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What Is Relief Pitcher? How Relief Pitchers Are Used?

As little as a generation ago, starting pitchers were expected to pitch entire games and relievers were typically failed or backup starters who only came in to finish the game if it became clear the starter could not do so.

Today starting pitchers rarely pitch more than 6 or 7 innings, and every team has a host of specialized relief pitchers who pitch frequently but face only a handful of batters in particular situations.

The Major League Baseball bullpens of yesteryear had maybe three or four pitchers, all of which could start in a pinch and when called upon could throw for half the game if needed. Today’s MLB bullpens typically feature seven relievers that all serve particular roles, called upon by managers in certain game stages or situations. Check out the list Top 10 relief pitchers for 2017 on ESPN.

The Long Reliever

Typically the least effective pitcher on the team, yet very durable, the long reliever will pitch the fewest games of any reliever in a bullpen but will be expected to do the most work when he does. He often comes in when the starting pitcher has gotten pounded and the game is very far out of reach early, or if the starting pitcher gets injured early. It’s up to the long reliever to pitch the next several innings (that the starter should have pitched) so the other more effective relievers don’t have to.

Sometimes you will see the long reliever come in at the end of a game that’s effectively decided, just to stay in practice and to save the arm of another reliever from use. But the long man’s role is to step in for an unusually ineffective or injured starter.

The Middle Reliever

Most of today’s starting pitchers last 5-7 innings. The hope is that a starter can go 7 frames so the end game specialists can take over. But often a starter can only give 6 or fewer innings of work before he must be pulled.

The middle reliever has two main roles. He bridges this gap between a short stint from the starter and the end game of the final 1-3 frames. And if a game is lopsided or the team is losing, the middle reliever may finish the game to save the better relievers.

A middle reliever is usually a younger reliever still developing his chops, a pitcher who is quite talented but perhaps has fatal flaws that hinder him in a higher profile or starter role,maybe a guy with a terrific fastball but no real good secondary pitch, or who struggles to hit the strike zone under pressure… or an older veteran pitcher who has lost some shine but is still effective in smaller doses.

Some middle relievers do go on to higher profile roles, so it is often a stepping stone point for many aspiring pitchers, especially younger pitchers. Many high profile closers started out as middle relievers.

The Setup Man

When the team is only one inning away from the 9th, has a lead and wants to preserve the lead for their closer, they want a strong shutdown pitcher that can pitch the 8th, maybe part of the 7th, and keep the other team from scoring before the closer takes the ball. That is the job of the setup man.

Many setup men are closers in waiting, unproven but very effective relievers who will probably end up closing should the incumbent closer get hurt, lose his touch or otherwise go away… or maybe even end up as the closer for another team themselves. Others excel in the setup role and stick with that role forever. Joaquin Benoit, LaTroy Hawkins and Chad Qualls are recent examples of great setup relievers who have been content to remain in that role for much of their careers.

Many setup guys remain setup guys due to their nature as specialists, a subset of the closer role:

The Platoon Specialist

This pitcher is a middle or setup reliever used situationally. Many left-handed relievers are only effective against left handed hitters while vulnerable to right handed hitters… so they only come in to face one or two left-handed bats in key situations (maybe with a right-handed bat in-between if they can get away with it). A lot of right handed sidearm and submarine pitchers are great at inducing groundballs against right handed hitters but get destroyed by left handed hitters, so they only come in when they can face a set of righties.

These pitchers often never end up in a closer role (Dennis Eckersley and Byung Hung Kim are two notably rare exceptions). They often pitch so poorly against opposite handed batters that managers feel it isn’t worth the risk in the 9th inning.

The Closer

The final and highest profile of the reliever roles is the guy who comes in to lock up a victory in the 9th inning. Almost always with his team leading by 1-3 runs, the closer comes in to pitch the 9th and finish the final inning with the win, receiving a “Save” in the record book when he succeeds. An average closer saves 30 to 40 games in a season, hopefully blows no more than a small handful of leads, and pitches in many more games beyond that.

The reputation of the closer role is more mythical today than anything. This used to be the role reserved for the team’s best reliever. Many teams will often grant their closer role to an older pitcher with diminished and ordinary stuff simply because of his history as a successful closer.

But many closers are as dangerous as their label suggests. Many throw good fastballs that exceed 92-95 mph and couple it with a terrific offspeed or breaking pitch. JJ Putz, for example, was an ordinary middle reliever with a 94 mph fastball until he learned to locate a devastating split finger fastball and mixed those two pitches together. That spilt finger pitch helped make him into a top closer. Some closers just throw incredible gas: Reds closer Aroldis Chapman throws a blazing 101 mph fastball as did one time Rangers closer Neftali Feliz. Usually it’s all they need to throw.

A rare few manage with simple mastery of one pitch: Legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera throws nothing but a cut fastball, which throughout his career has remained hard to hit. Retired closer Trevor Hoffman had an unspectacular fastball but mixed it with a terrific changeup to baffle hitters. When he closed for the Red Sox, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield need only throw his dancing knuckler, akin to how Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm pitched.

Some argue that the 7th and 8th inning are higher leverage innings, and that by the 9th the trailing team is back against the wall and most pitchers can succeed in getting three outs with a lead. But the closer role retains its mythology, and general managers still pay the pitcher in that role millions of dollars more than other relievers.

Kevin Eaton
 

Keavin Eaton lives with his wife and two boys in New Orleans, LA. He has a bachelor’s degree in Phys Ed from the University of New Orleans and a Master’s degree in Kinesiology from the Louisiana State University. As an athlete, Kevin competed in many sports including wrestling, rowing, speed skating and bobsleigh before finding skeleton. Opinions expressed by Kevin on Play Famously are his own.

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