Rolling With Bullpen RolesApril 27th, 2012Bullpen roles are crucial. Every pitcher who is part of a pen likes to have a good idea of when they are going to pitch. Running an effective bullpen can be one of the most difficult tasks a manger can have. I’ve been is well run pens, I’ve been in horribly run pens. There is nothing more disconcerting for a relief pitcher than not having a clue as to when you might pitch.Each pitcher’s role is assigned with a purpose. Coaches and general managers have to evaluate not only a physical skill set, but a mental one as well, and with those evaluations they assign each reliever’s role. In a strong bullpen it is the top 3-4 relievers that usually have the solidified roles and with good reason. The closer gets the saves, the set-man is in their in the 8th, sometimes in the 7th, your top lefty gets the tough lefty hitters late in the game, usually with guys on base and when they all do their jobs well, they’re very tough to beat. Much has been made of the save lately, how overrated of a stat it really is and I tend to agree. But closers get the top dollars in the bullpen. The games best earn salaries well over $10 million per year and secure multiyear deals. You pay a top arm that money because finishing a game is a specialized task, but when you have an 8 figure arm in the bullpen should he really only pitch in the 9th inning?I’ve often thought no. Set-up men have without a doubt the most strenuous job in the bullpen. You pitch when the game is close and you’re winning, you’ll do the same in a tie game or even when you’re losing. You are often asked to come in with runners already on base, you’re back against the wall, and it’s usually against a tough hitter. The closer nearly always waits for the setup man to clean up any messes, so he can start a fresh inning. Closing is a special skill, I have played with and against some great setup men who couldn’t close. There is a mindset and not everyone has it. But I have watched lots of games in my life both as a player and as a fan, and I’ve seen many times when a team takes a lead into the 7th or 8th inning only to let a setup man lose it while the team’s best relief arm sits and watches. Jim Kaat brought this up during the Yankee game on Friday night. The Detroit Tigers led by one going into the bottom of the 8th inning when they went to their setup man, Joaquin Benoit. Due up for the Yankees, the heart of their order: Alex Rodriquez, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira. Should any of those 3 reach base, Nick Swisher would be next. Realistically you could expect at least one of those three to get on. If Benoit throws up a zero but allows one runner to reach, the bottom of the 9th inning would feature the Yankees’ 7th, 8th and 9th place hitters. There’s no such thing as an easy save in Yankee Stadium, or anywhere in MLB for that matter, but if you had to draw it up, having your closer face the 7th, 8th and 9th place hitters doesn’t get any more perfect. Jim brought up how Benoit would have the tougher job compared to the Tigers’ closer, Jose Valverde. I’ve wondered many times why the team’s best reliever would not go in the game in this situation. The truth is, I know exactly why.Relievers are creatures of habit. Closers like their role, they like a clean 9th inning, the good ones know how to close the door and get that final out. They’ve programmed themselves for the 9th inning. Have you ever noticed how some closers or even setup men struggle when they go into a game when the team is down just to get some work in? There is a mentality that goes along with pitching in a close game when you’re winning. Guys get amped up for it and some have a hard time duplicating those emotions in a game that doesn’t have as much on the line. Managers define a closer’s role and as much as they are tempted internally they fret at the thought of asking a closer to come out of his role during the regular season. He may not be the same pitcher in the 8th, he may balk at the notion and it could get in his head. This is the culture we have created for the closer and many of them are almost too comfortable with it.The situation like the one that came up in NY on Friday night doesn’t happen too often over the course of a season. But when it does just about everyone would like the team’s best reliever in the game. It takes the right manager, one who is willing to communicate with his closer that there may be times in the regular season that I ask you to pitch the 8th. It won’t happen often but it will happen and I need to know you’re willing and able. It also takes a certain kind of closer, one who genuinely is willing to put the team first, one who is not concerned about his total number of saves and how it affects his future salaries. Sounds great on paper, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it probably should.And that Yankee game? Benoit, a very good setup man, gave up one run in the 8th to tie the game 6-6. Closer Mariano Rivera pitched a flawless 9th for the Yankees. Brayan Villarreal came on for Detroit in the bottom of the 9th in Yankee Stadium. For the recently recalled 24 year old right hander it was the 20th MLB game of his career. Two walks, a wild pitch and a passed ball later, the Yankees won 7-6. Jose Valverde and his $9,000,000 dollar salary watched it all, on his 5th consecutive day off. That probably shouldn’t happen.