When Detroit reliever Willie Hernandez won the MVP in 1984, he pitched in 80 games. Only 33 of those appearances were save opportunities.
The current trend in bullpen management — in which the best relievers are used primarily in the ninth inning to close out victories — didn't start until later. Now many teams take specialization a step further, assigning the closer to the ninth inning and another setup man to the eighth.
Is this the best way to run a bullpen?
"Bullpens are definitely creatures of habit," Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. "They like their roles, they kind of know when they've got to get out there, they know what time they've got to be there, they know when to get loose and what their roles might be."
Over the course of a 162-game season, there's something to be said for establishing a sense of routine — and limiting certain relievers to certain situations can help control workloads. Hernandez threw 140 1-3 innings in 1984, a total that would seem excessive for the top relievers today.
But does it make sense to save your best reliever to protect a three-run lead in the ninth inning, while potentially not using him at all in a tie game?
Every now and then, a team experiments with the idea of mixing and matching relievers instead of adhering to rigid roles — but the idea never seems to last. This year, the Chicago White Sox have dealt with injuries in their bullpen, and manager Robin Ventura has juggled whatever healthy relievers he has.
Five different pitchers have earned saves for Chicago, and nobody has more than eight. The White Sox have converted 62 percent of their save chances — not a good showing, but not much worse than last year, when closer Addison Reed had all 40 of the team's saves.
"In the situation we're in right now, we've got a lot of young guys and it just works better to have it that nobody really has a defined role," Ventura said. "It's been mix-and-match."
The approach has its benefits and its drawbacks.
"Guys are out there and they're not quite sure watching the game if they're going to be in or if they're not going to be in," Ventura said. "In some instances, that's a good thing, but in some instances you would like guys to be able to sit out there and watch the game and realize what's happening so they can gear up when, two innings down the road, they're the guy who's going to be going in. So there are advantages to that."