Bob Smizik: Building a better bullpen

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Pirates manager Clint Hurdle went with his usual bullpen formula last night -- one that has served him very well -- but this time it didn't work. Mark Melancon gave up a run in the eighth inning, where he is normally so effective, and the Pirates lost, 3-2.

In its baseball issue last month, Sports Illustrated discussed a different direction for the Pirates' bullpen. The magazine offered what it called a "Modest Proposal'' for all teams. This was, in part, the one directed at the Pirates:

''In Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson and Tony Watson, Hurdle has a core group that can be used not just according to inning and score but in an even more customized fashion. Whether Hurdle needs a strikeout (Grilli), a ground ball (Melancon), to retire three righties (either one) in the seventh or two lefties in the ninth (Wilson or Watson) should dictate his choice of reliever, rather than hewing to the tenets of the save rule.’’

It's an interesting concept and one that has been suggested by others from time to time with the thinking being that the managers are too inflexible in how they handle their relievers.

The Pirates' bullpen has a priority system that, quite understandably, is based on past performance. Grilli, for example, is the closer because he’s done it before and mostly done it very well. When the opportunity was presented, he seized it. The same with Melancon. He’s the eighth-inning guy because he took that job early last season and was, perhaps, as good as anyone in the game in that role.

That left the pre-eighth inning heavy lifting for left-handers Watson and Wilson. Like Grilli and Melancon, both performed very well in those roles and, most significantly, handled right-handed batters just about as well as lefties.

But is having set jobs, regardless of the circumstances, the best way to run a bullpen?

Managers love the idea of set jobs because it gives them fewer decisions to make and therefore opens them up to significantly less second-guessing from fans and media. There’s probably no part of a manager’s job where he takes more of a hit than in the handling of his pitching staff, particularly the bullpen.

Imagine how that would increase it the closer’s job were open for discussion every night?

Pitchers, too, like set roles -- particularly if they have the good ones. There’s something to be said for knowing your place and being able to prepare for it.

But there’s also something to be said for flexibility. Why should Grilli be the closer when, say, the first and second guys up in the ninth have had considerable career success against him?

But it rarely makes a difference with any manager and certainly not with Hurdle, who almost never deviates from the set eighth- and ninth-inning roles.

There is so much information available to managers today and sometimes it’s not properly used. In a guest slot on "The David Todd Show" on 970 ESPN recently, Brian Kenny of the MLB Network predicted the day would come when a manager would have a group of stats geeks ready to provide him with up-to-the-minute data that could and should be involved in the decision-making process.

That’s not to say managers like Hurdle are not availing themselves of mountains of data. They are. But instead of having a thick notebook in front of him or pitching coach Ray Searage, Hurdle -- or the manager of the future -- should be like an NFL head coach and be wearing a headset. He wouldn’t be conferring with his coaches upstairs but with the stats geeks either in the press box or back in the Pirates' offices with the best of modern technology at their fingertips.

This isn't to suggest Hurdle should have managed differently last night or if he had the Pirates would have won. It is to suggest the same approach all the time is not always the best way to go.


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