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Front Page: A Relief Ace Rotation, Part 1: The Argument for Rotating Relief Aces

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#1 Matthew Trueblood

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Posted 20 October 2019 - 05:20 PM

We live in the age of Bullpenning, The Opener, and a never-ending quest for The Next Andrew Miller. Some 20 years ago, trying to limit the risk of injuries and loss of effectiveness, teams began closely, consciously counting the pitches thrown by their starting pitchers. Ever since, reliever usage has become more creative, more important, and sexier.Roles that had fallen out of vogue in the early 1980s have come back, to some extent. With glaring exceptions at the absolute top of the market, teams have been willing to pay quickly and handsomely for free-agent relievers over the last two winters, while many starters have had to wait out the sluggish markets alongside the position players.

Yet, for the first time in modern history, starting pitchers had a better collective ERA than relievers did in 2019. There are many reasons for that, and even after accounting for them, it might not be correct to suggest that those starters really outperformed their bullpen counterparts, on an inning-for-inning basis. The fact remains, though, that working in short bursts is becoming less of an advantage than it used to be, and that even the teams who made it to October this season seemed forced to cobble together and restructure their bullpens on the fly.

Being a reliever allows pitcher to pare down their repertoire to their most effective two or three offerings. It often leads them to throw harder, and their stuff plays up thanks to that extra zip. They can also be shielded from platoon vulnerabilities, though less so in 2020 than in past seasons (thanks to the incoming three-batter minimum for relief appearances).

However, they also have to be ready at all times, bounce back quickly after unsuccessful or tiring appearances, and stay mentally locked in even if they’re asked to warm up, sit down, and warm up again to go into the game an inning later. Starters must deal with pacing themselves and strategizing more deeply against opposing hitters. Relievers must deal with unpredictability.

What if that unpredictability could be eliminated? What if, in fact, a Relief Ace rotation could work, the same way the starting rotation does?

Starters have not always enjoyed this degree of rhythm and routine. When he managed the Yankees, Casey Stengel famously signaled to a given pitcher that he would start that day by placing a baseball in one of his cleats before the players arrived in the clubhouse. That worked for Stengel’s crew, but over time, pitchers articulated a preference for a more consistent routine to optimize rest and preparation.

Experience taught teams to listen to their charges in that regard. Rotations are de rigueur now because they’ve proved to be the best way to manage the most important group of pitchers a team has. Perhaps it’s time to implement the same thing among a unit that has nearly achieved parity with those five hurlers on every team in the league: the top three arms in the bullpen.

In 2019, when working on zero days’ rest, Taylor Rogers struck out 27.3 percent of opponents, walked or plunked 14.3 percent of them, and allowed home runs to 6.5 percent of them. On one or more days of rest, he fanned 34.3 percent of all hitters, walked just 3.0 percent of them, and allowed just three home runs in 201 plate appearances. Here are batters’ stats against him, on zero days, on more, and overall.

Download attachment: 2019-10-20 Trueblood 1.JPG

Those numbers are jarring, but Rogers isn’t unique in that regard.

Download attachment: 2019-10-20 Trueblood 2.JPG

Unlike Rogers and Duffey, Sergio Romo will become a free agent after the end of the World Series. Like them, however, he’s a candidate for a Relief Ace rotation, should he return.

Download attachment: 2019-10-20 Trueblood 3.JPG

Throughout the majors, 2019 saw a higher percentage of all batters faced by pitchers pitching on zero days rest than either 2017 or 2018. More importantly, pitchers in those situations allowed a higher adjusted OPS, relative to the league average, than they had in any season since 1994, and they had the highest ERA (4.52) in that circumstance since 1950, when pitching on no rest was about 75 percent less common than it is now.

There’s an important innovation waiting to be made here. Some team is going to exploit a market inefficiency in 2020 by using their best relievers in a more regimented, less emergent way, thereby getting more and better work out of them. There’s no reason that that team ought not be the Twins.

But what would that look like? Is it possible practically? Is it wise? We’ll unpack those questions tomorrow in Part 2.

