Thursday, November 1, 2012

How Unique is 'The Freak'?

Among the fallout from the Giants Championship run is the question of Tim Lincecum's role. In the past he's been an elite starter, though with his considerable struggles in 2012 Bruce Bochy shifted him to the bullpen for the playoffs. The role Bochy (I'd argue smartly) inserted Lincecum into was as unconventional as the pitcher himself: he averaged about 2.2 innings per appearance and never finished a game.

'The Freak', as Lincecum is affectionately known, flourished in the role striking out 17 while surrendering 3 hits and 2 walks in 13 innings, leading many to wonder if he was destined for a 'super-relief' role. In a nutshell, the role requires multiple mid-game innings to form a bridge from starter to closer. The appeal is obvious in that a team can save their other relievers without sacrificing quality.

The idea of multi-inning relievers is not a new one. The first relievers were often expected to finish a game no matter how many innings it took. Over time the bullpen has become more and more specialized culminating in the 2011 World Series in which Tony La Russa (expertly) seemed to make a pitching change for each batter. The merits of each strategy can be debated, but the point is pitchers have been used in this way before.

For me, the question isn't so much will Lincecum stay in this new niche or head back to the rotation (my inkling is that he will at least start 2013 in the rotation), but will this assignment be able to catch on elsewhere in the league?

Some might suggest, correctly, that Lincecum is a once-in-a-generation pitcher. They may go on to suggest, I believe incorrectly, that only he could pull off a 'super-relief' specialization that would require 50-60 appearances and 140-160 innings a season.

As a pitcher, Timmy as unique as it gets. He's the size of an average high school freshman boy, pitches from 12 o'clock and still has a powerful arsenal and seemingly unlimited durability. The new niche he's carved out over the past month accentuates these skills so perfectly that it creates the illusion that nobody else could perform it.

I'm here to suggest that's untrue and generally counterproductive. Each year very good pitching prospects are relegated to work one inning at a time after they don't succeed in the rotation. A couple examples that come to mind are Joba Chamberlain, Glen Perkins and Brian Matusz. The extent of their success in relief work varies, however two things are evident about this breed of pitcher, with the caveat of assuming full health, 1) They have electric stuff and 2) were at least supposed to be handle in the neighborhood of 200 innings.

To me, the natural progression from starter to reliever should go through the middle ground of 'super-reliever'. I wouldn't designate each failed starter to the role, only those with the ability or at least potential to dominate. Given the opportunity of ~150 innings this pitcher could be the most important cog in a teams bullpen.

Quickly, I'd like to make the distinction between the mop-up role from 'super-relief'. Mop-up work is usually reserved for blow outs, while 'super-relief' is for high-leverage innings. Ideally, this is a guy you could feel comfortable plugging in for 6th, 7th and 8th in a 6-5 game, instead of using one-third of your bullpen.

Given the potential benefits of getting roughly 150 high-quality innings, saving other top relievers and replacing lower-quality middle relievers, the upside should be obvious.

Despite this, there will be many doubters with legitimate questions. One I recently heard was "how will you convince a pitcher to take on such an ill-defined role?"I'm of the mind that a player will do anything to find a spot on a major league club and, just like any other career, the environment is bound to be dynamic (even with the glacial pace of the baseball industry) meaning that a player will adjust. Second is "can a pitcher handle such a workload?", this I'm not as sure about. The role wouldn't require pitching every day or 300 innings, but it's still new territory. So I'd say we won't know until we try it. Rollie Fingers went 120+ innings in a season multiple times, surviving in the league until he was 38. Granted, it's a different game with different levels of stresses, however, I think it's very feasible for today's pitchers to do as well.

'The Freak' will likely be back in his spot as a starter next season, but I hope to see somebody else pickup the reigns and resuscitate 'super-relief'. I wrote this article with Blue Jays prospect Marcus Stroman in mind, but Chris Reed and Alexi Ogando also seem to have what it would take. I'm hoping each team will not dismiss Bochy's and Lincecum's flash of brilliance and employ their own 'super-relievers' making that role as ingrained in a bullpen as the closer has become.

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