Carleton: The surprising evolution of the bullpen

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on June 21, 2018:

I remember the first time I read On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. For a book associated with so much controversy, the actual book itself is rather boring. While Darwin introduces his now-famous theory of natural selection and how it explained the development of organisms over time, the text itself was mostly a long, pedantic (says the guy on the internet) meditation on the question “what is a species?” The finches that Darwin famously described on the Galapagos Islands may very well have developed slightly longer beaks over the course of a few generations, but at what point did that qualify as a separate species? How long does it take until it gets its own name?

Baseball is subject to evolutionary pressures of its own. Despite having largely the same rulebook for the last century, the game has changed over time. Players have gotten physically larger and more powerful, though less agile. Pitchers throw harder than ever and strikeouts rule the game. But here’s a question: What about the players on the roster? How have our conceptualizations of what they are called changed over time? There are 25 humans who can be on a major-league roster at any time and that number has remained fairly stable over time (it used to be 24). But what about the jobs they are assigned to?

Take the bullpen. It’s worth remembering that the idea of the “closer” is a relatively recent invention, as is the “LOOGY.” And where did the “fireman” go? What pressures in the environment led to that? I decided to look at the question from an evolutionary perspective, and the answers turned out to be more interesting than I had imagined.

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Originally published: June 21, 2018. Last Updated: June 21, 2018.