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Sox Bullpen: The "Need For a Lefty"

Recently, the topic of the predominantly right-handedness of the potential 2006 Red Sox bullpen has become a hot topic. Why didn't we retain Mike Myers? Can Dinardo be a specialist? Do we need a lefty?

All of these are questions that are no doubt doing laps in the minds of those on Yawkey Way as well. Let's examine our options, and even the importance of a left-hander in the pen and its relation to our success.

First, Here's an excerpt from Steve Treder's (of The Hardball Times) "History of the LOOGY"

"The purpose of a LOOGY is straightforward: he's brought in to face, if not a single dangerous left-handed hitter, then at least a part of the lineup containing a key lefty, or two or more lefties. Very often this is in a fairly high-leverage game circumstance, rarely before the fifth or sixth inning. Sometimes LOOGYs are deployed in the ninth, but rarely are they used in Save situations. Very rarely are they left in for much more than a single inning.

LOOGYs are selected for the role primarily on the basis of their particular effectiveness against left-handed batters -- or, to be less kind, on the basis of their particular ineffectiveness against right-handed batters. They're often long and lanky types, with snaky sidewinding deliveries.

1. A basic precept of the rules of baseball has a huge bearing here: a relief pitcher entering the game is required to face at least one batter to the conclusion of the at-bat, but the offensive team is allowed to pinch-hit at will. What this means is that, while a LOOGY is almost always brought in to face a left-handed batter, the offense frequently responds by pinch-hitting a right-handed batter. (Another basic fact of life is relevant here too: most batters, like most people, are right-handed.) What this means is that LOOGYs in practice don't actually face only left-handed batters. Even the most extreme of hard-core LOOGYs face a significant proportion of righties, and overall, most LOOGYs face right-handed batters most of the time. (Mike Myers, the hardest of Hard-Core LOOGYs, with 0.61 innings/appearance over his 684-game career through 2004, has faced 48% right-handed batters, and the percentage is much higher than that for nearly every other LOOGY.)

It is the case that no category of southpaw pitchers enjoys the platoon advantage more frequently than LOOGYs. But it must be acknowledged that even though the LOOGY is a role designed entirely as a means of exploiting the platoon advantage, it does not do so, to a very great extent of the time.

2. LOOGYs as a group are not especially effective pitchers, as measured by ERA+ or WHIP. Clearly there are two key factors contributing to this: one is the selection bias determining the LOOGY population; the best left-handed pitchers are not deployed as LOOGYs. The other is the fact that even though LOOGYs face a high proportion of left-handed batters, a high proportion of those left-handed batters are the elite left-handed batters in baseball.

So, even though their usage pattern provides them with the best possible conditions -- high proportion of platoon advantage batters faced, and extremely short stints, necessitating no pacing and exacting no in-game fatigue -- it would be unrealistic of us to expect LOOGYs to be really shutting their opponents down. Nonetheless the bottom line remains: LOOGYs don't really shut their opponents down. Even the very best LOOGYs, the elite deployed in the most extreme hard-core pattern -- the Myers, Plesac, Orosco class -- don't produce rate stats that compare with those of the elite pitchers deployed in the more challenging roles of Closing or Starting. And, especially as the number of pitchers deployed as LOOGYs mushrooms, the typical LOOGY is less and less accomplished, resembling an elite pitcher less and less. The LOOGY is a class of pitcher deployed in a very high proportion of high-leverage situations, but without a particularly impressive record of effectiveness."

There have been a few teams in recent history who have started the season without a lefty in the pen (2004 Angels), mostly because they were confident that their pitchers could get outs regardless of the batter's orientation. Granted, you need a very talented strong bullpen to succeed that way, but it also makes sense.

Pitchers like Mike Myers, while very tough on lefties, are dangerous to keep on a roster. Considering Myers' splits against right-handed hitters, its no surprise he gets less than 42 innings in a year. Taking into account the age/injuries/ineffectiveness of the 2005 bullpen, we must assume the worst (not a bad rule of thumb with pitchers in general). This means, the workload must be divided as must as possible. Sure, Mike Myers would be great to have if we had a 27 or 28 man roster, but that limited production makes it hard to warrant a roster spot.

So do we need a LOOGY? Probably not. Do we need a lefty? Probably. There are too many lefties out there who have terrible stats against fellow lefties who won't be pinch hit for. That's why I like Dinardo. If Terry uses him correctly, he could actually peform LOOGY duties (even if he is historically better against righties!), spot start, set up, or do anything else we need him to.
I believe it's important for that roster slot to do more than get one out, or one batter out per game. Then again, if the right-handed bullpen can show their ability to get outs, Boston may just fill up the pen with strike-throwing out-getting machines. That's never such a bad thing. We'll have to see what happens.