Classic Bullpen Mismanagement Resurrects (Ha!) On Easter

When I was a child – and maybe for just a bit beyond then – my mother would hide two Easter baskets in the apartment for me and my younger sister to find. Motivated by sheer gluttony and competitive spirit, we would discerningly rampage through each room on our quest for sugar. Inevitably, with a little help from our sympathetic creator (not that creator), we would find the cradles of candy and proceed to trade with one another. White chocolate was usually the first to go. As time has passed, I have noticed that the baskets’ altitude was inversely proportional to our ages. Cabinets and closet shelves were popular hiding spots in our infancy. Later on, low-lying nooks and crannies were more in vogue. It would seem that we came by our competitive spirit honestly.

I mention this because Easter Sunday has always been a day of discovery for me. Yesterday continued that tradition, although in new ways. Expecting the Yankees-Royals game to be rained out, I consented to visit nearby Roosevelt Island with my girlfriend. Neither of us had ever been, and it seemed like a pleasant way to spend a beautiful day. Of course, several text messages from friends revealed that no, it was not raining in Kansas City and yes, baseball was being played. Oops. My girlfriend compassionately suggested that we find a sports bar on the island, but my word was my word. Nevertheless, this resulted in my third noteworthy discovery of the day – there are no such establishments on Roosevelt Island. 

Throughout the afternoon, two loyal friends peppered my phone with game updates, eventually leading to a painfully clear depiction of what was happening. Quite simply, the Yankees’ bullpen was blowing the game. I remained calm (no, really, I have a witness) until my return from the island, when I could carefully examine the box score and play-by-play information. Joba Chamberlain had pitched six strong innings, allowing four hits and one earned run, while striking out five and walking one. Reliever Brian Bruney pitched a perfect 7th inning, after which the score remained 4-3 Yankees. Unfortunately, the 8th inning brought the fourth and final discovery of an otherwise blissful day. Namely, it would appear that major league managers – even those with industrial engineering degrees from Northwestern University – still don’t know how to manage a bullpen effectively.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi brought in lefty Damaso Marte to start the bottom of the 8th inning. This made a great deal of sense, since the upcoming Royals all hit left-handed. Marte retired David DeJesus and Mark Teahen on fly balls, but then found himself facing Billy Butler instead of Mike Jacobs. Butler destroys left-handed pitchers, making the switch understandable. So, with two outs and a 4-3 lead, Girardi brought in righty Jose Veras to face Butler. I found this a little peculiar, mostly because Veras pitched an inning and a third the night before and he isn’t a huge improvement over the fresher Marte. Right-handed hitters have a career .236/.307/.368 line against Veras, and .238/.326/.386 against Marte. Given Veras’ recent activity and the availability of Edwar Ramirez and Jonathan Albaladejo, I thought Girardi’s decision was questionable, but not indefensible. 

Veras promptly walked Butler on five pitches. Now, things are different. There are two outs and a runner on first with a one run lead. The Royals pinch-ran for the plodding Butler, replacing him with Tony Pena. If the batter hits a double, the game is tied. In this case, the batter is switch-hitting Brayan Pena. I want to be clear about the fact that Pena is not a good player. But, he does happen to hit lefties better than righties, particularly with respect to power. This is when Girardi began to unravel. He dismissed Veras, replacing him with lefty Phil Coke. In his brief major league career, Coke has performed better against lefties than righties. So, to summarize, Girardi put in a lefty pitcher that struggles slightly with righties to face a switch-hitter that hits lefties better than righties. Inauspicious, to say the least.

On the second pitch of the at-bat, Brayan Pena doubled home Tony Pena for the tying run. Coke then allowed a single to Alberto Callaspo. 5-4 Royals. Then, a double to John Buck. 6-4 Royals. Coke finally retired the dependably bad Willie Bloomquist for the final out of the inning. The Yankees went down in order in the 9th inning and lost the game. After the contest, Girardi said the following:

“Joba was pretty good. His velocity was great. Joba could have gone out again, but we thought that we had it set up. We just never got to Mo [Mariano Rivera].”

This sort of inflexible and arbitrary thinking is what really sets me off, regardless of my emotional investment in the game’s outcome. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that some sort of bridge must be built between the starting pitcher and the closer. Like all managers, Girardi believes that the closer must be “gotten to.” He must be reached, because he only pitches in the 9th inning, and only if the team has a lead. If it’s not the 9th inning, or the team doesn’t have a lead, then don’t even think about it. To my overwhelming despair, this has become the way things work. Deviations from the script rarely occur.

The problem is that deviation would often improve a team’s chances of winning the game. I spent three agonizingly boring paragraphs recounting Girardi’s bullpen management, so let’s put the information to good use. Veras’ insertion was questionable but not ridiculous, so I’ll leave that alone. Once Veras’ designated batter reached base, however, Girardi’s decisions hurt the Yankees’ chances of winning the game. With a runner on first and a one run lead in the 8th inning, no one but Mariano Rivera should be on the mound for the Yankees. He last pitched in the opening game of the series, on April 10th. One full day of rest is plenty for a reliever. Unless Rivera was hurt – and there is no evidence to suggest that – he should have been pitching for that final out in the 8th. After all, he is the Yankees’ best reliever, and it was a critical juncture in the game. Even after Coke allowed the tying run, Girardi should have deployed Rivera to hold the line. But no, because it was the 8th inning, and closers simply do not pitch until the 9th, Rivera stayed glued to the bench while the Yankees’ let a winnable game slip away.

Bullpen management is broken. I’m not the first to say it, nor will I be the last. But I think any open-minded and rational person would agree with me. Managers simply fail to recognize that hugely important game situations can and often do occur before the 9th inning. This instance is just one example of how a game can be won or lost in outs 22, 23, and 24 (or 19, 20, and 21) just as easily as it can in 25, 26, and 27. The 9th inning does not have a monopoly on pressure situations. These situations occur in the 7th and 8th innings too, and when they do, the best reliever in the bullpen needs to be on the mound. Instead, because of inflexible and arbitrary groupthink, managers constantly hurt their team’s chances of winning games all in the name of earning a “save” for their closer.

My discovery that this practice is alive and well was the only bad one of the day. Well, that and my burgeoning need for a haircut. I am currently redefining “hat hair.”

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