There are two general ideas about relief pitchers that I adhere to, usually:
1) Don't overpay for closers
2) Use your best relief pitcher in high leverage situations, rather than strictly the ninth inning
Enough with what I think though. This season, the Arizona Diamondbacks were supposed to take their young nucleus of talent, and win a hotly contested NL West. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA method predicted an 87-75 record for the Snakes. Nothing spectacular, but for a computer that is notoriously conservative in it's prognostications, that's a pretty damn solid record. They have young starters, a strong rotation, and a farm system that is full of talent. Basically they are the exact opposite of the Astros. The differing of the two franchises' philosophies is best shown in their off-season swap of NL Saves leader Jose Valverde for set-up man extraordinnaire Chad Qualls, and "Remember Game Four of the NLDS in 2005 that was me who hit the game winning homer, remember?" Chris Burke. The Astros decided to take on more payroll in an effort to win this season. A 64% save conversion rate in 2007 (Source: ESPN) led Ed Wade to believe that there was no way this team could compete unless the back-end of the game was shored up. Every other move he made- trading for Mike Bourn, Miguel Tejada, and the even the moves he would subsequently make this season, would all be for naught, if the team couldn't win games in which they led late.
Arizona on the other hand saw this as their opportunity to get a hefty contract off their payroll, and bring on two key contributors to their 2008 club, as well as Juan Gutierrez, a minor leaguer with promise. Tony Pena was expected to be a key late inning man, along with veteran Juan Cruz. Brandon Lyon, an eighth inning pitcher in 2007 was tabbed as the closer. Depth would not be an issue. Just for good measure, hard throwing Jon Rauch was aquired at midseason to add another talented arm to the fray. Despite all of this, the bottom line is what have you done when the chips were down?
As of right now, the DBacks are three games out of the lead in the NL West, and more surpringly, are three games under .500. We all know where the Astros stand. True, the run differential tells us that the DBacks are right where they should be, while the Astros are beating the odds at this point. But wasn't it just last year that the Diamondbacks were the team with a negative run differential (-20), that nonetheless won 90 games and the NL West in the process? A group of low OBP guys with Jose Valverde as their closer is just what the 2008 Astros are.
We may be frustrated with the Brewers come from behind victory today, but a look to the west should ease our minds. San Francisco closer Brian Wilson for the second game in a row, blew a save opportunity, only to have a member of the Arizona bullpen return the favor. Los Angeles isn't exactly running away with things, but a couple Groundhog Day losses have got to be adding to the frustration. The DBacks are 12th in the NL with 31 saves. (Source: Baseball Reference.com). Brandon Lyon lost his job as closer, and has recently regained it only because Jon Rauch has been terrible since joining the team, to the tune of a 6.41 ERA in 22 games. (Source: Yahoo! Sports). ERA doesn't always tell the complete story with a pitcher, especially a relief pitcher, but it's tough to look the other way when a guy's given up at least one earned run in 8 of his last 10 appearances. Had they decided to keep Jose Valverde, perhaps Lyon could have excelled once again in his familiar eighth inning role. Cruz and Pena would be capable middle relief pitchers, instead of shifting them to late inning roles. The Jon Rauch trade would not have been necessary most likely. I know there is a lot more to the DBacks struggles than just their less than great relief pitching, especially considering that they traded away AL MVP candidate Carlos Quinten, but when the standings are this close, a great closer makes all the difference. Just ask the Astros.