Last night’s loss was certainly a frustrating one, but since the game has been explored quite thoroughly by my co-writers here, I thought I would explore another topic. In particular, I wanted to focus on the common critique of how managers tend to pigeonhole relievers to a specific inning. This strategy is not unique to Joe Girardi by any stretch of the imagination, but he does seem to be the recipient of significant snark for occasional decisions he makes regarding the bullpen.
Regarding bullpen use, the conventional wisdom is that you want to have your most effective relievers pitching in the highest leverage situation, with leverage being determined by the score of the game, number of runners on base, and the inning. It makes intuitive sense to have your best pitchers pitching when the stakes are the highest, and as a fan, it can be infuriating to watch a lesser pitcher give up a lead in the 6th or 7th inning while David Robertson is sitting on his ass in the bullpen.
I agree with this idea in principle, but in practice it is a little more difficult to implement. Aside from the inning and the batters coming up, it can be difficult to predict that a high-leverage situation will occur in a particular inning. Stringing a few hits together can happen relatively quickly, and in the blink of an eye a lead can be placed into jeopardy. Freddy Garcia’s meltdown in Game 2 of the Division Series was a prime example of this phenomenon, since he was cruising for the majority of the game, and nobody was warming up to replace him.
While it would’ve been great to have David Robertson come in to the jam to bail the Yankees out and keep the situation from getting out of hand, the reality is that pitchers need to warm up, and the decision to warm up the pitcher usually has to occur before the high-leverage situation materializes. To avoid injury to the pitcher by repeated “dry humping” (when the pitcher warms up but doesn’t go in the game), it is simply not practical to have your relief ace warming up in the 6th inning on a regular basis. As a result, sometimes you have to make do with an inferior pitcher in a tough situation simply because he is the only guy who is ready to go. Giving relievers established innings makes it easier for the manager to ensure that they are fully warmed up, to maximize effectiveness and reduce injury risk.
It’s frustrating to watch and certainly a tempting target of criticism for Monday morning quarterbacks. However, If you get think about the decision-making process for a manager in terms of risk assessment, it makes a little more sense that managers rarely bring in their best relievers into early jams. As a fan, it’s easy to criticize, but sometimes these externalities make these decisions far more complex than simply plugging in the reliever with the best xFIP in the situation with the highest leverage index.
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