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THE HOT CORNER: Focus on saves can be costly

by Jim Allen (May 6, 2010)

Because the people who reign over the rules hate to touch baseball's core structures, the game evolves this way and that, in a more or less random fashion and currently bears little resemblance to the rapidly played contest of speed and athleticism it had been at the beginning of the 20th century.

One of the trends that has been more or less a steady progression has been in the area of relief pitching. A century ago, the bullpen was the refuge of a pitching staff's dregs. These days, we have superstar relievers and the unsound strategy of reserving them exclusively for save opportunities.

We can track some of the biggest evolutions in the majors and how they came about. Some have been caused by changes in equipment: The practice of removing soiled balls from play in 1921 helped make the home run a viable offensive option.

When expansion in 1961 put the new American League teams in Washington and Los Angeles in easy home run parks, longball totals soared and commissioner Ford Frick thought the game was out of control. The next season saw an expanded strike zone and no enforcement of the height of pitchers' mounds.

This led to pitchers dominating the game. Starting pitchers in four-man rotations racked up huge numbers of innings, and in 1968 Carl Yastrzemski led the American League in batting with a .301 average while playing in a tremendous hitter's park.

Within two years, balance was restored, but when young pitchers in the '70s were expected to match the inning totals of the '60s, they began dropping like flies. Although the Los Angeles Dodgers' five-man rotation was not initially a response to this problem, other teams gradually adopted it in a move to give starters more rest.

Perhaps the most unusual source for evolution came in 1969, with the introduction of new scoring category: the save.

In 1979, Chicago Cubs manager Herman Franks began using ace reliever Bruce Sutter almost exclusively in save situations and the practice caught on. Instead of being used in late innings of tied games, as they had been for decades, managers gradually began holding back their bullpen aces for save situations.

The problem with that is dealing with the ninth inning of tie games. If you reserve the closer for save situations, you run the risk of giving away late-inning ties. It is clear from the data that Japanese teams are suffering from the over-application of this strategy.

From 2006 to 2009, home teams that led by one run going into the ninth had a combined record of 331-26-8, a .927 winning percentage.

When the visitors entered the bottom of the ninth leading by a run, their winning percentage was .841 (254-48-4), not bad at all with the host getting the last at-bat.

But when teams took the field in the ninth with the game tied, the home teams had a .523 winning percentage (188-167-48) and the visitors .307 (90-203-55).

That's a fairly distressing drop and much of it is related to the quality of relief pitchers used. Teams using quality relievers in the ninth inning of tie games saw their winning percentages soar.

But bringing the closer into a tie game is a tough call, says Tokyo Yakult Swallows manager Shigeru Takada.

"If you're at home, it's an easier situation to read," he told The Hot Corner on Tuesday.

"At home, I may bring in Lim [Chang Yong] in the ninth inning of a tie if I can use him against the heart of the other team's order. I don't think about the score or the inning as much as who he'll be facing. But as the visiting manager there are too many variables."

The Swallows are typical of the problem. Despite saying he doesn't, Takada has used Lim four times in the bottom of the ninth of tie games. The Swallows are 2-2 in those games and 1-7-2 with anyone else pitching.

At home in tie games, the Swallows were 5-0 after Lim was on the mound in the ninth but 0-10-2 after one of his teammates pitched.

While one could blame weak offense on this calamity, the evidence suggests Takada should stop worrying so much about who is coming to bat for the other team and just make sure Lim is ready to pitch whenever the game is tied in the ninth.


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