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#2 Patrick Wozniak

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Posted 20 October 2019 - 06:48 PM

I couldn't agree more with the importance of avoiding the 0-days rest outings as much as possible. A lesser but rested reliever is generally better than a good reliever on no rest, so it makes sense to take advantage of that. Should be even easier with rosters expanding to 26. Looking forward to part 2!

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#3 stringer bell

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Posted 20 October 2019 - 07:00 PM

Specifically for the 2020 Twins, it will be important to balance the bullpen with at least one more left hander so that Rogers doesn't have to work two days in a row. I think it can make Rogers even more effective in the coming year and really help the overall performance of the Twins' bullpen. 

 

Building enough depth so that the number of back-to-backs for everyone is limited would be very helpful. Of course, the counterpoint is that more innings from the starters will also help to limit overuse by the key bullpen members.

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#4 DocBauer

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Posted 20 October 2019 - 10:07 PM

I've been reflecting on this idea, but not quite as directly as you state here. But first a thought, and there may not necessarily be data to address this: It's very easy to address available data on zero days rest, 1 day rest, etc. What I don't think is accurate, or can be properly measured is appearances as such can be defined with 100% accuracy. For simplicity sake, let's just use Rogers as an example. Duct tape, wire and smart usage allowed the Twins to cobble a relatively effective bullpen for most of the first half of 2019. Rogers however, was often asked to pitch more than a single inning on many occasions. In the second half, with a much more effective, and deeper, bullpen, he was not asked to do so as often. At times, we have all seen closets, for example, achieve a "cheap save" by coming for only 1 or 2 outs to complete the game. I am not necessarily using said "save" as a direct measurement of importance, only stating as out 8 pitch save simply has to weigh differently on a RP than a 4 or tp5 or even 6 out save situation and 20 or more pitches thrown. In other words, the entire ZERO DAY rest situation can be skewed either direction by number of batters faced and number of pitches thrown.

All that being said, it still comes down to bullpen depth, doesn't it? Along with a manager who doesn't abuse his pen by warming them up too early or too often before making an appearance.

I am NOT using this OP to discuss the 2020 rotation, except to say this: some combination of Cole/Strasburg/Bumgarner/Wheeler/quality trade addition to team with Berrios, Odorizzi and Pineda would tell you that MOST days, you can count on 5-6 IP from your primary 4 SP, with the 5th spot open to conjecture. Thjs assumption IMO, is pretty easy to make as we are talking about quality effective ML starters vs a low end, cobbled rotation.

Let us assume our intelligent forward thinking, and at least somewhat aggressive FO realizes they need a 2nd LHRP option via FA or trade. Let's us use Miller as the choice here since he fits the bill and we have been tied to him previously.

2020 bullpen:

Rogers
Duffey
May
Miller
Romo
Littell
Stashak
8th man debatable in regard to choice, Rochester shuttle, and the possibility of keeping an extra position player instead.

In this scenario, Rogers is the primary closer, though the "fireman" idea remains. The quartet of Duffey, May, Romo and Miller "own" the 7th and 8th innings, with the possibility of pitching the 9th on occasion. This leaves Littell and Stashak, and possibly an 8th arm, for the 6th inning, and earlier on bad days from a starter.

Other than general roles of normal usage, I don't knkw that a true rotation is necessarily in order. I think it's simply a depth issue and normal usage roles that make your pen effective.
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#5 ChrisKnutson

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Posted 20 October 2019 - 10:43 PM

Specifically for the 2020 Twins, it will be important to balance the bullpen with at least one more left hander so that Rogers doesn't have to work two days in a row. I think it can make Rogers even more effective in the coming year and really help the overall performance of the Twins' bullpen. 
 
Building enough depth so that the number of back-to-backs for everyone is limited would be very helpful. Of course, the counterpoint is that more innings from the starters will also help to limit overuse by the key bullpen members.


Agreed, we definitely need another left handed presence in the bullpen besides Rogers. Although, I’m not a fan of just handing that role to Thorpe or Smeltzer. While Will Smith would be an ideal addition, I’m guessing we’re gonna have to settle for Tony Watson.

