How the Tigers could revolutionize the use of the bullpen, but won’t

Dave Dombrowski hired Brad Ausmus during the 2013 offseason and has entrusted his new manager on the field.

Dave Dombrowski hired Brad Ausmus during the 2013 offseason and has entrusted his young manager on the field.

Brad Ausmus is continuing his conversation with Dave Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch about a whole new approach to the bullpen for the Detroit Tigers in 2015.

The manager who survived his rookie year by doing what he thought his bosses wanted, playing it mostly by the book, is now ready to unleash his legendary brainpower and stop doing what everybody else does these days. In my fantasy he is, anyway.

“Look, [Joe] Nathan, for better or worse, is here for another year. You already spent that $9 million, Mr. I, no getting it back. Conventional wisdom would have you spend many millions more on another closer—such as [Joakim] Soria or [David] Robertson. But why throw good money after bad? There are dozens of other relievers who are more effective and much cheaper simply because they’re not closers.”

“So having a closer is a waste?” asks Dave Dombrowski.

“There’s no rule that says you need a closer. It’s not essential, like having a second baseman. It’s really just a fad.

“Let’s say we just eliminate that job. Don’t worry about who gets the save. It’s a meaningless stat, and it shouldn’t have any part in dictating game strategy.

“So who do we have? We’ve got Al Alburquerque, who’s great against right-handers. We’ve got Blaine Hardy, who’s great against left-handers. And Nathan could still be useful.

“We’ve got three lefties—Kyle Lobstein, Robbie Ray, and Ian Krol; one of them could be in the rotation, and at least one of the others can be in the bullpen. We should just dump Phil Coke.

“In my opinion, we don’t need to carry twelve pitchers. Six in the pen is plenty, and that opens up a roster spot for another asset on the bench, which we desperately need.

“The starters should also be available to pitch if needed on their normal day when they throw between starts.”

Dombrowski starts to open his mouth, but Smarty Brad is already ready for him.

“I’ve already heard the questions you have about my new strategy.” [In fact, this blog’s readers have already provided the common objections for us.]

“First, the usual canard: ‘There is more pressure to close a game in the ninth than putting a fire out in the sixth.’

“I don’t agree at all. Most save situations are easy. If you can’t get three outs before giving up two or three runs, what are you doing pitching in the major leagues?

“Next objection: ‘Not everyone has the mental ability to handle the pressure of a closer.’ This is bunk. If you’re a major league pitcher, you are already used to handling pressure. The whole stuff about having the ‘mental makeup’ to close is just an illusion promoted by closers to justify their job.

“The other thing you hear a lot lately is that relief pitchers want to have their roles defined. And that’s possibly true of many of them. But the whole idea of a having a bullpen is that there are a bunch of pitchers ready to warm up and come into a game at any time. We have to get rid of the idea that there are ninth-inning guys and eighth-inning guys and seventh-inning guys.

“So now we get to the practical question: ‘After you put your best relief pitcher in to pitch out of a jam in the sixth inning, who pitches the rest of the game?’

“The answer is easy: You use your best remaining options—the guys who will match up best against the batters they’ll be facing.

“An easy answer, but executing it is complicated, because you’re not just using an inflexible formula game after game.”

Brad pauses to take a breath and re-energize his brain cells.

“To start with, let’s revive the time-honored notion of a hot hand. If a guy is throwing well, let him stay out there awhile. Forget the silly idea that a relief pitcher can’t pitch two innings—or even sometimes more than two. Let’s get guys in our bullpen who are willing to do that.

“Carrying relievers who pitch only a couple innings a week is a huge waste of resources.

“Using relievers should not be a push-button thing. Every game is different, so every game needs its own strategy.

“We have a ton of stats. Let’s use them. We should have a special assistant in the dugout to help me, with the stats ready that show who is the best pitcher against the hitters coming up or available. That will help me better calculate the risks.

“If I do my job right, no one will care anymore who gets the saves.”

And, in my fantasy, jaws drop all over the baseball world. But don’t worry, Tiger fans, it’s just my dream—most likely we’ll keep watching the familiar parade of designated closer and designated set-up men blowing games all season long, including in the playoffs.