"In 10 years, this is the way everybody is going to be doing it." -- A major league general manager, April 2003
Here we are, 10 years after the Red Sox flew into a season without a clear-cut closer. It was supposedly the first full-fledged execution of Bill James' baby -- the closer-by-committee. Pitch the right relief pitcher in the right situation regardless of the inning or perceived role.
"It wasn't some grand master plan. We felt we weren't bound by convention so we were willing to try whatever we wanted and weren't afraid to look stupid," former Red Sox general manager and current Cubs president Theo Epstein said while attending the Business of Baseball roundtable put on by the Foundation to be Named Later Monday morning. "But it was really the byproduct of not having a clear-cut guy."
Chad Fox. Mike Timlin. Ramiro Mendoza. Bobby Howry. Brandon Lyon. Alan Embree. Those were the closers. A month after Fox surrendered a walk-off homer to Carl Crawford in the season-opener, there was just one, Lyon. And then a few weeks later, the Sox traded for another permanent game-ender, Byung-Hyun Kim.
It didn't work. But why? And is it an idea worth revisiting? It's especially intriguing to discuss when looking at the Red Sox' current group of relievers. It would seem that the collection of arms the Red Sox currently possess in their bullpen -- including Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara -- might be one of the best potential closer-by-committee assemblies put together in some time.
The questions are interesting given that their answers are perhaps more definitive than they were a decade ago. But, 10 years later, don't count on any sort of revival.
Lessons were learned. Ideas have been adjusted.
WORTH A TRY
"I think the struggle was three or four guys struggled right out of the gate. That made it difficult," Epstein said. "I think anyone in the manager's chair, in today's day and age, would feel most comfortable having a clear-cut closer, an eighth-inning guy, a good left-hander and right-hander in the seventh. It just flows easier. There's less controversy, there's less questions to answer and there's less decisions to make. But I think it does show a lot of strength and conviction in the manager when he's able to not be bound by those rules and conventions and able to make decisions that make sense over the course of these games even if it might lead to a few questions. I think winning the game is ultimately the important thing."
Going back to '03, Epstein was on the mark when analyzing why the construct failed. The pitchers the Red Sox picked just weren't good enough.
The year before, Ugueth Urbina had saved 40 games for the Red Sox. But he became a free agent, the kind of which the Sox weren't comfortable paying (he signed with the Rangers). Epstein's organization chose instead to spread its finances around, allocating the funds to the likes of Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, Jeremy Giambi, Todd Walker and the collection of relievers who were thought to have late-inning reliability.
"We felt like if we could have acquired a closer that was a lot better guy, we would have gone with conventional roles and tell everyone the roles in the 'pen and avoided some of the controversy," Epstein said. "Since we couldn't we let Urbina walk, we let [Cliff] Floyd walk that winter. We were lowering payroll, we wanted to spread some of the remaining money around and we wanted to get draft picks. We felt like the best plan was to get a bunch of good arms and see what happened. It was bad execution because a few of the guys we got didn't perform early so it became a huge controversy. In hindsight we were a little naive how big a story it was going to become and how it was going to take on a life of its own in a detrimental fashion."
After scratching the plan in '03, the Red Sox did go out and pay for that regular ninth-inning guy when they inked Keith Foulke to his three-year deal. But, subtly, the closer-by-committee conversation didn't end in '03.
There have been incidents of the concept reemerging, such as during the 2008 playoffs when the Rays weaved in and out of late-inning relief appearances, using then-rookie David Price to get many of the key outs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
And this season Detroit tried to make up for the uneasiness supplied by Bruce Rondon in spring training with a closer-by-committee approach, with Drew Smyly, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke all getting saves before the Tigers' recent re-signing of Jose Valverde.
But no team has committed to the committee as a full-season endeavor, even in theory, since those '03 Red Sox. Even the Tigers this time around seemingly viewed the strategy as a stop-gap measure following Rondon's struggles.
