Last year, forced into it by injuries to staff, Bruce Bochy became masterful at relief by committee and in so doing joined managers of the future who recognize that the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2011 under Tony LaRussa by allowing the pitching game to change into a game of specialists and team play.
In the past, fans like myself struggled with Bochy’s decision to repeatedly leave starting pitchers in because he wanted to believe in their toughness and ability to get it done or because, as many said, “he’s a player’s manager.” But last year, forced to create a platoon of relievers to carry tight games (the only kind we really play, since we don’t have a lot of big bats), Bochy learned what Tony LaRussa understood when LaRussa became the first manager in MLB history to win a postseason series using relievers for more innings than starters (50 – 49 in the 2011 ALDS).
Purists and 20th century guys grumble about the closer and middle relievers, but let’s face it: there will never be another 300-win pitcher in the MLB again. Over a long season, it makes no sense to leave a guy in there while your opponent uses a middle reliever to go two innings, a specialist lefty to get one batter out and a shutdown closer to end games.
I’ve been saying this for more than half a decade and most people either disagreed or found it an ugly truth they wish would go away. Instead, it grows and flowers in teams like the 2011 Cardinals and the 2012 Giants. It is an inevitability of the post-steroid era, and of course, pitching wins pennants.
It’s been a long time coming and began with the development of a specialist: the closer.
Now we have left handed specialists like Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, and hard throwing middle relievers like Mijares, Ramirez and Casilla. We are developing a staff that, if necessary, could pull Timmy or Zito out of a game in the fourth inning of a horrible outing and still win the game. But I think Bochy and Co. are thinking of it out of concern for longevity of our starting five. With any other staff, our glaring weakness would be lack of depth at starting pitcher. LaRussa had to throw Carpenter out there three times to get it done. So resting Cain in the first half is a smart idea.
Developing middle relief has to start early in the season and be massaged and worked all season long. It requires unselfish play by starting pitchers, team play and good defense at all positions and a willingness not only to understand your role as a pitcher but to have the fire and desire to want to perfect it.
But most of all it requires a Manager with the courage to take risks for the sake of the long season’s final outcome.
Yesterday, on Opening Day, I was thrilled to see Bruce Bochy pull starter Matt Cain in a tight game against Clayton Kershaw early in the season without hesitation because he wanted relievers to get work under pressure and on the road. He wants to develop middle, long and late relief alongside a closer. He wants, and doesn’t fear, options.
Bochy, who has gone from good to masterful in the past four years, may just end up as one of those managers who deserves the title of genius.