Saturday, October 24, 2009

The long lost Marshall Plan for bullpen management

Back in 1997 when I first started college at UNLV, despite studying theatre I still had a keen interest in sports. The old James Dickinson Library had a wealth of sports coaching materials: Old football playbooks, coaching guides for all sports, and a large archive of sports coaching magazines.

One day I stumbled upon an article featuring an interview with former pitcher and pitching coach Mike Marshall, blackballed from the Majors for a unique approach to developing pitchers that incumbent coaches, managers and owners consider a threat to the establishment and/or the health of their pitchers (even though there's a(n un)healthy rate of pitcher attrition under the status quo). (This and this are NOT from the interview in question. They're from a separate interview with BP's Jonah Keri, but will give you a good idea of where Marshall is coming from.)

What was interesting is that the article outlined a complete strategy from Marshall on managing an entire pitching staff. The plan, from memory:

- Every pitcher in the rotation would have a strict limit of 27 batters to face. If he got shelled, you could remove him early, but he is to face no more than 27 batters. The reason, which is discussed in the piece I linked above, is that familiarity and fatigue take away many of the pitcher's advantages once he faces hitters a 4th time.

- Instead of a closer, you would have two alternating short relievers commissioned to finish the final 1-2 innings (typically one) on alternating days, guaranteeing at least one day off after pitching for each reliever.

- You would also have two middle relievers to help bridge the gap between the 27th batter and the designated short reliever finishing the game, or to work in extra innings. Though you could make these relievers specialists (such as a lefty specialist and a groundball specialist for double play ball situations, as many managers do), Marshall's methods encourage the development of pitcher modularity (the ability to pitch effectively to any hitter in any situation) and thus there ideally wouldn't be a need for specialists per se.

- One other pitcher can then serve as the long reliever for those cases when the starter gets shelled or otherwise has to leave early, or if the game goes to extra innings and other available relievers have been used. This would give you a bullpen of 10 men (In this piece, Marshall used a five man rotation even though in the interview above he advocates usage of a four man rotation, likely deferring to the status quo in MLB and the minors).

- Here's the kicker: The starting pitcher that threw two days before is also made available in the bullpen if needed. He can throw to 1-2 batters in a pinch during the middle innings, or fill in a blank if several pitchers are for whatever reason already burned.

To date I have not been able to find the article online. I have found multiple interviews from Marshall, obviously (he is a somewhat popular interview) but have yet to find the piece where he outlines this strategy. As a result, in describing it from memory I may have omitted some details. If you are able to correct me, that is more than welcome because it means you've read the piece and might know where to find it.

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