"It's just a balancing act," Epstein said. "If you have a manager who buys into it and relievers who buy into it, the way Jim Leyland does at times, finds the right matchup. If you have a great left-handed set-up guy and you have two or three left-handers up in the ninth inning they can close that day, you don't have to make a big production of it. One lesson learned is the less said about it the better. You assemble the most talent you can in the bullpen and let your manager figure it out and hopefully not be bound to make in-game decisions that don't make sense just because of convention.
"This happens all the time. What does it tell you that it happens more often when the game is more important? It probably shows it's probably the best strategy to help you win games, but it's also more difficult to manage publicly and internally over 162."
Added Red Sox manager John Farrell, "I think in a short window, that's much different than when you're doing it over the course of a full season. In a five- to seven-game series it's all hands on deck and everybody is ready from the get-go, but to take that approach over 162 is tough."
FACTORING IN THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Throughout the long baseball season, routine is a part of life. Especially for relief pitchers. They like to know when they should be getting ready, and what inning(s) they might be calling their own.
That's where the closer-by-committee idea really hits a snag.
"I don't think you can ever underestimate the need for a reliever to think along the game and mentally begin to anticipate when they're going to enter," Farrell said. "And there needs to be continuity and consistency from that side of it. You try and eliminate the surprise element from it. I kind of correlate it to taking a test: If you study and you know when the test is going to be, you have less anxiety. Maybe that's a similar situation."
The unpredictability of those late-inning appearances was a growing issue when it came to those '03 Sox relievers. The participants didn't know quite what to make of the ploy, and when immediate success wasn't uncovered, the uncertainty became a problem.
"I think there is something to be said for that, but then again it comes down to the personalities you have," Epstein said. "Certain relievers might be fine knowing they're going to pitch late in the game. It's so commonplace to have a predefined role, there is some comfort for guys. You can't just look at it in a complete vacuum and say the human element has nothing to do with it. I also don't think you can be afraid to make decisions that help you win the game because there is a certain expectation. It's easier for me to say not being the one who has to manage those personalities throughout the season."
Teams have come to accept that closers like to know when they are going to close, and even eighth-inning guys relish some sort of certainty. It's why the day the Red Sox traded for Hanrahan, Farrell immediately identified the newcomer as his closer and Bailey as the primary eighth-inning option.
But even with the quest for regular roles, the Red Sox bullpen isn't without a measure of flexibility. And that's nothing new.
At the height of his effectiveness, Daniel Bard pitched in the seventh inning 18 times in '10 and on 19 occasions a season later. And this season Tazawa has seen the sixth inning twice, the seventh four times and the eighth in three games. Same trend goes for Uehara, who has pitched in the sixth (three times), seventh (once), eighth (four) and ninth (once) this year.
Perhaps the best example of how closer-by-committee has morphed into seventh-and-eighth-innings-by-committee came in the Red Sox' opener this season against the Yankees. WIth two outs in the seventh and Kevin Youkilis heading to the plate representing the tying run, Farrell brought on Bailey for one batter in the seventh instead of his perceived new home, the eighth. The result was an inning-ending strikeout, paving the way for Tazawa to pitch the eighth.
Youkilis was perceived to be potentially the game's most important out, so the manager brought in his best reliever who wasn't the closer into the game.
"I think the guy who has the most difficult one to adjust with, and he really needs to think along with the manager and understand where the lineup is, is the eighth-inning guy because he can come in the seventh inning in the middle of the order or the eighth inning," Farrell said. "That's why for a couple of years Bard was such a huge plus because he got the difficult innings before the ninth -- seventh or eighth. That guy is invaluable."
So, 10 years later, in some ways the idea has been locked into baseball … just with some slight tweaks.
"I still think in the absence of a clear-cut closer, it's a fine strategy to employ based on matchups and using your best pitchers in the most important situations regardless of when they arise," Epstein said. "I do think if you're not careful, the media and the public get involved and you blow a few saves early, it can wreak havoc. There is something to be said for guys knowing how they're going to be used generally and preparing themselves mentally and physically for that role in different spots in the game."