At one point, of course, every pitcher who put on a uniform considered himself a starter. He only reconciled himself to a life of bullpen work once it had been proven that he was ineffective when overexposed. And even then, he longed for the opportunity to get himself back in the rotation. Then, along came Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley, and closing down games appeared to be a more unlikely, but still a potential path to baseball immortality, especially for players with only one or two quality pitches, instead of three or four. Still, however, there was only room in the bullpen for one star. The other guys, they were just mop-up men, the unfortunate, but necessary risks which must be taken when the starter fails to turn the ball over directly to the closer.
In recent years, the logic of relievers is changing yet again. Partially, of course, because pitch-count limitations and improved patience from hitters is making it more difficult for even the best starters to consistently get past six or seven innings. It took some time, but managers and general managers have reacted by finding ways to "shorten the game" with two or three outstanding relievers. Lou Pinella has been at the forefront of this development. In 1990, he won a World Series largely on the backs of the "Nasty Boys," a closer-by-committee trio composed of Norm Charlton (50 IP, 3.02 ERA, 2 SV, 57 K), Rob Dibble (98 IP, 1.74 ERA, 11 SV, 136 K), and Randy Myers (87 IP, 2.08 ERA, 31 SV, 98 K). Two lefties and one right-handed who could be employed in any late inning and in any order. In 2001, when Seattle tied an MLB record for wins, Pinella adapted to more defined bullpen roles, but again depended on a combination of strong relievers, two left-handed and two right-handed: Norm Charlton (48 IP, 3.02 ERA, 1 SV, 48 K), Jeff Nelson (65 IP, 2.76 ERA, 4 SV, 88 K), Arthur Rhodes (68 IP, 1.72 ERA, 3 SV, 83 K), and Kaz Sasaki (67 IP, 3.24 ERA, 45 SV, 62 K).
This year, Pinella again has the ingredients for his favorite recipe, with Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, and Michael Wuertz in the Cubs bullpen. And, so far, the Cubs have the best record in baseball. Most of the best managers - Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, etc. - have adopted Lou's program, and to great success. LaRussa, arguably the inventor of the hydra-headed bullpen monster depended upon Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt to lead many of his late-'80s, early-'90s Athletics contenders. Torre moved from Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland to Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, and Mariano Rivera as part of the '90s Yankee Dynasty. The Angels World Series run in 2002 was dependent upon Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Ben Weber, and Brendan Donnelly.
The success of the these teams has increased the notoriety of the dominant set-up man. In 2001, Torre put Paul Quantrill, at the time posting a 2.13 ERA and 7 relief wins on the AL All-Star Team. Bob Brenly followed suit the following season for the NL, adding Atlanta's Mike Remlinger (50 IP, 2.88, 68 K) among much criticism. In all but one season since, at least one set-up man has been an All-Star. Considering that arguably the best closer in history, Lee Smith, is still awaiting induction, it may be a very long time before middle relievers get any consideration for the Hall of Fame. But, baseball theorist would do well to consider the particular challenges the set-up man faces. Unlike the starter, for whom the quality start is six innings pitched, three earned runs, and the closer, who is successful so long as he holds onto a lead, the only successful outcome for a middle reliever is to come into the game (often with men on base) and get through the inning, or partial inning, without allowing any runs. A run is a failure. The heavy pressure of these situations may explain why managers like Pinella, Eric Wedge, and Jim Leyland have elected to put their most dominant pitchers - Rafael Perez, Joel Zumaya, Carlos Marmol, etc. - in middle relief roles, while handing the closer duties to guys like Joe Borowski and Todd Jones, whose stuff is not nearly as electric. The closer usually has the advantage of entering the game with nobody on.
It is often observed that very few pitchers are successful in the closer's role over a considerable duration of time. Only three pitchers have ever registered 30 saves ten times: Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, and Mariano Rivera. However, even fewer middle reliever succeed over the long haul. Let's talk about those All-Stars. Paul Quantrill had a solid seven-year run, of which his All-Star year was arguably the highlight (11-2, 3.04, 83 IP). During this stretch his was 32-29, with 18 SV and a 2.82 ERA. However, in 2004 he turned in a sub-par year with Torre's Yankees and was out of baseball by 2006. Mike Remlinger was a bullpen staple in Atlanta and Chicago for six seasons from '99 to '04, during which he failed to make 70 appearances only once and never had an ERA above 3.65. His record was an impressive 32-17. But, like Quantrill, one sub-par season was the end of him. He retired after '06. In 2003, Mike Scioscia rewarded Brendan Donnelly with a trip to the All-Star Game. Donnelly did not make the majors until the age of 30, but was a key part of the Angels bullpen from 2002 to 2006, although his effectiveness continued to dwindle for his final three seasons in Anaheim before he was eventually traded to Boston. He was effective in the early months of 2007, but had to undergo Tommy John and is now trying to make his way back to the majors in the Indians organization. Set-up man, Justin Duchscherer, represented Oakland in 2005. He had three solid seasons as a middle reliever before suffering from nagging injuries last year. The A's recently converted him to a starter. As you can see, it is rare for a middle reliever to be effective for an extended period of time. Often, at least in the past, the best set-up men have not found the right role until late in their careers or, if they do find it early, teams have attempted to convert them either to closers or starters. However, as managers and GMs become more aware of the necessity of the 7th and 8th inning All-Stars, they will be in less of a hurry to make such alterations, as can be witnessed by Joe Giradi's reluctance to give in to the pressure to make Joba Chamberlain a starter. Here are half-a-dozen of the best middle-men who we can likely look forward to seeing in that role for several years to come.
