Two Bullpen-Related Notes From Tonight’s Rays-Yankees Game

In an attempt to distract myself from Joe Girardi’s perplexing decision to remove Phil Hughes in favor of Phil Coke, I would like to share two bullpen-related thoughts gleaned from this game. Because, let’s be honest, I just don’t write enough about bullpens.

Yankees’ broadcasters Michael Kay and David Cone have spent much of the night criticizing the Rays’ bullpen for systemic ineptitude. Kay in particular has continually referred to the lack of clear-cut roles given to Rays relievers, citing their general ineffectiveness as preventing such a delegation. Because there is no “7th inning guy” or “8th inning guy” – as Kay phrases it – manager Joe Maddon’s job is made much more difficult.

I have two problems with this, the first of which is factual. Despite their purported maladies, the Rays’ bullpen hasn’t been bad so far. Its 4.14 ERA ranks 14th in baseball. Opponents have posted a .322 OBP and .396 SLG against Rays relievers, ranking 7th and 19th, respectively. Their 1.84 K/BB ranks 14th. These numbers all reveal an average bullpen – not one deserving of incessant criticism. Perhaps this seems like nitpicking, but I found Kay and Cone’s comments a little disingenuous, especially when they’ve also been praising the Yankees’ poor bullpen for its flexibility and dynamism. Yes, that Yankees bullpen.

My second quarrel is more philosophical. Mainstream analysts are of the uniform opinion that not having clearly defined roles for relievers significantly hinders a team. We are told that not having that “7th inning guy” or “8th inning guy” makes a manager’s life miserable, necessitating the painstaking “piecing together” of a game’s final 9-12 outs. The implication is that clearly defined relief roles – thereby enabling push-button management – allows for the more effective deployment of relievers and a better chance of winning baseball games.

I disagree with this implication. Too often, managers create static roles for their relievers as a means of avoiding criticism. For example, if Team A is up 4-3 in the 8th inning, that team will deploy its “8th inning guy” to protect the slim lead. If the reliever relinquishes the advantage, the manager faces little questioning because, well, he used his “8th inning guy” in the 8th inning. This rigid assignment of roles does more to protect a manager from criticism than it does to win games. It’s unimaginative, lazy, and timid management. Alternatively, it seems likely to me that “piecing together” the final outs of a game can present tactically advantageous opportunities – if the manager is willing to put in the work. I hope that a manager will take that risk some day soon.


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