Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bullpen Mismanagement

(This is the post I started writing in the 10th inning of tonight's game and gave up on once the 17th inning rolled around. I cleaned it up a bit, just to make it flow logically.)

My complaint about tonight's game is only an indirect knock at Jerry Manuel, who can't entirely be blamed for his startling inability to understand leverage and how to properly use a bullpen. The fact is, no manager in modern baseball has been able to break away from the established orthodoxy of how to deploy their relief corps.

The sheer lunacy of bullpen mismanagement at baseball's highest level was on display again today, starting in the 10th inning of a scoreless game in St. Louis. The Cardinals had two base runners with two outs and the incomparable Albert Pujols coming to bat. Manuel was not going to let Pujols face the lefty Pedro Feliciano, so he had a choice to make - which right-handed reliever to use?

Francisco Rodriguez is considered the best right-handed reliever on the team, both in terms of reputation and contract. He was rested, having last pitched the meaningless final inning in the Mets' 5-0 win on Thursday night. K-Rod (despite having a declining K rate every year since 2004) is still a strikeout pitcher, and the Mets absolutely needed a pitcher who could limit Pujols's ability to make contact.

Jerry Manuel chose Fernando Nieve instead. Nieve had already pitched in seven of the Mets' first 10 games, including two batters during a disastrous seventh inning the previous night. He is not nearly as good as K-Rod, even if Rodriguez is one of the more overrated relievers in professional baseball.

The difference, of course, is that K-Rod is the "closer." The closer is that rare breed of reliever - the man who can only pitch when the conditions are just right for him. He is supposed to be the best pitcher in the bullpen, even if he is only used in the most specialized of situations that do not always coincide with the most important ones.

Rodriguez's odds of getting Pujols out were significantly higher that Nieve's odds. Once Pujols was semi-intentionally walked, K-Rod's chances of getting Matt Holliday out were significantly higher than Nieve's. Manuel still chose Nieve. Holliday ended up popping out to first, ending the tenth inning and staving off defeat.

Incredibly, the same situation came up again in the 12th inning - two on, two out, and Pujols coming to the plate. Even more incredibly, Nieve was still in the game, having faced nine batters to that point. Perhaps even more incredibly, Nieve stayed in the game to walk Pujols and to face Jason Motte, the St. Louis pitcher.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, apparently uninterested in taking advantage of the situation, inexplicably allowed his pitcher to bat even though he had a pinch-hitter left on the bench and two relievers left in his bullpen. Motte struck out on four pitches, ending the threat and Nieve's day at the same time.

Implausibly, nearly the exact same situation came up in the 14th inning! With second and third and nobody out, Hisanori Takahashi (who was called upon to replace Nieve instead of K-Rod) struck out the left-handed Skip Schumaker. Ryan Ludwick and Albert Pujols beckoned - would Manuel have K-Rod ready to replace Takahashi now?

He would not. Takahashi struck out Ludwick, intentionally walked Pujols and struck out reliever Blake Hawksworth. This decision defied all logic, as LaRussa STILL had a pinch-hitter on the bench and Ryan Franklin available in the bullpen. Why he still let Hawksworth walk to the plate in that situation is incomprehensible.

Takahashi had performed a minor miracle, getting out of the jam. He was pinch-hit for by Jon Niese in the top of the 15th - surely K-Rod would be coming in now, right? Wrong. Jenrry Mejia, a 20-year-old Double-A starter masquerading as a reliever, was called upon in the bottom the 15th inning of a scoreless game.

Let that one sink in for a minute. After 14 1/2 innings of scoreless baseball, the youngest player in the major leagues was being asked to keep the Mets alive instead of one of the highest-paid relievers in baseball.

Mejia pitched two scoreless innings, giving way to Mexican League graduate Raul Valdes in the 17th inning. By now, even La Russa had gotten around to using his closer; one wondered if perhaps the sight of Franklin might have reminded Manuel that it was appropriate to use K-Rod even if the save wasn't in order.

Instead, it was Valdes, who had given up a grand slam to Felipe Lopez the night before in his fifth MLB appearance. This was the man that Manuel entrusted with a game, more than five hours after the first pitch was thrown.

K-Rod stayed in the bullpen until the 19th inning, waiting for the all-important "save situation" to arrive so that he could finally come into the game. The closer makes $11.5 million a year, but the manager would not ask him to pitch unless the Mets took the lead.

Rodriguez promptly rewarded Manuel's "patience" by blowing the save and nearly blowing the game. If nothing else, it was just one more reminder that the closer "myth" is just that - a myth. Manuel's reluctance to pitch Rodriguez without the lead may have cost the Mets the game, all because modern managers still do not understand that if you hold back your best reliever for the save situation, you do nothing but increase your chances of losing the game.

Will anyone question Jerry Manuel as to why he chose to use four inferior relievers at the most critical junctures of the game? Doesn't anyone wonder why the back of the bullpen is entrusted with critical at-bats in extra innings, while the closer is pitching mop-up duty in 5-0 games?

No one will ask, because Jerry Manuel went by "the book" today. He's been going by the book all season, just like everyone else. And when you go by the book, you are immune from criticism, even if the book is just as wrong as it can be.

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