6. Tom Gordon - Philadelphia Phillies
This is the twentieth season for forty-year-old Flash Gordon, his twelfth as a reliever. In his illustrious career he's netted 137 wins, 157 saves, and 117 holds. Nobody in major league history has accumulated that combination of stats. And, disregarding the Hold, a stat which didn't come into existence until the 1980s, Gordon joins Eckersley, Lindy McDaniel, Hoyt Wilhelm, and John Smoltz as the only players with 130 wins and 150 saves. Very impressive company! And, at 40, Gordon has proved that he's still quite a dominant set-up man. Since giving up fiver earned runs in a third of an inning in his first appearance, Gordon has recorded one save and nine holds, striking out eighteen hitters in twenty innings, and compiling a 2.21 ERA.
5. Tony Pena - Arizona Diamondbacks
Pena's future is closely intertwined with that of Brandon Lyon, the D-Backs current closer. Lyon will be a free agent at the end of this season, while Pena will be under their control for four more seasons. Lyon will make more than $3,000,000 in 2008 and ask for more if he continues to be successful (12 SV, 1.64 ERA so far!). Pena will make $405,000 this year and then face arbitration. If Arizona resigns Lyon, Pena can stay in the role which he has dominated thus far in his career. He's been in the top ten in the MLB in Holds each of the past two seasons. Doug Melvin is confident bringing him in any situation. Leaving aside one bad outing in a game that was already out of reaching, Pena has ten holds and a save this season, to go along with a 2.28 ERA.
4. Carlos Marmol - Chicago Cubs
In Marmol, Lou Pinella has found the reincarnation of Rob Dibble. Like Pena, Marmol could eventually find himself closing games, but Pinella prefers the freedom to use him in whichevery late-inning situation requires strikeouts, whether it means bringing him in with men on base or matching him up with the opposition's middle-of-the-order. Since Chicago turned him into a reliever after a dozen unsuccessful starts in 2006, Marmol has a 1.90 ERA with 161 K in 113 innings. This year he already has 16 holds and 3 saves, as well as a 1.54 ERA. Marmol is arguably the most dominant reliever in baseball, regardless of role.
3. Rafeal Perez - Cleveland Indians
Because he is left-handed and because they have Rafael Betancourt, Masa Kobayashi, Jensen Lewis, and Joe Borowski the Indians will be reluctant to turn him into a closer, so Perez could be among the league-leaders in holds for years and years to come. Last season he posted a 1.78 ERA and 62 K in 60 innings. He has held left-handers to a .142 career average (and righties only hit .222).
2. Hideki Okajima - Boston Red Sox
Okajima shoots toward the top of the list partially because he is buried behind a young closer who is among the most dominant in history, Jonathan Papelbon. The Red Sox are unlikely to trade him, both because Hideki has been ridiculously effective thus far, and because his presence brings comfort to his very expensive countryman, Dice-K. Okajima, however, has himself been a key piece of Boston's success the past two seasons. He went to the All-Star Game in 2007 and finished the year with a 2.22 ERA, 5 SV, 27 HLD, and 63 K in 69 innings. This year he has again started off on fire. He's allowed only two earned runs in 24 innings (0.75 ERA). Boston has a club option for 2009, an option which is, strangely, less expensive than the contracts for his first two seasons. They'll pick that up in a hurry, one would bet. At that point, Okajima will be 34-years-old. If he hasn't shown any signs to slowing down, he could demand one of the largest contracts ever awarded a middle reliever.
1. Scot Shields - Los Angeles Angels
Shields signed a three-year, $15 Million contract before this season which pretty much assured that the 32-year-old would never make his mark as a closer. He will be among the first players to make a very lucrative career almost entirely out of pitching the eighth inning. He has racked up 30 or more holds in each of the past three seasons and is easily on pace to do it again this year. He's got a 2.97 career ERA and 128 holds. Unless K-Rod goes down with a serious injury, Shields will never have an opportunity to close regularly in Anaheim, even though he undoubtedly has the stuff to do so. The Angels invested in the hydra-headed bullpen strategy when they signed Shields and Justin Speier to long, lucrative deals, investing nearly $30 Million in their services for the next three seasons.