The main thing an American League manager does, besides leaning on a dugout railing looking thoughtful, is handling the pitching staff.
If the Kansas City Royals had a lead after six innings two years ago, manager Ned Yost had some very easy decisions to make: throw Kelvin Herrera in the seventh inning, Wade Davis in the eighth and Greg Holland in the ninth. In 2014, you could have pulled an overserved patron out of a sports bar and he or she probably could have managed the Royals bullpen with a lead after six innings.
But in 2017, managing the Royals bullpen might get a whole lot trickier.
How set roles makes managing easier
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When relievers have set roles — Herrera in the seventh, Davis in the eighth, Holland in the ninth — it simplifies things for everyone. Relievers know when to get ready and how long they’ll pitch. A manager can tell a reliever he has the seventh inning and any batter that comes to the plate in that inning. But a manager can only do that if the reliever can get both righties and lefties out.
In 2014, righties hit .186 off Kelvin Herrera and lefties hit .244. Wade Davis’ 2014 platoon splits were even better: righties .112, lefties .189. Greg Holland’s splits were .160 for right-handers and .177 for lefties.
So once the game reached the seventh inning and the Royals had a lead, Ned could follow the H-D-H formula, sit back and watch while his bullpen mowed down hitters.
How mix-and-match makes managing more difficult
Now jump ahead to 2016. Kelvin Herrera’s still did well against righties and lefties (.223 and .206 respectively) and so did Wade Davis (.221 against righties and .200 against lefties). Ned could still give either one of those guys an inning and expect them to do well no matter who they faced.
But Joakim Soria was a different story.
Lefties hit .246 off Soria, but righties hit .297 and slugged .555. The former Royals closer had reverse splits (he did better against lefties than righties) but the point stays the same; Soria could no longer handle every hitter that came to the plate. To keep Soria from being overmatched Ned needed to play mix-and-match with him: find batters Soria could handle, avoid having Soria face hitters that would give him trouble.
But when you have to mix-and-match, managing gets way more complicated.
Take Peter Moylan for, example
In 2016, right-handed hitters batted .218 against right-handed reliever Peter Moylan, while lefties hit .333. So it seems fairly simple; with the game on the line, don’t let Moylan face left-handed hitters.
But let’s look at how quickly that can get complicated.
Let’s say Moylan starts an inning with a two-run lead and has a righty, a lefty and another righty due up. If he gets the first right hander out, Moylan can face the lefty; even if the lefty hits the ball out of the park, Moylan still has a one-run lead and can then go on to face the next right-handed hitter.
But if Moylan doesn’t get the first righty out, a home run from the left-handed hitter ties the game. So you better have a reliever who can get lefties out warming up just in case Moylan doesn’t get that first right-hander. And if Moylan does get that first righty out, do you sit the reliever you wanted to face the left-handed hitter?
What if Moylan gets the first right-handed hitter out, the lefty out and then gives up a single to the second right-hander with another left-hander on deck?
Do you keep the guy in the bullpen throwing for the entire inning? And if you keep him throwing that long, will he be able to pitch if you sit him back down and then need him again later in the game?
Now let’s say you sit the reliever in the pen back down, he cools off, but you get him up again later and he then has a bad outing. Now that reliever might be upset because he feels like you put him in a bad spot by mishandling his warmup.
One of the ways a manager keeps his job is by keeping his players happy; you don’t want a player who thinks you’re a bad manager and might be willing to share that opinion with teammates and members of the media.
Remember, this is just one scenario and we haven’t talked about specific matchup numbers, days off or any of the other factors that might affect a manager’s thinking. If your head is spinning, you now know why set roles are easier on everyone.
Managing ahead of the game
If Kelvin Herrera is now the Royals closer, they’ve solved one problem, but how do you get the ball to Herrera? Two-thirds of H-D-H are now gone so unless Dayton Moore comes up with a couple more shutdown relievers or pitchers like Joakim Soria step it up, Ned Yost will have to play more mix-and-match in 2017.
And that means managing ahead of the game: running through all the possible future situations and knowing what you’re going to do in each of them. If you wait until things happen and then think about what to do next, you’re managing behind the game.
If you see catcher Salvador Perez or pitching coach Dave Eiland go to the mound to stall while a reliever warms up like his hair’s on fire, there’s a good chance Ned was caught managing behind the game; he wasn’t ready for the current situation.
In 2017 watch the Royals dugout and who stands next to Ned Yost. If Ned needs to mix-and-match, someone — Don Wakamatsu, Dave Eiland, Pedro Grifol — needs to remind Ned to get the right relievers up at the right time.
Because Ned Yost’s job might get a lot more complicated in 2017.