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Why all MLB managers are terrible with bullpens

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We've seen lots of criticisms of Yost, but that's not really the problem.

Finnegan: not the guy you're looking for
Finnegan: not the guy you're looking for
Jamie Squire

There has been an awful lot of criticisms of managers lately.  Ned Yost is often lambasted for things he does or doesn't do, and is the butt of the most ironic headline that has come out of all postseason coverage.  Yost, along with San Fransisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, are in the World Series, and both have already been heaped with criticism.

But it's not about them.  Both of them are pretty standard in the managing school of though, which is a fundamentally and extraordinarily flawed school, especially when it comes to bullpen decisions.  So let's take a journey, a thought experiment.

Forget everything you know about baseball.  Well, not everything.  But pretend that you know nothing about baseball history or common usage of relievers.  You're from Zimbabwe Or Norway or Nepal and you've read about the rules and the statistics.  You know the game as well as any American who's ever been to Kauffman Stadium or Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium.  But you don't know about how managers use relievers.

***

Here's the situation, foreign baseball master:

It's the bottom of the fifth.  Your starting pitcher is in the game, and he yields a leadoff double.  He's been through the order a few times, and he's been somewhat iffy, although generally pretty effective.  You look at the bullpen, and who's available.  You see:

Right-Handers

  • Jason Frasor-2.66 ERA on the year, high strikeout rate, high-ish walk rate
  • Kelvin Herrera-1.41 ERA, high strikeout, moderate-high walk, pitched yesterday
  • Wade Davis-1.00 ERA, extreme strikeout, average walk, pitched yesterday
  • Greg Holland-1.44 ERA, extreme strikeout, average walk, pitched yesterday

Left-Handers

  • Brandon Finnegan-1.29 ERA, extreme strikeout, low walk, rookie, pitched yesterday
  • Danny Duffy-2.53 ERA, average strikeout, average walk, pitched yesterday
  • Tim Collins-3.86 ERA, average strikeout, extreme walk, spent most of year in AAA

Coming up to hit are Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, two right-handed batters with traditional splits.  Leading by three, with one on and no outs, going to Frasor is a perfectly fine move.  He gets the Posey groundout but then gives up a single to Pence.  It's now 4-2.  Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt are incoming, both poor against left-handed pitching.  Finnegan and Duffy are the only ones who you really trust, so you go with Duffy a starter during the year, thinking maybe he can get you a few more innings because it's still early.  Duffy gives up a single to Sandoval and then walks Belt.  The score is now 4-3 Royals.

What do you do now?  You've got Herrera, Davis, Holland, Finnegan, and Collins still in the pen.  The bases are loaded with one out.  A single scores two, a double three.  Coming up to bat are Juan Perez, a righty, and Brandon Crawford, a lefty.  In this situation, another few hits spells doom for your team.  Theoretically, you need someone with elite strikeout skills, and preferably a right-hander who might better induce a double-play against Perez, the righty.  Get out of the jam, and you're still ahead.

Wade Davis, thankfully, is the perfect person for this job.  Against righties this year, he's struck out 42.2% of all batters.  Furthermore, 39.1% of balls put in play by righties are ground balls, optimal for the double play or home forceout.  This is exactly the guy you want, as he's also extremely good against lefties, moreso than Holland in the K and GB department. You could put Herrera in, but Davis is better, and this is crucial.

Unfortunately, you are not in control of the team.  Ned Yost is.  Yost leaves the left-hander in against Perez, who possesses the platoon advantage and scores Pence on a sac fly.  With two outs, Crawford, the lefty, succumbs to Duffy's platoon advantage and strikes out.

Ok, whatever.  How about this situation?

Tie game.  Sixth inning.  Coming up is the 9-hole, and sure that they'll pinch-hit for the pitcher according to who's in you put in the lefty Finnegan with Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik coming up.  Pinch-hitter Joaquin Arias singles, and you leave in Finnegan to face Panik.  Panik sac-bunts, and Blanco and Arias are at second and third with one out.  It's tied 4-4, and you're playing away.  Posey and Pence are coming up to bat, both right handers.  Groundouts or flyouts aren't that big of a deal, as they might still score Arias from third.  Arias will score on any sac fly or wild pitch anyway.

So what do you do now?  You've got Herrera, Davis, Holland, and Collins.  You need strikeouts or you will fall behind.  Get out of the jam, and you're still tied with a few innings to eke out a run or two.

Wade Davis, thankfully, is the perfect person for this job.  Against righties this year, he's struck out 42.2% of all batters.  Furthermore, 39.1% of balls put in play by righties are ground balls, a better option than flyballs as a pulled grounder will freeze the runners and end in an out.  This is exactly the guy you want.  You could put Herrera in, but Davis is better, and this is crucial.

Unfortunately, you are not in control of the team.  Ned Yost is.  Yost leaves decides to intentionally walk Posey to set up a double-play or home forceout, and then leaves Finnegan in to face Pence, who has the platoon advantage.  A dangerous move, it nevertheless pays off and an out is created at home.  To nobody's fault, Finnegan, with the platoon advantage, is torn apart by a few singles not even hit particularly well by Sandoval and Belt, and it's 7-4 Giants before the final out is recorded.

***

Yost will receive flak for his decisions, but the key part here is to understand that Ned is no different than anyone else.

If a team has a shutdown reliever, that person is in the closer, mostly due to the 'save' stat that has destroyed what should be optimal usage of a bullpen.  Here's what should be the standard thought process, and this is a thought process that permeates any discipline:

Use your best assets when you need them most, when the stakes are highest.

Instead, this is the thought process that all baseball managers go by:

Use your best assets as it gets later in the game.

Frankly, that method of thought is completely ridiculous.  Here's an example: you're going canoeing, and your boat has sprung a leak.  Though you've got the materials to plug the hole, you also have a bucket and can scoop the water out of the boat.  Standard thought process would be to plug the hole first and worry about water intake when it becomes an issue later; maybe the leak can't be totally sealed off, maybe another leak springs, maybe an asteroid hits.  MLB managing thought process is to start scooping the water out of the boat, and maybe you'll sink so you don't have to use the materials to plug the hole at all.  However, if you're close to the shore, go ahead and plug the leak because it would be inconvenient to sink right before you finish your trip.

All 30 managers have done what Yost did yesterday at some point this year.  Granted, many of those times weren't in playoff baseball and there could be some other factors--injury, recent bullpen usage, and the like--but most of the big innings in the middle of the game could by saved by putting in your best reliever when the stakes are highest.

Even if you insist that maybe the closer is important, you can still use your best other reliever.  The point still stands, and the middle innings are where the long reliever is used most.  Generally the long reliever is a failed starter.  Do the math.  If you want to put in your long reliever to protect your bullpen, that's fine--but bailing you out with your best reliever beforehand is the way to do it.

Yost lost the game for the Royals because he refused to use his best reliever in the highest-leverage situation.  Fortunately, every other manager in baseball wouldn't have made the correct the decision.  Unfortunately, Yost, and others, will continue to make that mistake again and again and continue to needlessly lose games that could have been won.