By Jason Shetler
In the early stages of the 2016 MLB postseason, we’ve witnessed bullpen usage play a huge role, both bad and good. The first example being in the American League Wild Card Game. Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter refused to use closer Zach Britton with the scored tied in extra innings of an elimination game, because he wanted to hold off on using him for a save situation. The Orioles were defeated by the Toronto Blue Jays, and the reliever who is a possible AL Cy Young candidate for this year never entered the game. The other example was the Los Angeles Dodgers series clinching victory over the Washington Nationals on Thursday night. Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts not only used his closer Kenley Jansen in a non-save situation, but had him pitching the seventh inning with a one run lead, and the decision paid off.
The Pirates bullpen was certainly a disappointment in 2016. Although they had Mark Melancon back for a fourth season, the middle part of the bullpen was very inconsistent and Melancon wasn’t receiving a good amount of save chances, even though he was stellar in the opportunities he did receive. Melancon was dealt to the Nationals around the trade deadline for Felipe Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn. I had no problem with trading Melancon. Couple reasons being his very high trade value and because he was going to be a free agent after the season. Rivero was outstanding coming over, so that certainly helps as well. Following Melancon’s departure, Tony Watson was inserted as the closer and wasn’t exactly lights out in the role. With sabermetricians encouraging teams to go with a “bullpen by committee”, particularly MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, is it something the Pirates should consider for next season?
As it stands right now, the Pirates bullpen have relievers with little to no experience in closing out games. Because of this, it would seem like a good opportunity to not have a set closer and just use the best reliever in the most high pressured situation, regardless of what inning. The old school argument is that the ninth inning closer’s role is the most important, which I disagree with, because if your relievers aren’t doing their jobs in the seventh and eighth innings, then obviously your closer becomes irrelevant in terms of picking up a save. For example, if you think Felipe Rivero is the best option for the Pirates to use as a closer in the ninth inning, then why wouldn’t he be your best option if a game is on the line in the seventh or eighth inning?
Most managers like to preserve their closers for a save situation on the road in an extra inning game, and Clint Hurdle is certainly in that category. By going with a bullpen by committee, it would allow Hurdle to use his best relief option in extra innings, as opposed to waiting to use someone for a save just because they have the designation of “closer”. Grady Little, who now works in the Pirates front office as a senior advisor, was ironically the last manager to incorporate a bullpen by committee for a full season, doing so with the Boston Red Sox in 2003. While it’s probably unlikely that the Pirates will consider this, I personally think the strategy would make their bullpen better for next season.