On top of that, I’m really hoping the FO goes after a traditional closer like Edwin Diaz or Ken Giles so that Rogers has more high leverage opportunities.

#6 DocBauer

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Posted 20 October 2019 - 11:19 PM

Agreed, we definitely need another left handed presence in the bullpen besides Rogers. Although, I’m not a fan of just handing that role to Thorpe or Smeltzer. While Will Smith would be an ideal addition, I’m guessing we’re gonna have to settle for Tony Watson.

On top of that, I’m really hoping the FO goes after a traditional closer like Edwin Diaz or Ken Giles so that Rogers has more high leverage opportunities.


Curious, as the rotation is the obvious first need to address. When you mention someone like Watson, who I wanted at the deadline, but you mention adding a traditional closer like Giles or Diaz...forgetting total payroll for a moment, are you saying you like them better than Rogers? (I don't) Or are you saying you simply believe Rogers would be better used in a "fireman" role rather than as the traditional closer?

Second question. Smith should come at a similar or cheaper price than Giles or Diaz. You don't think the Twins would be interested or that be wouldn't sign here?
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#7 Aerodeliria

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 02:44 AM

They could go after some Cuban players who have been playing in Japan, like Livan Moinelo of Softbank. He has all of the tools and he is relatively young at 23. He already possesses a very nasty slider and his fastball is not bad. When his slider is on, he is almost unhittable. They overuse him here in Japan (to be honest), but when he's rested that slider just disappears. As he is a lefty, when his slider is on, he's basically unhittable from the left side. He would probably start at AA or AAA, but with a little work, he could be reliable at the major league level in under a year. (Here in Japan, he's only given up 37 hits in 59.1 innings. He has walked 25, but Japanese players tend to get more walks per nine in general. He has also fanned 87, so there is a lot to like.)

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#8 beckmt

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 08:46 AM

Won't he have to be posted or is he in a different class of player or already has his time in.
Like the out of box thinking.
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#9 mikelink45

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 09:18 AM

The use of pitchers for 2 or more innings reduces the number of relievers used and therefore you have more fresh arms for the next game.I would start to use a little more starter mentality and start stretching out the pitchers to 2 - 3 innings and pitch every three days if possible.Most of these guys were starters at one time.Let them go through a lineup once before changing.  

There has to be a different strategy and I appreciate this essay and the beginning of a new thought process for the BP.

By the way, I think the season over use of BP arms and then the nightly reliance on them is what doomed the Yankees.

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#10 diehardtwinsfan

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 09:28 AM

Two words:

 

Will Smith

 

 

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#11 Vanimal46

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 10:12 AM

By the way, I think the season over use of BP arms and then the nightly reliance on them is what doomed the Yankees.


The Yankees simply did not have enough starting pitching. I still firmly believe that is key to winning in the playoffs. Between Washington and Houston they have 5 starters better than anything the Twins have on staff.

There's too much variance relying on 3-4 bullpen guys every night to get the job done. 2 or 3 may have it that particular night. But it may get ruined by the 1 reliever who was off their game.
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#12 mikelink45

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 10:27 AM

 

The Yankees simply did not have enough starting pitching. I still firmly believe that is key to winning in the playoffs. Between Washington and Houston they have 5 starters better than anything the Twins have on staff.

There's too much variance relying on 3-4 bullpen guys every night to get the job done. 2 or 3 may have it that particular night. But it may get ruined by the 1 reliever who was off their game.

https://theathletic....urce=dailyemail This is an article related to my post and your comments.

 

"Said Britton, “I still think starting pitching is what’s going to get you a World Series championship at the end of the day.”"

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#13 spycake

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 11:02 AM

 

By the way, I think the season over use of BP arms and then the nightly reliance on them is what doomed the Yankees.

 

The Yankees didn't use a pitcher 3 straight days all season -- the only team in MLB to avoid that. And they didn't do it in the postseason either until game 6 of the ALCS, and that was only due to a rainout which eliminated their off day between games 5 and 6.

 

None of their top 4 relievers threw more than 66 innings during the regular season, and each of them averaged less than 1 inning per appearance.

