Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Baseball hurts itself with too many relievers

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: March 5, 2013 - 8:50 PM

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Whitey Herzog was managing the Kansas City Royals when Gene Mauch was hired to do the same for the Twins in 1976. This was the era when the debate was over whether to carry nine pitchers or 10 before the rosters were expanded on Sept. 1.

Either way, a manager in the American League had at least six players on his bench and could be liberal in platooning players. No one was more liberal in this than Mauch. He would play his handful of key guys most every day, and then go left-right at four positions.

I had a friend who covered the Royals and was tight with Herzog. On occasion, they would drink whiskey together into the late night after road games. And if the Twins happened to be the opponent, Whitey would threaten that he was going to start a righthander, get all of Mauch's lefties in the lineup, and then warm up a lefty and bring him in to start the second inning.

My second-hand account was that Whitey would make this threat, take a hit of fine alcohol, and then growl: "That would screw up the son of a ...''

Sad to say, Herzog never did take his own suggestion.

The debate switched from 9 or 10 pitchers to 10 or 11 some time in the '80s. It stayed that way for a couple of decades, before becoming 11 or 12 around the turn of the century, and now it's 12.

"Twelve or 13,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "That's what you really want to avoid -- 13 pitchers. You can't do much as a manager with three players on the bench, when two of them are a backup catcher and an extra infielder.''

Phil Miller, the Strib's co-baseball writer, made a fine point when we were talking about this last night. "Most changes in modern theory about a sport make the game better,'' he said. "In baseball, the theory on pitchers, on how you have to protect them, has made it worse.''

As a great old Atlanta sportswriter named George Cunningham used to say, again after many cocktails: "That's exactly right.''

Most big-league managers have embraced a system that when a game gets beyond five innings, they march in relievers for never more than an inning. And then after two, three days of this, they say: "Man, I've had to use four guys out of the bullpen every day. They are going to wear out if we don't get another pitcher in here.''

The closer deal is now set in stone: Every team is going to designate one and he's going to pitch with a lead in the last inning.There's no sense in arguing that.

But why not tell the rest of 'em, "Listen, you're going to pitch two innings on Sunday, and you're going to be ready for two more on Tuesday, and two more on Thursday, and if you can't handle it, have a nice life in the International League.''

If a starter gets into the sixth, it should never take more than two relievers to get a team to the ninth, and then see if there's a lead to protect. This idea that if Brian Duensing has a 1-2-3 seventh on 12 pitches that he shouldn't pitch the eighth ... that's not how you rest a bullpen, it's how you run it into the ground.

OK, when the starters are as horrible as were the Twins' were a year ago, you're going to beat up a bullpen. But to do it just by parading in relievers one innning at a time is a self-inflicted punishment for a manager who also wants to have a viable bench.

I've contended for a number of years that baseball would be better with a 26-player roster, as long as it included a rule that not more than 12 of those players could be pitchers. Then we would see some late-inning moves _ some lumber and speed on the bench. And also the return of the platoon, which always made a Mauch lineup a thing of beauty, or a source of bourbonized ridicule, whatever your preference.

 

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