Most managers — heck, maybe all of them today — have a fairly structured bullpen. There’s a closer and a top setup man, a LOOGY, maybe a righthanded specialist, and two or three guys used in multiple roles to add flexibility. The closer is the glamor role; the setup man, because he is actually more likely to pitch in a pressure situation, is often the most valuable. These are the roles you almost have to fill. Even if the rest of the bullpen is in flux, if these two roles are adequately filled, you work around it.

Now, if your closer is shaky, your life is going to be miserable, even if he doesn’t reach [HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED] levels of ineffectiveness. Braden Looper, for instance, really didn’t pitch that badly last season, and certainly wasn’t the reason the Mets didn’t win, but he made the season a lot less fun both for Willie Randolph and for the Mets’ fans.

Managers, you see, like to simplify their jobs. Managing a baseball team is hard work, and one of the ways to make it easier is to have a reliable closer you can bring in in predictable circumstances. You can pretty much take off the ninth inning when you’re ahead! But if your closer isn’t reliable, you have to make those extra decisions, and a lot of the time the fans are going to get on you for leaving that bum out there to lose the game (even if you come back and win).

Now, take a pitcher like Brad Baker. I like his minor league stats a lot. And most of the time, a guy who strikes out ten hitters per nine innings is going to have a good strikeout rate in the majors. But is he ever going to be a major league closer? Probably not, not for more than a few weeks at a time, because he’s too wild, and worse is streaky wild. If one of your other relievers has periodic wild streaks, you deal with it. You recognize the symptoms, you’re ready to get someone up in a hurry before the situation gets out of control. If it’s your closer, then it kind of defeats the whole purpose of having a closer, which is to simplify the game.

Or take Chris Reitsma. Please. His problem is, at the core, that he doesn’t strike out enough people. If you strike out less than six men per nine, you’re going to have innings when you allow four hits in a row. If you’re a starter, you move on. Guys like Glavine and Maddux, it happened to them, too, they moved on. But for a closer, or a setup man, you just blew the ballgame, buddy. It’s worse even than the guy who loses his control, because those four hits in a row happen like that and you can’t get him out and get another reliever in. Sure, he’s had a couple of injuries, but the thing about a fine-line pitcher, which Reitsma is at the best of times, is that he can’t lose anything or he’ll get slammed. Reitsma has probably been unlucky as well, but a guy like that is bound to be unlucky a lot. Reitsma has pretty good control, he doesn’t allow any homers anymore (ISO last year: .076), but he’s simply reached the limits of what he can do pitching like that.

Strikeouts and walks… There’s nothing very profound here. I guess everyone here now knows how important they are. It’s just that in the small role — one inning, close game — those things are magnified, and a pitcher’s value comes down, basically, to not walking people, and to striking them out.

So a guy like Reitsma, though he’s actually a good pitcher, you just can’t use him in the top roles, not on a good team, anyway. Even though his failures objectively don’t hurt the team very much (everyone blows some games, and you win some games after the save is blown) the magnification of the problem for a good team is going to cause things to get out of control.

You know the phenomenon, not restricted to [HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED], of the guy who pitches well in the closer role out of the spotlight, but who flops in the big time? I’m not discounting the psychological angle — heck, that’s a lot of what I’m talking about here — but another factor is simply that if a guy blows a few saves in Milwaukee, who cares? What’s the worst that can happen, they finish fourth instead of third? Ten games below .500 instead of six? Not only the pressure is magnified, the attention paid to the failure is, too. A guy who goes 40-47 in save opportunities for a team that loses 92 games has a good chance of being a token All Star, even if maybe ten of the saves were “tough saves”, and none of them is really a pressure situation.

So, back to Reitsma. I don’t think his head is messed up or anything. He’s pitching okay, it’s just that he’s not going to thrive in a closer role for a good team. He’s not really ideal for a setup man either, though you could do worse. I do think he could work as a starter, but maybe he can’t hold up there.

That doesn’t mean there’s no role for him. He’d be great in a middle relief role, particularly one where he’s the bridge to the back of the bullpen, pitching a lot in the sixth and seventh innings, maybe with a lot of long outings (nowadays, meaning anything more than an inning and a third) when you have a lead or the game is close, but the starter is knocked out early. With starters so often leaving the game before the seventh today, a reliable reliever who can make 40 appearances, 70 innings, most of them the sixth and seventh, that would help a lot.

But nobody does it! That’s the thing. They’re using more and more short relievers to bridge from the starter to the top guys. Your starter leaves after five, these days that means you’re going to use at least four pitchers, even if the game isn’t particularly close. And, of course, a lot of these pitchers are lousy.

Teams don’t like to spend a lot of money on these guys. You can see why — most of the pitchers who fall into the job aren’t any good. But that’s largely because teams don’t focus on those innings. Anyone who does well there, he’s going to get promoted to the rotation or to the top roles in the pen, especially because most teams don’t have seven good pitchers.

Reitsma, frustrating as he is, might actually give the Braves a tactical advantage. He’s a good pitcher, really. He’s not a great pitcher, but in the role I’m talking about — 40 games, 70 innings, medium pressure situations — I think he’d thrive. He might win ten games a year in relief.

For a couple years. Then he’d get too expensive and the Yankees or Red Sox will give him a three year contract to set up. C’est la vie.