Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, along with his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, is credited by many with being the father of modern bullpen usage. For La Russa, it's not the save rule that drives decision-making, it's a belief that the ninth inning is simply a different animal, no matter the circumstances.
"If the closer is rested and you've got the middle of the lineup in the eighth, I'd pitch the closer in the eighth," said La Russa, who brought in his de facto closer Mitchell Boggs for one out in the eighth just Friday night. "He should have an easier time with the bottom of the lineup in the ninth. But you can't just pick somebody and say, 'OK, you've got the ninth inning,' and have the same expectancy of winning. Because the ninth is different."
But is it always?
Which is tougher to protect -- a three-run lead with Nos. 7-8-9 in the order coming up with the bases empty in the ninth? Or a one- or two-run advantage in the eighth, against the heart of the batting order?
Obviously, it's often not that cut-and-dried. And sometimes it's the other way around. Sometimes the toughest situation comes in the ninth. When that's the case, the best thing to do is to use your best pitcher.
It's rarely that clear, though. And when it's not, managers should be willing to bend the rules. The mindset tends to be, if you use your closer -- theoretically your best reliever -- before the ninth, then you have to use him through the ninth. But that's not etched in stone -- or at least it shouldn't be.
"If you've got a bunch of left-handed hitters and you've got a left-handed reliever, you might get your closer in the eighth inning and the left-hander gets them in the ninth," La Russa said. "I've done that before, with [Rick] Honeycutt. But the bullpen works when guys have, as best you can, identified roles, and you pitch them to their roles."
Either way, you need quality pitchers to have an effective bullpen. When the Red Sox floated the idea of a closer-by-committee in 2003, it was misconstrued in some quarters. The idea, critics said, was that anybody could protect a lead in the ninth inning, and that anybody could be plugged in the bullpen. That was just a straw man, though.
You need at least one top-quality pitcher -- and ideally more, with varying skill sets -- for any bullpen to work. The idea is simply that when you have a great pitcher, sometimes you waste him by pitching him in situations in which another pitcher would give you very nearly as much of a chance to win. And sometimes you lose out by not using him in a critical situation, such as a tie game in the ninth inning on the road, or with a star hitter batting with men on base in the seventh or eighth.
Then there are more granular tactical concerns. From the fifth or sixth through the eighth, managers match up their relievers. They look for the platoon advantage. They consider ground-ball versus fly-ball tendencies. If they need a strikeout, they'll go to a strikeout pitcher.
Then the ninth comes, and all of that is out the window. A closer with a platoon split can face a series of batters who hit from the opposite side. A fly-ball pitcher can face a power-packed part of the lineup in a cozy ballpark during a game in which a solo home run could cost you the lead. These are moves that managers would avoid earlier, but the ninth belongs to the closer, no matter what.
It doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't.
None of these decisions are made in a vacuum, of course. It's not a Strat-O-Matic game. The manager makes decisions regarding players he'll have to face in the clubhouse a little later. Some pitchers have been conditioned to feel that it's not their job to come in a game with runners on base. They develop habits, then, that make it difficult to succeed with men on -- becoming slow to the plate, for example.
And then there's the big issue: dollars. Jose Valverde signed for $7 million per season to be Detroit's closer. Joaquin Benoit, coming off a better year, got about three-quarters that per year to be the Tigers' setup man. The guys who get the saves get the dollars. And the guys who get the dollars get the saves.
"The difference is that you never have anybody behind you as the closer," said former big league closer, setup man and starter Braden Looper. "When you go out there as the closer, good, bad or indifferent, that's it. That's the difference. ... Other than that, it's pretty much the same. The only other difference is that you don't get a save in the eighth."
It's not that anybody can close, or that it doesn't matter who pitches the ninth. The point is simply that sometimes, the game is won and lost before the ninth. And when the game is on the line, you need to have your best pitchers and players in the game.