EJs piece from yesterday presents an opportunity for me to delve into what I think is a much misunderstood topic, and that’s how most MLB managers use their relievers and bullpen. Let’s start out by saying we all understand that much of what goes on in the bullpen is overrated. For those who need a refresher course, check out this review of a Bill James’ piece on THT. As the old saw goes, most relievers are failed starters. The reason some of them failed as starters is they couldn’t get hitters from both sides of the plate out. In other cases, they didn’t have a 3rd (or sometimes 2nd) pitch of MLB quality, so they can only go once through a lineup, if that. Still others are situational pitchers, where a guy throws a sinker/slider combo and can get you a ground ball when needed. So you begin from the premise that you’re generally dealing with a bunch of pitchers with enormous platoon splits and/or limited weapons to work with. With that out of the way, here were EJs rules for using Soriano:
- In a close game, Soriano comes into innings 5-7 in any situation with the starter out (or gassed) with less than 2 outs, a runner on second or third base and a right-hander coming up to the plate.
- If no situation presents itself by the 8th inning, Soriano pitches the 8th inning.
- Against top lefty hitters with runners on base in a close game, Feliciano or Logan relieve Soriano. He stays with no runners on base and against most lefty hitters.
Most of his rules are solid, but using your best relief option in the 5th and 6th inning is a bit extreme. First, you have to consider where you are in the other team’s batting order, which EJ doesn’t address. It may be a high leverage situation, but if you’re facing the opposition’s #8 and 9 hitters then you should be able to trust one of your setup men to get the job done, or they shouldn’t be on the roster. Leverage looks at the situation, but not the batters due to come up. A manager has to consider that as well. Facing Adrian Gonzalez with men on base in a one run game is a more worrisome to me than facing Jed Lowrie. Lowrie can’t hurt me the way A-Gon can. I’m not using Soriano for Lowrie, but might for Gonzalez (though Soriano’s platoon splits are an issue there).
But the biggest problem I have with this is using your best reliever so early. If you spend your best option in the 5th and pull him for a Lefty in the 6th (as he suggests) then what do you do when one of your lesser relievers gets into trouble in the 7th? You’re too far away from Mo, and have now managed yourself into a menu of bad options. Everyone from fans to broadcasters to beat writers will be killing the manager for panicking in the 5th, and since they’re dealing in the facts of what transpired and you’re arguing game theory, it’s a losing argument. Yes, even if Soriano bailed you out of a jam.
I’m all for the ‘fireman’ role, but freely admit there is a fundamental flaw to it. You’re using your best weapon too early, so if you get into trouble in the interim between him and your closer, you’re screwed. ‘Firemen’ make more sense in the NL, where you have weak bottoms of the order to deal with and can call upon a lesser pitcher to bridge the gap between the fireman and closer. In the age of deep lineups and the AL East it’s much harder to pull off. People forget that bullpens have pecking orders for good reason. The idea is to husband your limited resources in the bullpen, and always have a better option backing up the pitcher who’s on the mound should he get into trouble. If you reach the 9th with a lead, you don’t mess around and bring in your best to put the hammer down. That’s solid reasoning. If a manager uses his bullpen that way and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean the thought process was bad, just the result. Nothing works all the time.
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