The Reverse Closer: A Next Step in Specializing Pitchers
“People are going to think I’m crazy, but we’re just going to try it.”
That’s what Lou Piniella had to say when he announced he was going to use relievers to start the game back in 2005 as manager of the Rays. His idea was centered around his scuffling bullpen that had just suffered another “implosion.” Piniella’s decision may have been predicated on the wrong reasons, but he may have come up with an idea the league just wasn’t ready for.
Recently, I've covered the importance of late-game relievers, along with starting pitchers who can’t get through the first inning smoothly. Making sure the right man is on the mound has become a huge part of a manager’s job more than the game has ever seen. Maybe Piniella’s idea is the last piece needed in the specialization of pitching; but his thought process may have been his problem.
Piniella wanted to use relievers early because they were blowing games before he could get to his closer. This way, his starters could work later in the game and be more effective than their relievers. A concept that might have worked more if he had used reliable relievers to replace starters who weren’t effective in the first, like Mark Hendrickson who had a 6.60 ERA and .346 opponent’s batting average, or Casey Fossum with his 7.92 ERA and .288 opponent’s batting average that season.
With closers and set-up men becoming the go-to relievers when the game is on the line, several pitchers on each staff aren’t used as frequently, even though they are finding success. Middle- and long-relievers are typically used in mop-up roles or early in the game when it’s a toss-up barnburner.
In addition to helping starters get past their first inning yips, this new position would allow starters to face hitters later in the game, without having to face them for a fourth or even fifth time in the game. This is one of the factors with starters having trouble as the game progresses, in addition to fatigue.
Looking through pitchers who don’t log a lot of holds or saves through 2014, there are several candidates that might be helpful to their clubs in the role that can be now known as the reverse closer.