton also means that it might be possible to run into him at a couple of the spots where the Dragons’ staff tends to hang out.

    • CP

      Every team has a different personality, can’t force that stuff.

      Having Eric Davis in CF and Barry Larkin at SS would be better.