On Monday night Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen did something he'd already done more than two dozen times this year, and called right-hander Scott Linebrink into the game in the eighth inning to protect a lead.
Six pitches in, Linebrink had put down two Kansas City Royals, and with a three-run lead at home, the Sox had a 96 percent chance of winning the game. But 10 fastballs, two change-ups, two walks and one 391-foot Mike Jacobs home run later, the game was tied and the Sox's odds were down to 59 percent.
After the game, which Chicago won when Kansas City proved equally unable to keep the score clean in the bottom of the eighth, Guillen seemed nonplussed about his Linebrink's recent misadventures. (At night's end, his August earned run average stood at a round 9.00.)
"The only way Linebrink is gonna be out of there is just keep putting him in," he said. "I hope he don't lose any confidence."
The next day, Guillen announced that Linebrink wouldn't be pitching in the eighth for a while.
Such is the life of a setup man, a bit of ornamental furniture when he's going well and the cause of all a struggling team's ills when he isn't. What makes Linebrink's case slightly unusual is that along with the likes of teammate MattThornton and Philadelphia's Ryan Madson, he's one of fewer than a dozen major league pitchers who have performed consistently well in a setup role over the past several years. You wouldn't know it by salary or relative fame, but a good eighth-inning man is one of the hardest in baseball to find.
Much of this is because a pitcher who excels in the eighth is likely to be promoted to the ninth, which makes sense. According to research published by Cleveland Indians analyst Keith Woolner several years ago, when he was writing for Baseball Prospectus, of the 29 most important possible situations in a baseball game, 28 take place in the ninth inning. (The most crucial eighth-inning situations are with two outs and the bases empty -- exactly the situation in which Linebrink found himself after Jacobs' home run.) In other words, Managers insist on using their best men as closers for sound reasons.
Another reason why there are so few true setup men in the game, though, is that they aren't an absolute necessity. While it's hard to find pitchers who have been good in the role over a period of years, it isn't terribly difficult to find some who can pitch well over a summer. In a given year inconsistent prospects such as the Yankees' Phil Hughes, dodgy veterans such as Milwaukee's Todd Coffey and any number of burned-out starters will be just as effective as the best specialists. And a rich team can always trade for a closer and use him in a less glamorous role, something the Dodgers did in dealing for the Orioles' George Sherrill, and the Mets did in adding J.J. Putz from Seattle.
Guillen touched on how important finding a hot hand can be when he noted how many relievers he had who could pitch well in the eighth, even obscure longman D.J. Carrasco.
"Carrasco can do a lot of things," Guillen said. "I think Carrasco has a stamp on his forehead, 'pick-up garbage guy.' Everything he has been doing has been great."
Guillen, who won a World Series in 2005 behind a rookie closer who spent much of the season pitching the eighth, is more likely than most managers to send a good pitcher to the mound in any situation, figuring his job is to get outs. Still, there's a lesson here that his rivals would do well to learn.
As Woolner's research showed, the eighth inning isn't the most important in baseball, at least if you judge that by how critical the situations that come up in it might be. It's closer than you may think, though. Fourteen different situations that can arise in the eighth are, at least mathematically, more important, more likely to affect the outcome of a game and more critical to a team's chances than any that take place before the seventh inning is down to a last out.
This being the case, one wonders why the eighth is deemed a suitable spot for more or less any breathing pitcher with a decent fastball who's done well in the last 96 hours while the ninth is so often reserved for those who have done it before and are presumed capable of snorting nails and eating fire in the face of death. If Linebrink, a top setup man of some years' standing, can be moved in and out of a key role based on nothing more than his recent performances without regard for his psyche, why can't closers be moved around the same way? And if they can be, why aren't they?