Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Bullpen

Even the name of this post is enough to give me nightmares....

I went to the game on Friday night, and was obviously disappointed that the Orioles, ahead 4-1 going to the 7th inning, were unable to come away with a victory. More disappointing, however, were Dave Trembley's comments after the game about bullpen usage, calling Chris Ray his 7th inning guy, Jim Johnson his 8th inning guy and George Sherrill his 9th inning guy. Managers love to give their bullpen guys set roles, and those bullpen guys love to have innings define those roles. As Chris Ray said, "You don't have to jump every time the phone rings when you know what your role is." That's all well and good, but shouldn't relievers who are paying to attention to the flow of the game be able to anticipate when their manager might need them? Why do "defined roles" have to be defined in terms of innings?

The Orioles bullpen is filled with good match-up relievers, but no real dominant pitchers. Here are the career splits of those three key relievers:

George Sherrill: .169/.232./.280 against lefties, .268/.384/.402 against righties
Chris Ray: .192/.256/.311 against righties, .244/.345/.437 against lefties
Jim Johnson: .260/.328/.331 against righties, .237/.346/.259 against lefties

Johnson actually shows a bit of a reverse platoon split, but both Sherrill and Ray exhibit the traditional tendency to outperform against batters of the same hand. Since both have experience, and some moderate success, in the closer's role, it seems to me that the Orioles bullpen is tailor made for roles defined by the situation, not by the inning. Let's examine Friday night's game without being constrained by the inning.

In the top of the 7th, Koji Uehara was beginning to tire. He'd thrown very well, allowing just one run over 6.0 innings. Hank Blalock (batting left) led off the inning with a homer, Marlon Byrd (batting right) popped foul to third and Nelson Cruz (right) flew out to deep center. At this point, Uehara had thrown 94 pitches and Chris Davis (left) was due up. Davis homered off Uehara back on April 13, has prodigious power, and Uehara had already allowed a homer to lefty Blalock in the inning. Trembley went to specialist Jamie Walker, a move with which I agree. Unfortunately, Davis dribbled a swinging bunt and reached base on an infield single.

Now, decision time looms for Trembley. Walker is pretty much a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy), so it makes sense that he makes another call to the pen, right? Well, Jarrod Saltalamacchia (switch) is due up for the Rangers, followed by Elvis Andrus (right), Ian Kinsler (right), Michael Young (right) and Josh Hamilton (left). Trembley obviously won't let Walker face more than Saltalamacchia, but should he leave him in to face the Rangers catcher, or should he call for a right-hander to turn Saltalamacchia around? Let's look at Saltalamacchia's career splits: .214/.262/.325 batting righty and .289/.359/.451 as a lefty. In my opinion, Walker should face Saltalamacchia. Instead, since this is the 7th inning, Trembley goes to the pen for Chris Ray. Not surprisingly, Saltalamacchia (batting left) singles and Andrus (batting right) grounds out to end the inning. Ray needed just 10 pitches to get the final out of the 7th.

Instead of leaving a well-rested Chris Ray (he last pitched three nights ago on April 21) in to face Kinsler and Young, Trembley sticks to his formula and calls for Jim Johnson to start the 8th. After retiring Kinsler on a bunt, Young singles, Hamilton lines out, Blalock singles, Byrd reaches on an infield single (scoring a run to make it 4-3), and then Cruz reaches on an infield single. With two men on in the top of the 8th, Trembley rightly senses this is potentially the key at-bat and summons his nominal closer, George Sherrill, to face Chris Davis. Davis strikes out. Crisis averted, right? Well, maybe. Unfortunately, by rigidly sticking to his bullpen formula, Trembley has locked himself into a 9th inning with Sherrill on the mound. Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but there are no left-handed batters due up in the 9th. And, as we all know, Kinsler singled, Michael Young homered and Orioles fans went home disappointed.

What could Trembley have done differently? If he didn't want Walker to face Saltalamacchia, he could have still allowed Chris Ray to start the 8th. Kinsler and Young were both at a bigger disadvantage against Ray than against Johnson. Pending the results to those first two at-bats, you could either allow Ray to face Hamilton or summon Sherrill from the pen to face the lefty/lefty duo of Hamilton and Blalock. If Sherrill then runs into trouble, you still have Johnson available and there is just one more lefty in the Rangers lineup (Chris Davis). Unfortunately, that doesn't fit neatly with Trembley's innings constrained roles.

I understand that role definition is important. Players want to know what their manager expects of them, and they need to be mentally prepared so that they can physically succeed. Thus, Trembley should change his definitions, and I propose the following framework.

Jamie Walker: situational match-up lefty (LOOGY)
Chris Ray: late-inning, key situations where the hitters due up are predominantly right-handed
George Sherrill: late-inning, key situations where the hitters due up are predominantly left-handed
Jim Johnson: late-inning, key situations where there is no lineup bias

I know for sure that Chris Ray is a smart guy, and I'm assuming that George Sherrill and Jim Johnson can both read a lineup card. If not, let's hope Alan Dunn (bullpen coach) is able to do so. If Jamie Walker can be flexible as to the inning in which he pitches, why can't the rest of the pen? Because they lack a true stopper, Trembley needs to be flexible in his bullpen usage. Luckily for him, he has complementary weapons, Ray and Sherrill, that lend themselves very nicely to this flexibility. Let's hope that Trembley can understand his bullpen's very real strengths--and corresponding weaknesses--before the Orioles lose too many more games in the late innings.

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