In the late 1990s, relief pitcher Jose Mesa saw veteran sports writer Jerome Holtzman in the Cleveland Indians clubhouse and ran across the room to embrace Holtzman in a bear hug.
That’s not the typical behavior of major-league baseball players toward journalists, but 30 years earlier, Holtzman had invented the save rule, a statistic that had made Mesa -- and hundreds of other pitchers of his ilk -- millions of dollars.
Holtzman, a member of the Hall of Fame who died four years ago, had no idea that he was creating a monster.
After the save rule, baseball gradually settled into the era of specialization. Every team has to have a closer, who can earn a 10-figure salary, a setup man or two and specialists, usually left-handed but sometimes right-handed, who often face only one batter.
For nearly two months now, Angels manager Mike Scioscia has tried a different approach, a more democratic use of his late-inning pitchers that has achieved stunning results. Shortly after Scioscia pulled Jordan Walden from the closer’s role -- and after the arrival of hard thrower Ernesto Frieri -- the Angels bullpen has taken off while spreading the credit liberally.
In the Angels’ first 32 games, the bullpen was 1-6 with a 4.70 ERA and four saves.
In the last 41 games, it is 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA and 13 saves. Angels relievers haven’t allowed a run in nearly a week.
They just have to stay ready from the sixth or seventh inning through the end of the game. There’s not a lot of time to lounge and enjoy a game.
“As soon as the phone rings, four of us get up to take our coats off,” Angels reliever Jason Isringhausen said.
So far in June, lefty Scott Downs has pitched twice in the seventh inning, four times in the eighth and twice in the ninth. He has six saves. Since he arrived in a trade from the San Diego Padres in early May, Frieri has pitched the ninth inning 12 times, the eighth inning nine times and the 11th inning once. He has nine saves.
On any given night, Walden, Isringhausen, Hisanori Takahashi or LaTroy Hawkins could pitch in a crucial point in the latter innings of a game. And nobody seems to be complaining. You almost get the impression that general manager Jerry Dipoto, who acquired about half the members of the bullpen, planned it this way.
Dipoto knows a few things about relief pitching because he did it as a job for eight major-league seasons. He showed little appetite for spending millions on a closer even though several were available in free agency over the winter.
“It’s one of the beauties of having a group that has risen to an occasion. There are no previous positions, there’s very little in the way of egos that get in the way of a job to do,” Dipoto said. “It’s almost like a tag team the way the bullpen works. You’re just passing the baton to the next guy.”
Scioscia isn’t willing to commit to the practice long-term and, lately, Frieri has settled into something resembling a traditional closer’s role. Downs has been the X-factor, being deployed in one of the final three innings depending when the other team’s best left-handed hitters are due up.
“We’re going to continue to match up until we get some roles that are in concrete,” Scioscia said. “The ability to be flexible makes your bullpen better.”
If it’s not broken, why fix it?