On Saturday, in yet another bullpen mismanagement-induced tirade, I wrote the following:
“I’m already dreading Tuesday’s game against the Orioles, when the Yankees will be up by several runs, and Girardi will use Rivera because “he hasn’t been able to work much lately.” That’s going to be a blast.”
While this exact scenario didn’t come to fruition (largely because Rivera pitched in Sunday’s game, negating the need for some work), another revealing situation unfolded in its stead.
With the Yankees up 12-3 in the bottom of the 8th inning, Joe Girardi correctly put mop-up man Chad Gaudin into the game to get the final six outs. As mop-up men will do, Gaudin quickly gave up two runs, making the score 12-5. He came back out for the bottom of the 9th – also the correct decision – and gave up two more runs. Then, with the score at 12-7, with runners on first and third, and with one out, Girardi called for Mariano Rivera to warm up. The reasoning was simple, at least to Girardi. If the current batter reached base, it would become a save situation, and that’s when Rivera must pitch.
I believe that this is the most damning proof possible that managers are slaves to the save statistic. Certainly, this conclusion has never really been in much doubt. We see it happen all the time, managers foregoing the ideal tactical move because that move wouldn’t garner their best reliever a “save.” But this instance really does prove that, when it comes to closers, managers abandon all autonomous thought in favor of mindless convention.
The variable that makes this so damning is the quality of the Yankees’ opponent. The Orioles, as we know, are woeful. They have scored the second-fewest runs in baseball. Their OBP is the third-worst in the game. They are tied for fourth-worst in slugging. And yet, with this miserable hodgepodge of hitters slated to face Chad Gaudin with runners on first and third and one out, with a five-run lead, Girardi chose to warm up one of the very best relievers in the game today. Aside from the obvious fact that this is like building a nuclear bomb to kill a moth, Girardi’s decision stands in startling contrast to his thought process on Saturday afternoon against the Blue Jays. Having used every available reliever in extra innings except for Gaudin and Rivera, Girardi used Gaudin in the bottom of the 14th inning, even though the Yankees would lose if they allowed a run. Think about that. That’s the highest leverage situation possible. So, in the most important situation possible, Girardi used his worst reliever. Then, last night, Girardi was prepared to bring in Rivera with a five-run lead against one of the very worst offenses in baseball. He was one walk away from using his elite reliever in what was a minimally threatening situation.
From this, you can draw one of two possible conclusions about Girardi’s beliefs. The first possibility: Girardi believes that a five-run lead with one out against a terrible offense (the Orioles situation) is a more threatening situation than a tie-game on the road in which one opposing run results in certain defeat (the Blue Jays situation). The second possibility: Girardi is yet another mindless manager who will unfailingly allow the save statistic to dictate his in-game decisions at the cost of improved chances of victory. Now, Girardi is far from a perfect manager, but he’s not an idiot. Only an idiot – and I mean that in the truest sense of the word – would believe that the Orioles situation is more dire than the Blue Jays situation. I repeat: five-run lead against a terrible offense versus tie-game, on the road, in extra innings against a team that leads baseball in homers. Only an idiot, and Girardi is not an idiot. So I think it’s fair to say that possibility number two most accurately describes Girardi’s thought process, to whatever extent that thought process even existed in the first place, because possibility number two means that he participated in the pushbutton, slave to the save management style that poisons today’s game.
Within the next five years, some bright young manager with ambition and the stones to match is going to realize that bullpen management is all fudged up. He’s going to use his best relievers intelligently and in the highest-leverage situations, and we’re all going to wonder why we ever did it differently. Until then, we’re stuck with the Joe Girardi’s of the world – talented and experienced leaders who are too wrapped up in convention to take a real shot at glory.