After the second game of the season, Alex questioned Brad Mills’ decision to bring Rhiner Cruz out of the bullpen with two outs and nobody on in the ninth inning with a four-run lead. More recently Mills has adopted a new strategy at the other end of the spectrum. In each of the last six games Mills has left one or more of his relievers on the mound for multiple innings. Last night it was Brandon Lyon‘s turn to pitch two innings. Much to the surprise of everyone, Lyon managed to get six outs without allowing a run.
Tony La Russa is generally credited with “inventing” the modern bullpen back in the late 1980’s. La Russa changed the game when he started deploying multiple relievers for short stints, usually one inning or less. In the old days relief pitchers were generally expected to finish the game once they were called upon. More recently, but prior to La Russa, managers began using multiple relievers in the same game. But for more than 20 years now, everyone has followed the pattern established by La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan in Oakland.
Mills seems to be going against the book lately and challenging conventional wisdom. The strategy has been mostly successful to this point. But how will it work in the long run? Is this a strategy that Mills has gone with by design, or is it something that just happened due to game situations? If it is by design, where did this strategy come from? La Russa himself seemed to adopt a similar strategy in the 2011 post-season, although the stats don’t completely bear it out. La Russa went to his bullpen early and often. The result: a World Series Championship. Jeff Luhnow was a member of the Cardinals front office during that time and has the rally-squirrel-adorned ring to prove it. Perhaps the Astros new G.M. suggested the use of this bullpen strategy. We already know Luhnow was instrumental in moving Brett Myers to the closer’s position.
With the exception of Myers, who has converted a pair of one-inning saves in his only two appearances, every reliever currently on the Astros roster has had at least one two-inning appearance. To me, this seems like more than just a coincidence.
After last year’s World Series, analysts compared La Russa’s bullpen usage to that of a tournament team. A similar type of strategy is used by clubs that play in International and Olympic tournaments as well as short-season winter leagues. But can this strategy be successful through a grueling 162-game schedule against major league teams? That remains to be seen.
The 2012 Astros have already been picked by everyone to be the worst team in baseball, so why not take a shot with an unconventional strategy. Luhnow is a forward thinker and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is a product of his department of decision sciences. Maybe Luhnow and company see this as a strategy that is well-suited for American League play and want to give it a try a year early. Then again, maybe I’m making a big deal out of something that just isn’t there. What do you think?