The bullpen revolution has not been televised

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Updated: May 19, 2017

8:10 AM ET

There comes a point each spring when the buds of a bullpen revolution seem to be everywhere. One team’s closer competition between two great relievers inspires a managerial pledge to “play matchups” and get both pitchers saves. Another team’s “fluid” situation suggests a possible closer by committee. A surplus starter might be used in a hybrid role, pitching long relief and high-leverage like the firemen of yore. And the memories of the previous October — when some team probably got knocked out because it held its closer back for a save situation that never came; or when some team’s dominant closer undoubtedly nailed a series of five- and six-out saves to become a legend — encourage all of us to imagine the possibilities of a less restrained bullpen ace.

And then, the regular season — and the exhausting demands of reality — hits. We realize how hard it is to run an experiment in the middle of a season. Everybody mostly falls in line.

With nearly a quarter of the season complete, it’s a good time to check in on the offseason and spring training hopes that the revolution might, finally, this time be nigh. Here’s a State of the Bullpen in 2017: All 30 teams, ordered by loyalty to convention so far.

1. Cubs

Oh, that kooky Joe Maddon. Nothing he won’t try, no unconventional strategy he won’t employ. Like, check my dude out: Maddon’s closer, Wade Davis, hasn’t appeared in a game before the ninth inning all season. When the score is tied and Maddon is on the road, he goes to a series of setup men before bringing in his best reliever, who hasn’t been asked to get more than three outs in a game yet. Nobody else on the roster has a save, while Davis has done basically nothing but get saves, in the most conventional way possible.

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  • This might surprise you, because Joe Maddon. But Maddon did this with infield shifts, too: He was at the cutting edge of extreme infield defense, the manager most responsible for turning the shift into a routine strategy against even marginal hitters. Then, when the rest of the league had adopted this “progressive” tactic, Maddon more or less retreated, using the shift less than any manager in the game last year. (While still maintaining an elite defense, one of the best we’ve ever seen, thanks in part to a number of factors harder for the competition to replicate.)

    We point this out to note that articles like this one often start with a premise a given strategy is “good” or “bad” or “progressive” or “traditional.” We will probably even use some of those labels in this article. But (A) context is everything, and (B) public perception of what’s progressive is often outdated. Maddon’s clubs remain selectively wild and innovative. The way Maddon’s first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, charges sacrifice bunts, to my eye, is as aggressive and imaginative as anything any team is doing on the field. That this imaginativeness can coexist with “traditional” bullpen usage should tell us that “traditional” bullpen usage is not a moral outrage.

    2. Braves

    For example, it might seem unforgivable for a team like the Atlanta Braves, with a closer like Jim Johnson, to be as conventional as they’ve been. The Braves, while more respectable than they were last year, remain in basically rebuilding (or, at best, consolidation) mode. Rather than use this period to experiment with new processes, new philosophies, new personnel in new roles — which they head-feinted toward last season — they’ve run their campaign like a candidate with a 30-point lead in the polls: safe, boring.

    They gave the closer job to Johnson, a veteran with plenty of past closing experience but limited upside, declining velocity and fairly recent experience with being quite terrible. They’ve given him every save so far and used him almost exclusively in the ninth inning and in save situations. Nothing will be discovered from this. And while Johnson is signed through next season — when the Braves might plausibly be good — the nature of relievers in their mid-30s suggests he’s a bad bet to be closing games for them in the 2018 postseason.

    And yet, the Braves’ hewing to tradition makes sense, and the sense that it makes speaks directly to the continuing reign of tradition: Johnson will probably be on the trade market this July, and the Braves know he’ll be worth more if he’s successfully closing. Because they’ve used him in a traditional manner, he has been protected as much as possible from uncertainty, irregularity or excessive demands. Coddling a closer like this might not be the very best way to win games, but it’s probably the best way to win a Jim Johnson trade on July 31.

    3. Rockies

    In all honesty, Greg Holland‘s game log is probably the most extreme picture of regimentation in the stack:

    But I had less I wanted to say about the Rockies, so they’re third.

    The lefty setup man Jake McGee got one save, when the Dodgers sent two lefties and switch-hitter-but-better-against-righties Yasmani Grandal up in the ninth. I got excited thinking the Rockies were managing to the matchups, but nope. Holland was just unavailable that day.

    4-6. Orioles, Royals, Phillies