In the past twenty years, Major League Baseball has experienced a slow but powerful revolution on a dozen fronts that has altered, refined, and expanded the game in ways inconceivable twenty-five years ago.
Key aspects of baseball have evolved, like Divisional and Inter-league play. Sabermetrics has opened up a new world of objective analysis that has altered the value of traditional statistics and continues to create more relevant measures of player performance. MLB franchise ownership has become an almost automatic income generating machine thanks to exponential increases in national and local media contract revenues.
One of the final frontiers in the game is the evolution of the bullpen, a process which continues as the 2013 season is set to begin. For the San Francisco Giants, the art of the bullpen is a major building block of success in carving out two World Championships in the past three years.
Manager Bruce Bochy has long been considered a zenmaster in bullpen construction and the utilization of relief pitchers. His philosophy of identifying a definitive role for each pitcher and using the entire bullpen throughout the season have helped to reformat the modern bullpen.
Bochy's brilliant and unconventional use of starter Tim Lincecum in the Giants' 2012 postseason bullpen was a strategic breakthrough. All of which will be referenced in Bruce Bochy's potential Hall of Fame resume.
The history and emergence of the MLB bullpen is fascinating. What was up until the 1950s a jumble of extra pitchers with a variety of unspecified roles has only in the last ten or so years turned into a quantifiable set of specific positions.
Bill James discussed this in an essay in his "2009 Bill James Handbook". James noted the bullpen is the only component of the 25 man roster that does not officially have a position name for each player.
James offered simple and long overdue position designations for Major League bullpen pitchers:
1. Closer (CL)
2. Set-up Man (SU)
3. Lefty (LT)
4. Long Man (LM)
5. Utility Reliever (UR)
6. Emergency Reliever (ER).
Often bullpens expand to seven players, and that usually means a second Utility Reliever. The "Lefty" position describes that lefty specialist every team needs to face the opposition's left-handed power hitter or pinch hitter from the bench late in a game.
A number of bullpens have two or more left-handed relievers in their pen, but usually there's one guy who is the designated specialist. Javier Lopez is the Giants' lefty specialist, although Jeremy Affeldt has also been used in that role.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Barry Bonds alone caused many National League teams to make a lefty specialist a permanent part of their bullpens.
The term "closer" was not in common use until the 1990s-- prior to that "stopper", "fireman", or "short reliever" were the expressions most often heard in describing that bullpen role.
When baseball's modern master Tony LaRussa managed the Oakland A's (1986-1995) he became the first manager to exclusively use his closer in the 9th inning. At the time it was controversial, today it is carved in stone.
In 1992, La Russa's closer Dennis Eckersley won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards as a member of the Oakland A's.
Recognition of the concept of a "set-up man" came even later; the position became embedded when the 2002 New York Yankees signed Steve Karsay for $21 million over four years to set up closer Mariano Rivera.
The "save" was made an official stat by Major League Baseball in 1969, although the term "save" had been in use by several innovative clubs since the early 1950s. Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman formalized the rules for a save in 1959, and when it was adopted 10 years later it became the first new official MLB stat since the RBI was approved in 1920.
So what is the evolutionary trend in MLB bullpens right now? In the past five years, more and more relievers are being used for only one inning per outing-- and not just closers and set-up men. The number of times any reliever is being used for only one inning per game each season is increasing as the role for each relief pitcher becomes more clearly defined. An article in Baseball Prospectus discussed this trend here.
There are no "throw away" spots in a winning team's 25 man roster-- and that especially applies to the bullpen. As the Giants prepare for the 2013 season their bullpen is almost set-- only one open spot needs to be filled before Opening Day.
Eight Spring Training candidates are fighting for that spot: veterans Chad Gaudin, Scott Proctor, Shane Loux and Jean Machi, hard throwing lefty Dan Runzler, Giant farm hand Steve Edlefsen, and former Giant Ramon Ramirez.
Also in the mix is one of the Giants' top rookie pitching prospects, Heath Hembree.
Whoever makes the cut will have a clear role in the Giants' bullpen and San Francisco's battle to play baseball in October once again.