Monday, April 26, 2010

Keep It Simple

A great majority of the critiques we hand out to baseball managers pertains to the bullpen. This has as much, if not more, to do with the nature of bullpens than it does with managers themselves. Bullpen pitchers are volatile. Bullpen usage is usually in the later innings with the game on the line. Bullpen decisions give us quick results, and when they don’t work out – which is inevitable given their volatile nature – we are going to criticize the manager. When they do work out we don’t offer nearly as much praise. We all think we know how to manage a bullpen but the reality is it isn’t that easy, and we should remember that when dumping on our managers.

However, I do wonder if many managers would benefit from one simple philosophy: keep it simple. Joe Girardi has, since he arrived with the Yankees, managed a very good bullpen. There record after the 6th inning with a lead under his regime is insane. It’s important to remember that Mariano Rivera is the biggest reason for this, and Girardi has gone to Rivera on plenty of occasions to clean up a mess his bullpen management played a role in creating. Even with this great record in mind, one criticism of Girardi is that he is too cute with his bullpen. Gets way too caught up in matchups and making lots of changes, seemingly losing sight of just going with your best/hottest arms. We saw two examples of that this weekend, and in both instances Girardi would have been better served by keeping it simple.

Friday night against the Angels. 4-4 game heading to the bottom of the 8th. David Robertson had just come on in relief of Burnett in the 7th, getting two outs on a strike ‘em out throw ‘em out, tossing a grand total of 6 pitches. It was April 23rd, and D-Rob had not pitched since April 15th, two Thursdays prior. He looked good in the 7th, and certainly must have established a level of trust in himself for his work in 2009, where he had the second highest K/9 of any pitcher in baseball, trailing only Jonathon Broxton. Having not pitched in a week, only thrown 6 pitches, and in a tie game seemed like a good time to let him go another inning. After all, you don’t know how long a tie game is going to stay tied, so you don’t want to burn one of your better relievers the way you would with a lead. What’s more, he looked good. Any time you change pitchers, you are upping the chance that you are going to run into a reliever that doesn’t have it that day. So when an opportunity presents itself to stick with one that you already know looks good, you should. This was such an opportunity. Girardi instead went to Joba Chamberlain, who after pitching in that same April 15th game, also pitched in three more since. It wasn’t like he was overworked, but this was his third outing in four games, a lot more than D-Rob. Furthermore, Kendry Morales, the second batter of the inning ,was 4/6 off of Joba with a homer career. Small sample for sure, but a sample nonetheless. Morales gave us more of a sample, hitting a two-run homer to seal the game. With a lead, you go to Joba there, because he’s your guy and if he gets beat then he gets beat. But in a tie game you have options, and also don’t want to burn relievers, especially one you already know has it that day. That’s not to say a reliever that has it is never going to get beat, because he will. That’s just still better than running into a guy that doesn’t have it.

Sunday afternoon against the Angels. Bottom of the 7th inning, 5-4 Angles lead. Alfredo Aceves got the first out, and was lifted for Damaso Marte to get the lefty Abreu with nobody on base. It was April 25th, and Ace had not pitched since April 17th, two Saturdays prior. He had gone 1.2 SCORELESS, HITLESS, WALKLESS innings in this game, throwing a modest 15 pitches, 13 for strikes. This is the definition of a reliever having it, and 1.2 innings and 15 pitches for someone like Ace, who last year was routinely (and successfully) employed for 3 or more innings is really nothing. Again, with a lead it is different, you go to your regular late inning routine because that’s when those guys expect to pitch. This is a situation where you are down a run, so you don’t have to go that route. Ace has it, so stick with him. Your down a run, he’s giving your offense a chance to come back, let him keep working. His changeup is one of his most effective pitches, helping him neutralize lefties, and righties have a higher OPS against him for his career than do lefties. He had also just retired a switch-hitter batting lefty to start the inning. So since he’s actually a better pitcher against lefties, do you really need the lefty/lefty match-up to feel comfortable. Granted, Marte dominates lefties. But this goes back to the whole having it vs. not having it thing you have to factor in. Aceves clearly had it. When you make a change you roll the dice. Girardi lost on that yesterday, as Marte did not have it. Walked Abreu, hit Hunter with a pitch, and after retiring Matsui, gave up a 3 run downtown to Morales turning a 1 run game into a 4 run game. When Aceves was rolling – and to get 5 consecutive outs on 15 pitches across three separate innings you pretty much have to be rolling – they should have just let him roll. Having a reliever whose rolling is often going to serve you better than playing matchups.

