Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bryan Price: Job #1 "Relief Ace"

For the very first act of his managerial career, Bryan Price should announce a role change for Aroldis Chapman.

I know, I know. I can already hear you shouting through the screen: "They have no inclination to take your brilliant and inspired suggestion to trade him and Aroldis continues to announce loud and proud to anyone who will listen that he won't start games, so how can Price change his role???"

Well, Bryan Price needs to come right out and say: "Aroldis is NOT going to be our Closer in 2014, he's going to be our Relief Ace." 

First and foremost, the team needs to let Aroldis know who calls the shots. These statements to the press by Aroldis about what he's willing and not willing to do give the appearance of the tail wagging the dog. Someone on the team, and here's where we could use some leadership in the clubhouse, should polite remind Aroldis that he'll play when and where the organization wants or he won't play at all; that while he can express these ideas to management behind closed doors, it's completely inappropriate to be making these statements to the press. But, I digress. 

Price is already on record as saying he wants to extract more value from Aroldis, so his thoughts are clearly running in this direction anyway, so why not go whole-hog and fundamentally change the way bullpens are managed? Why not be an "early adopter" and reap the benefits that go along with it? Formally announce the change in roles to ensure that people's expectations for Chapman change accordingly. Changing the usage pattern without formally changing the name of the role would reduce fan buy-in and increase resistance to the change. 

If we are managing our bullpen more effectively and efficiently than other organizations, then we are building a competitive advantage. And, given that this team is close to getting over the hump, the marginal value of a win is very high. So, every competitive advantage should be actively sought out and exploited. 

So, what's the difference between a "closer" and a "relief ace"? Namely, usage patterns. As we all know, closers are used when save situations arrive. The concept of the "closer" is so ingrained in the baseball woodwork that it's functionally impossible to change the usage pattern without changing the label. The problem becomes even more intractable when you factor in that reliever compensation is frequently tied to the concept of the "save", so there will be resistance from closers and agents, as well. Again, it's ingrained. So, to make this work, we need not only a clean break from the "closer" concept, but an entirely new label. Fortunately, some forward thinking sabermetricians have advanced the idea of the "relief ace" and it suits our purposes perfectly. 

The "Relief Ace" usage pattern would be based on "leverage", not "save situations." In short, the greater the value of a single run in a game, the higher leverage the situation. In other words, the more likely that a situation will impact the outcome of the game, the higher the leverage. So, a bases loaded situation with 0 outs in the 9th inning of a tie ballgame is about as high leverage as it gets. That's a situation wherein the "Closer" may or may not be used, but the "Relief Ace" absolutely would. On the other hand, a bases empty situation in the 2nd inning of a 15-0 game is about as low leverage as it gets.

Intuitively, the "relief ace" idea makes a tremendous amount of sense. Don't you want your best reliever pitching when his contribution will make the greatest impact on the team's chances of winning? Of course! If you want Aroldis to be more valuable, then you have to use him in situations where he can generate value. Again, as with pitch framing, value is a function of opportunity. Give Aroldis more opportunities and he'll deliver more value.

This is also a perfect way for Bryan Price to immediately put his own stamp on the organization and make a clean break from any residual fan disdain for Dusty Baker. This is a fan base thirsting for a forward-thinking approach. It not only allows him to immediately differentiate himself from the tradition-bound strategies of his predecessor, but it has the added benefit of being good business. It's clear that, if done correctly, it's a move that would more effectively deploy the bullpen. 

Now, the "problem" with this switch is that using Aroldis earlier in the game means he won't always be there to slam the door in the 9th. And, inevitably, some of those saves will be blown, which will ratchet-up public and pundit resistance to the idea. So, Price would need three things to effectively break with tradition: (1) a functional "closer" for those times when Aroldis is used in earlier high leverage situations, (2) a bit of luck that a significant number of saves aren't blown before public/pundit acceptance of the switch, and (3) more than a bit of backbone to go along with complete confidence in the idea. 

Fortunately, the Reds have a couple of options for players who could handle 9th inning duties. While not bringing the dominance of Aroldis, some combination of J.J. Hoover, Jonathan Broxton, and Sean Marshall should be able to convert most save chances. 

Just to lend some legitimacy to the "relief ace" idea and illustrate that we could survive without Aroldis slamming the door, it's worth discussing an interesting Bill James/John Dewan rule of thumb on save chances. The 30-60-90 rule of saves sets forth the likely conversion rate in different save situations, which may make it more palatable to have a lesser reliever in some of these easier save chances.

Here's John Dewan on the idea:

What's the 30-60-90 rule of saves?
By John Dewan
May 18, 2005

The manager brings in a relief pitcher up by three runs in the ninth. The pitcher finishes the game and gets the save. It's done all the time, but in fact, it's not a good time to use what normally is the best pitcher on your team.

This situation falls under the category of Easy Save. An Easy Save is earned when a pitcher enters the game with a 2 or 3 run lead, no one on base and pitches one inning or less while finishing the game for a team victory. No need to use your best pitcher here. Pitchers convert these save opportunities about 90% of the time.

Use your best pitcher in a Tough Save situation. That happens when he enters the game with the tying run on base. The conversion rate for saves in this situation is only 30%.

All other saves or Regular Saves are converted at a 60% rate.

The 30-60-90 rule of saves: Tough saves—30% conversion. Regular saves—60%. Easy saves—90%.

The take-away from this 30-60-90 concept is that just about any pitcher is going to convert most of the "Easy Saves". And, one of the aforementioned non-Aroldis options would nail down most "Regular Saves". So, Aroldis isn't really needed in many of these save chances, which again supports the notion that he can be more impactful in the "Relief Ace" role. 

Aroldis may continue to resist a change to the rotation, but the Reds can still extract more value out of him by changing his usage pattern in the bullpen. Aroldis may not want to move INTO the rotation, but he can still be moved OUT OF the closer role. 

For a team that has made the playoffs but come up just short in consecutive years, wringing every last drop of production out of the roster and exploiting every possible competitive advantage is not only advisable, but necessary. The difference between losing in the first round of the playoffs and winning the World Series is razor thin and having a Relief Ace may make all the difference for the Reds.  

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