 

To the extent their bullpen ultimately caused them to lose the ALCS, it was primarily their choice of the rested Chad Green as the opener for game 6 (allowing 3 runs) -- although Kahnle (1) and Chapman (2) both allowed runs on zero days rest (due to the rainout) in that game too.

 

And they only had to rely on their bullpen that much because they unexpectedly lost Domingo German just before the playoffs -- otherwise they could have had 4 traditional (more or less) starters. (There's an argument that they should have just used Happ as a traditional starter at that point, but I'm not sure the results would have been any different.)

 

The Yankees were remarkably conservative with their pen all year. They had some bad luck with their starters. They ran into a very strong opponent, and almost took them to the limit. I'm not sure we can pin any "doom" result upon their pen.

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#14 jkcarew

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 11:22 AM

I think the theory only works if the top bullpen arms are all comparable, about the same. And if I had that, I'd just go 1960's/1970's on the bit. Back then, the best bullpen arms regularly (even usually) pitched multiple innings per appearance. If/when the rule changes (3 batter min), things hopefully will migrate in that direction at least some. You'd hope that bullpen arms will have to evolve more to guys with pitches that are decent against all hitters and evolve somewhat away from guys that have pitches that are only effective against left (or right) handed hitters. If the LOOGY can no longer be justified on the roster...there's less reason to not let a reliever (that's not getting killed) pitch more than 3 outs.

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#15 tarheeltwinsfan

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 11:42 AM

 

https://theathletic....urce=dailyemail This is an article related to my post and your comments.

 

"Said Britton, “I still think starting pitching is what’s going to get you a World Series championship at the end of the day.”"

What Britton said. Period.

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#16 Vanimal46

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 11:47 AM

What Britton said. Period.


Yep. We can continue trying to cobble together a competitive rotation I guess. The Twins did that a couple of times in the 2000s. But we all know that gets exposed in October.

#17 Tomj14

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 11:49 AM

 

If the LOOGY can no longer be justified on the roster...there's less reason to not let a reliever (that's not getting killed) pitch more than 3 outs.

I read this somewhere else as well, but it seems to me that teams can or possibly still will keep a LOOGY on their team, they can come in at the end of a inning the starter pitchers or to end an inning were the relief pitcher has gotten two outs and has given up a hit or walk. Most relief pitchers end up averaging less than an inning and I think they will continue to do that. IMO


#18 Battle ur tail off

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 01:25 PM

 

I couldn't agree more with the importance of avoiding the 0-days rest outings as much as possible. A lesser but rested reliever is generally better than a good reliever on no rest, so it makes sense to take advantage of that. Should be even easier with rosters expanding to 26. Looking forward to part 2!

 

The thing is though, there is nothing new to this kind of thinking in any way. Even High School and college coaches know that their guy is going to be better with rest than without. 

 

This seems like trying to drum up something out of nothing. 

 

Here's my question to this line of thinking. In a game you need to win, would you rather have your best guy on no or little rest? Or your worst guy feeling the best he possibly can? Me I go with my stud rather than throw out the bottom of the barrel just because numbers and averages tell me so.

 

Common sense and dancing with the gal who brought ya, you know. 

 

 


#19 Battle ur tail off

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Posted 21 October 2019 - 01:30 PM

 

The Yankees simply did not have enough starting pitching. I still firmly believe that is key to winning in the playoffs. Between Washington and Houston they have 5 starters better than anything the Twins have on staff.
 

 

And that's just it. 

 

Also, pretending that your top 3 starters aren't the best pitchers on your staff is a fool's errand as well. 

 

Let Verlander pitch 1-2 innings every 3rd day and he would be the most dominant reliever in baseball history most likely. How about Stephen Strasburg as a closer? He likely breaks strikeout records for a reliever. 

 

Having talent and lots of it in a pitching staff is what will win you playoff games. Patching together will probably work over the course of a full season where you play lots of bad teams. But when it comes down to brass tacks, both your starters and your bullpen guys have to be top end if you want to get to the big dance.

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