Have Managers’ Bullpen Tactics Gone Too Far in the Playoffs?
Once October arrives, everything that occurs on a baseball field is placed under a microscope. Every uptick or drop in a pitcher’s velocity is noted. Every ball or strike from the umpire that deviates from the rulebook is criticized. Every managerial decision is dissected ad-nauseam.
More than ever, managers are scrutinized to hell and back in the playoffs. October decisions can cost a manager his job, the way Grady Little was fired after leaving Pedro Martinez in too long during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. They can move a manager to tears, as happened to Joe Girardi during the ALDS at the thought of his players coming back to win three straight games over the Indians after his fateful decision to not challenge a hit-by-pitch in Game 2.
Nowhere is a manager more dissected than with his bullpen work. Bullpen choices are the easiest type of managerial decision to analyze; this is who the manager chose, and this is who the manager should have gone with.
With added pressure over the years to forego the rigid relief roles of the past, managers are being pushed more and more to be creative about how they deploy their pitchers. The lines between starter and reliever are being blurred, the acceptable time to bring in a relief ace has moved all the way up to the first inning, and conventional wisdom is being questioned at every turn.
This phenomenon was epitomized during the decisive game of the ALDS between Houston and Boston. Now former Red Sox skipper John Farrell brought his ace starter Chris Sale into the game after Rick Porcello struggled. Sale was on three days rest, and could have been on full rest to start a potential Game 5. In response, Astros manager A.J. Hinch brought in his ace, Justin Verlander, on three days rest to try and end the series.
The results of these particulars decisions were mixed: Verlander gave up a home run, and Sale allowed a pair of runs across 4.2 innings. These decisions simply illustrated how aggressive managers are now willing to get in order to win a bird in the hand, and, conversely, to avoid going to pitchers they no longer trust.
Aggressive bullpen management is good, in terms of trying to win. Managers should want their best players with the ball in their hands in October, when the games matter the most. Yet with managers more aggressive than ever, it’s tempting to ask if they’ve gone too far. Have managers too quickly lost their trust in their relievers in a rush to get the ball to the pitchers they trust the most?
When Hinch went to Verlander, he forsook the opportunity to utilize any number of other bullpen options. He surely was saving Ken Giles for the final inning or two, but he could have tabbed a rested Will Harris, who posted a 2.98 ERA and K/9 over 10 in 2017, for the middle innings. He could have turned to Chris Devenski, who had only thrown 12 pitches the day before and recorded a sparkling 2.68 ERA on the year with a heavy workload. He could have gone to Luke Gregorson, who struggled in 2017 but was one of the Astros’ best relievers across 2015 and 2016.
Instead, Hinch went to Verlander on short rest in an unfamiliar role, rather than the players who are used to mid-game work and who were on proper rest. Yet Hinch isn’t the only manager who’s exhibited a lack of faith in his non-closer relievers, and erred on the side of riding the arm of a starter in relief.
In Game 2 of the NLCS, Joe Maddon had John Lackey, a starting pitcher pitching on back-to-back days for the first time in his career, face Justin Turner with two on in the bottom of the ninth. The result, of course, was a dramatic walk-off homer and a 2–0 series lead for the Dodgers. Maddon’s costly decision on Sunday can be tied back even earlier to the disappearance in his trust of his non-closer relievers.
Maddon left Lackey in because he didn’t want to tax Wade Davis too much. Davis had thrown over 40 pitches a couple days earlier. Davis had to work so hard in Game 5 of the NLDS because Maddon didn’t have faith in relievers like C.J. Edwards or Justin Wilson (who didn’t make the NLCS roster) who didn’t quite have the pedigree of Davis. Maddon had asked starter Jose Quintana to relieve on two days rest earlier in Game 5, and Jon Lester to relieve on two days rest in Game 4.
Relievers like Edwards, Wilson, and Hector Rondon, all at Maddon’s employ, don’t have the track record of a Davis or a Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen, but all have had major success at the big league level. Instead of asking them to get key outs in relief, managers like Maddon have competently lost faith in them, and turned to starters in middle and late game situations.
Even Girardi, who did masterful work in navigating a bullpen game in the AL Wild Card Game after Luis Severino only lasted one out, has seen his faith slip in certain relievers. He has shown little faith in Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, and even at times Chad Green, after the latter gave up a grand slam to Francisco Lindor in the ALDS. Girardi hasn’t tasked starting pitchers with major relief roles due to his loss of trust in some primary relievers, but instead has placed heavy workloads on relievers like Aroldis Chapman and David Robertson.
At the end of the day, managers’ jobs are tremendously difficult in October because they not only need to try to maximize their odds of winning whichever game is currently happening, they need to maximize their odds of winning the World Series. Every choice they make needs to be viewed through the prism of how it impacts their chances of winning today, and how it impacts their odds of winning tomorrow, and the next day, and so on.
When teams ride certain arms in relief to the point of exhaustion, they may increase their odds of winning on that particular day, but they may ultimately hurt their overall World Series hopes. When Hinch put Verlander into Game 4, he boosted his odds of winning that game, but hurt his chances of winning a potential Game 5. In riding the arms of Chapman and Robertson, Girardi may have hurt his teams’ future chances by wearing down his most trusted arms while allowing his less-trusted options lose confidence and gather dust on the sidelines.
When Dusty Baker brought in Max Scherzer into Game 5 of the NLDS, he may have boosted his chances in the moment (or not: Scherzer was tagged for four runs), but had the Nationals prevailed, they would be handicapped, with their ace having been overworked. Of all teams remaining, the Dodgers probably are sitting the prettiest, with a rotation that hasn’t been asked to work in relief, with manager Dave Roberts trusting the likes of Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson, and Kenta Maeda to do the jobs they were tasked with when the playoffs begun.
A manager always wants to give his team the best chance to win, but when they start borrowing from the future and asking players to perform tasks that are alien to them, they may actually be hurting the team. Watching managers shed the grip of rigid bullpen roles has been great in recent years, with the dominant postseasons of players like Andrew Miller last year and Robertson this year springing to mind. It just seems that they’ve gone a step or two too far.