Modern Bullpen Management Hurts Teams’ Chances Of Victory

 

Under modern bullpen management, elite relievers like Mariano Rivera are regularly misused.

Under modern bullpen management, elite relievers like Mariano Rivera are regularly misused.

 

This afternoon’s Indians-Yankees game featured yet another example of how modern bullpen management is broken. I’ve written about this before, but the idealistic side of me seems to think that I can affect change by blogging about it. So, less than one week later, I’m back at it again.

The catastrophe began in the top of the 7th inning, with the game tied at one. Yankees manager Joe Girardi brought reliever Jose Veras in to start the inning against Cleveland’s 2-3-4 hitters – roughly the toughest part of the batting order. I would have used another reliever (you can probably guess who), but I’ve totally abandoned any hope of managers using their nominal closer to start any inning that isn’t the 9th. As a result, I accepted Girardi’s decision and hoped for the best. Of course, my hope and faith were immediately crushed when Veras walks Mark DeRosa and allows Victor Martinez to double. It’s still a 1-1 game in the 7th, but there are runners on second and third with no one out. The outcome of the game probably rests on the Yankees’ ability to squirm out of this, particularly given the Indians’ strong bullpen.

Like every manager in baseball, Joe Girardi intuitively understands the importance of this situation, but does not act on it. Cleanup hitter Jhonny Peralta (not a typo, for those new to the game) doubled, scoring DeRosa and Martinez. 3-1 Indians. Girardi replaces Veras with Damaso Marte, who proceeds to allow seven more runs through a horrid combination of fielding errors, homers, and wildness. When the dust settles, the Indians are leading 10-1.

My understanding of a manager’s job is pretty simple and, I’d imagine, fairly accurate. I think his job is to maximize the team’s chance of winning the current game while balancing that task with the requirements for victories in the future. Basically, his job is to try and win now, but don’t do anything that would really hurt the team in the future either. I’m sure it’s a tough job with a tremendous amount of pressure to perform. I can muster that much sympathy.

With that being said, I don’t understand why Girardi and his peers continually manage their bullpen in a way that clearly hurts the team and, more frustratingly, defies all reason. Girardi should have used Mariano Rivera once DeRosa walked. If not then, certainly once Martinez doubled. Again, I’m positive Girardi’s gut was telling him “this is the game right here” with runners on second and third and no one out. I’m sure of it. It would logically follow that he would insert Rivera into the game, since Rivera is his best reliever and the game’s outcome was in the balance. Clearly, this did not happen. Governed by nothing but provincial, traditional, and illogical thinking, Girardi went to inferior relievers in an attempt to control the damage. He did this because Rivera pitches no inning but the 9th, and he must have a lead to protect instead of one to prevent. Need him earlier than the 9th inning? Like, seriously, unquestionably need him to win the game? No, because it is not the 9th inning.

The overarching implication of modern bullpen management is that the 9th inning – solely because it is the last in the sequence – is inherently more difficult for pitchers than any other frame. The byproduct of this belief was the creation of the “closer,” or, the only reliever with the fortitude to navigate such a pressure-packed situation. The role of the “closer” has, in turn, produced a widespread and unquestioned code of in-game management that regularly hurts teams’ chances of success. Managers simply will not use their “closer” (who is almost always the team’s best reliever) unless the team has a lead in the 9th inning, even if the team desperately needs him. 

Managers need to stop saving their best relievers to protect leads that they might not get. It’s as simple as that. As Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan said, the first manager to realize and act on this is going to the Hall of Fame.

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