Keep it simple. Girardi showed how much he is over-thinking things with the Morales at bat. He went from intentionally walk him, throw one pitch, no don’t walk him (now putting Marte in a 1-0 hole to the best hitter on the other team), and once it got to 3-0 not going back and just walking him despite knowing he had the propensity to swing 3-0 to the point where the entire coaching staff was saying and motioning that he’s likely to swing. Yes, Marte has to execute better, but you’re running the risk as a manager that your player isn’t going to execute when you allow him to pitch to a guy 3-0 instead of just walking him when your original instinct was to walk him anyway. Never mind how much this whole ordeal might have shaken Marte’s confidence (“We’re so confident you can get this guy out we are going to order an intentional walk, then once we get you in a 1-0 hole we are actually going to change our mind and have you pitch to him, because again we are just positive you can get him out.”) That was a total circus, and completely embarrassing. Good job by Girardi taking the blame for this after the game (I’m not sure if he really had a choice), but the real point should be that he needs to stop over-thinking things to the point where he is second guessing himself mid at-bat. In fact, he likely never would have been in the situation to over-think that at bat if he had kept it even more simplistic, and just stayed with Aceves. Go with your best guys or your guys who are pitching best for as long as you can with the exception of protecting leads late in games. This will probably serve you better than getting cute, over-thinking things, and playing match-ups more often than not.


the gm said...

The Marte/Morales at-bat is probably the most heinous of all the offenses here, though I think you nailed it with the tie game. Would be nice to have Chamberlain in there during extra innings. But the Marte/Morales at-bat also raises clubhouse issues. If you think there wasn't a gaggle of players sitting on that bench or in that bullpen saying "what the f*** is this guy thinking," you're wrong. Being wishy-washy about it, you know, like when you say in spring training that nobody's getting a personal catcher and immediately "having more sense than that" like Rick James, is just not the way to go. You don't want your guys to second-guess your own decisions. So don't allow it to happen. The way to do that is to pick one, stay with it, and go Jimy Williams on it later: "Manager's decision."

from the bronx said...

gm, there would be clubhouse issues if the manager didn't take responsibility, but girardi clearly owned up to the mistake after the game and said the loss was on him. the players are likely annoyed, but its not going to linger when the team is 12-6 and the manager is owning up to his mistakes.

meanwhile, the mistake that is not being owned up to is trading for Javy Vazquez. I can't decide if the Yankees are worse off with Javy on the pitching staff or if the Braves are worse off with Melky playing OF, but it is probably the Braves because they have already decided to cut Melky's at bats.

How long do you think it will be before Javy is the new setup man?

TimC said...

Good stuff as usual. Of all the "duties" that a manager undertakes in a given baseball season, bullpen management is, in my mind, the only one that really measurably impacts multiple games. Unless, of course, the manager has Papelbon as the closer; then the manager has no impact on any games.

Patrick said...
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Patrick said...

good point danno. i was impressed with girardi putting it on him immediately afterwards, but at this point i've come to expect nothing less from him as a manger. he really has come into his own as a manager after what could be generously described as a shaky first year. that, and the fact that he's in that classic "hot" period that capable managers experience when they have a talented team early in their tenure with the club (which we've discussed at length here).

that said, he continues to get a bit too caught up in micromanaging the bullpen. not only is that a tricky proposition generally (because of what i consistently go back to about the more bullpen changes you make the greater the chances you run into one with an off day), but it also isn't how this particular bullpen is composed. with the exception of marte (lefty specialist), mariano (who you want to limit to 3-4 outs as much as possible so he can be kept fresh and available as much as possible to close games), and maybe joba (who you might treat like "mariano lite" so that he can be available to set-up as much as possible with leads), he has four guys capable of going at least two innings in aceves, CHOP, robertson, and mitre, the first three of which you wouldn't blink to use in a close game. so if you have one of them in, and they are going well, you may as well just stick with them. then use another one the next day. i would be more able to understand the constant micromanaging if the yankees' bullpen was composed of shorter-relievers, but in reality more than half their pen has the ability to thrive on 1+ inning stints and that is a major luxury that should be utilized, not minimized.