A relief pitcher (aka reliever, collectively the bullpen) is a pitcher who specializes is coming into a game started by another pitcher. The difference in usage patterns goes beyond when the pitchers are brought into the game. Unlike starters, who are given several days off after each appearance, relievers are expected to be able to pitch in several consecutive games.
A relatively recent development in relief pitching is the use of relievers in highly specific roles. Rather than using all relievers in essentially the same way, as teams do with their starters, managers now try to use each reliever in one of a small number of stereotypical roles that depend on the game situation and opposing batter. The most common roles include:
- Long relievers are brought into the game when the starting pitcher is pulled from the game early because of injury or ineffectiveness. The long reliever is expected to pitch until the point of the game where a starting pitcher normally would have been pulled, typically several innings. A long reliever who is used only in lost causes is called a mop-up man.
- Middle relievers are used later in the game than long relievers, typically in the 6th or 7th inning, and used for about one inning. Middle relievers are often brought into the middle of an inning when the starter has let several batters reach base. They may also be used in the late innings of games which their team is losing.
- LOOGYs are Lefty One Out GuYs, left-handed relievers who are used to get one or two critical outs against the opponents' best left-handed hitters. LOOGYs are almost always used with runners on base.
- Setup men are brought into the game in the 7th or 8th inning to bridge the gap between the starter or middle reliever and the closer. Setup men are normally reserved for close games.
- Closers are used to "close out" games that their team is winning. Most managers will reserve their closer for save situations, i.e. starting the 9th inning with a 1 to 3 run lead.
The latter three categories are collectively known as short relievers, i.e. relief pitchers not expected to pitch more than one or at most two innings in the normal course of a game.
Over the years a number of awards have been created to distinguish the most effective relief pitchers in the major leagues. First was the Reliever of the Year Award, created by The Sporting News in 1960. This was supplanted by the Rolaids Relief Award, introduced by Major League Baseball in 1976. It was discontinued after the 2012 season, and after a one-year hiatus, was replaced in 2014 by the Mariano Rivera Award in the American League and the Trevor Hoffman Award in the National League.
The role of relief pitchers has evolved over the years. Originally, it was not a glamorous one, as it was reserved for younger pitchers getting their feet wet in the majors, or older ones on the way out. The understanding was that all the better pitchers were used as starters. Managers would often use one of their starters to close out important games. There were some exceptions, pitchers who would spend most of their careers as relievers and be effective in the role - Firpo Marberry and Ace Adams are early examples - but the recognition of a "relief ace" did not come until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the New York Yankees were very successful with Johnny Murphy and Joe Page in the role, and Jim Konstanty led the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies to a pennant by pitching out of the bullpen. The role of the relief pitcher became more defined after that, but it was still rare for teams to train young pitchers to become relievers. All the best pitching prospects in the minor leagues were used as starters until the 1990s, and it was standard for scouts to proclaim that teams should steer clear of anyone who was used primarily as a reliever (or designated hitter) in college, as these roles were for "incomplete" players and not real prospects.
The stigma associated with relief pitchers has largely disappeared at the major league level, as it has become understood that certain pitchers are more suited to pitching in relief and can provide extremely valuable contributions in the role. For example, middle relievers were until the 21st century largely excluded from consideration for the All-Star Game, but this has now changed. In parallel relievers have begun to represent an ever-larger segment of a major league roster, with most teams now having seven or eight relievers on their roster in permanence. However, some of the negative perception associated with the role still persists in the minor leagues, where closers are valued, but other members of the bullpen not as much. They tend to be considered as non-prospects or "organization soldiers", whose ceiling is limited to making a few short appearances on a major league roster to help out an otherwise tired bullpen.
The endless parade of relief pitchers in major league games the 2010s has been the subject of much criticism. In 2019, addressing this problem was the focus of one of the rule changes which Major League Baseball asked the Atlantic League to test out: relief pitchers would now be required to face a minimum of three batters or to complete the half-inning before being eligible to be relieved themselves. If more widely adopted, this would have the consequence of greatly diminishing the usefulness of the aforementioned LOOGYs and could considerably speed up play in the final innings of close games. Even before the test was carried out, Commissioner Rob Manfred decided to implement the rule unilaterally in the major leagues starting in 2020, something that the Players Association decided not to contest.
Beyond the disruption to the flow of the game brought on by the increasing usage of relievers, there is the more fundamental question of whether this has had an effect on team's chances of holding on to a lead. The most detailed study available (by Daniels, Andrasik and Hooley - see under Further Reading below) confirms that there is some improvement, but that it is extremely small: a team using its relievers in typical 2010s fashion has improved its chance of holding on to a 1-to-3 run lead by around 1% compared to the pre-1945 era when closers were rarely used. This has come at the cost of significant investment in terms of salary and roster spots dedicated to relief pitchers, and has in turn created other vulnerabilities: teams are now constricted in their ability to use pinch-hitters and other substitutes, and an ever-growing proportion of total innings pitched fall to the least-effective pitchers on the staff, as both starters and relief aces see their roles become ever-more restricted. Some teams have tried to counter this by turning to bullpen games, which aim at a more efficient distribution of workload, although whether this works in the long-term still needs to be documented. Meanwhile, in recent postseasons, teams have used a completely different approach to bullpen usage, by asking their top two or three relievers to handle more workload, and by using starting pitchers in key relief assignments, often for longer than the proverbial one inning that is the limit for most regular-season relief outings.
- "Every team's best all-time relief pitcher", mlb.com, June 13, 2020. 
- Anthony Castrovince: "Eight-man bullpens gaining traction", mlb.com, February 25, 2015. 
- John Daniels, Sara Andrasik and David Hooley: "The Specialized Bullpen: History, Analysis, and Strategic Models for Success", Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Vol. 47, Nr. 2 (Fall 2018), pp. 12-18.
- Ray Glier: "Ups and downs of minor league bullpens", USA Today Sports, July 5, 2018. 
- Alden Gonzalez: "Rethinking bullpen roles: Will teams buy in? Analytics have teams considering changes to traditional usage", mlb.com, March 16, 2016. 
- Gabe Lacques: "MLB’s bullpen revolution a hard sell for 162 games", USA Today Sports, February 21, 2017. 
- Pete Palmer: "Relief Pitching Strategy: Past, Present, and Future?", Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Vol. 47, Nr. 1 (spring 2018), pp. 45-52.
- Mike Petriello: "How the 3-batter minimum will change baseball: Rule change to go into place for 2020 season", mlb.com, March 14, 2019. 
- Tracy Ringolsby: "Royals exemplify evolved bullpen usage: Teams spreading workload over larger relief corps", mlb.com, February 8, 2016. 
- John Thorn: The Relief Pitcher: Baseball's New Hero, Dutton, New York, NY, 1979. ISBN 9780525190486
- Fran Zimniuch: Fireman: The Evolution of the Closer in Baseball, Triumph Books, Chicago, IL, 2010.
- 2004 Article on Closers in The Hardball Times
- Article on LOOGYs in The Hardball Times, part 1
- Article on LOOGYs in The Hardball Times, part 2
- 2005 Article on Closers in The Hardball Times, part 1
- 2005 Article on Closers in The Hardball Times, part 2
- Article on the comparative difficulty of relief pitching versus starting in The Hardball Times