Judging the Royals

The National Pastime: Second-guessing managers

Royals manager Ned Yost calls for relief pitcher Jason Frasor as starting pitcher Danny Duffy looks on in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the White Sox on April 8 at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals manager Ned Yost calls for relief pitcher Jason Frasor as starting pitcher Danny Duffy looks on in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the White Sox on April 8 at Kauffman Stadium. The Kansas City Star

Second-guessing the manager is a popular activity and that’s part of the fun of baseball: why did he do that, he should have done this. We can argue endlessly about what might have happened had the manager made a different decision—and we do.

But since we don’t have all the information a manager has—this reliever has a tender elbow, that reliever would like an inning of work—it’s difficult to know what a manager’s true options are. Teams do all they can to make sure nobody knows what players a manager has at his disposal.

Say a left-handed reliever reports forearm tightness and the decision is made to give him the night off—as long as nobody knows he’s scuffling, you can still use that guy. At the appropriate moment you have your lefty get up and stretch and walk around the bullpen; that might be enough to keep the other team’s left-handed pinch hitter on the bench. Same goes for an offensive player; send him out to take a few swings in the on-deck circle and see if you can force the other manager into a move that benefits you.

(Time out for a pretty good baseball story: I was watching a National League game and saw a manager send a left-handed pinch hitter out to swing the bat three times before actually using that hitter. After the game I asked what was up with that and the answer was simple and logical: every time the left-handed pinch hitter got out on the on-deck circle, the other manager got his left-handed reliever up in the pen. Having a reliever warm up three times before pitching might not hurt, but it sure as hell didn’t help.)

Even though we don’t know exactly which relief pitcher is available on which days, we can still make some pretty good guesses. Here’s the Royals current bullpen:

1. Wade Davis

2. Jason Frasor

3. Luke Hochevar

4. Greg Holland

5. Ryan Madson

6. Franklin Morales

7. Yohan Pino

(Chris Young is not on the list because he’s taking Jason Vargas’ spot in the rotation.)

Now here’s a rule of thumb that isn’t always followed, but gives you a rough idea of which relievers are available on which days: if a reliever throws two days in a row, he’s likely to get the third day off.

You can ask a reliever for three days in a row, but do that too often and too early and you’re going to burn out a pen. And don’t forget to count up-downs: the number of times a reliever gets up to throw, but then sits back down—those pitches count, too. (If you’re starting to think this is more complicated than you thought, good; you’re getting the idea.)

Using the two-out-three rule of thumb, let’s try and figure out who’s available for Sunday night’s game against the Tigers.

Relievers used on Friday: Jason Frasor, Ryan Madson, Wade Davis and Yohan Pino.

Relievers used on Saturday: Luke Hochevar and Greg Holland.

Right away you can see how important it was for starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie to go 7 1/3 innings on Saturday; that made sure no reliever worked two days in a row and that means everyone—with the probably exception of Hochevar—is available to throw tonight. (Last I heard they didn’t want Luke throwing back-to-back yet.)

So why did Holland throw in a non-save situation?

I saw several people complain that Ned Yost refused to use closer Greg Holland in a non-save situation on Friday night, but then used Holland in a non-save situation on Saturday afternoon. So what gives?

I’m not there and I don’t have Ned Yost’s cell phone number and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t pick up if I did, but here’s what I think: the score was tied on Friday and if Holland had pitched he could have thrown a 1-2-3 top of the ninth and the Royals could still lose that game.

On Saturday the Royals had a four-run lead and if Holland did his job they’d get a W for sure. And Holland—who has had some time off—may have wanted an inning or some other pitchers may have wanted an extra day off; that’s the kind of thing we may never know.

Why have set roles in the bullpen?

Some fans will argue that the best relievers should be used in the most important situations; if you need your closer in the seventh, why not use him then?

Baseball managers also want to use their best relievers in the most important situations, they just disagree about when that is.

Most managers want to use their best relievers in the situation that will be most productive: in the later innings, with a lead, in a close game. If I counted right, the Royals are 14-2 when they have a lead after six innings. So when the Royals get the ball to their best relievers with a lead, they know their chances of winning are good. Use your best relievers earlier and they might wiggle out of a jam, but you wouldn’t be as sure it would matter; lesser relievers would have to pitch those final innings. You might succeed in one high-pressure situation, but create another down the road.

And in the meantime you’ve burned up good innings in a loss.

What’s wrong with a bullpen by committee?

Every once in a while you’ll hear someone who’s never pitched in his life suggest a "bullpen-by-committee" approach to relief pitching; every night you just make it up as you go along. A few years back the Boston Red Sox tried that when Tim Wakefield was still pitching and Wakefield talked about it in his book. Tim didn’t think it worked and here’s why:

Nowadays, for better or worse, everyone has a role. Long relievers, middle relievers, set-up men and closers have specific jobs and prepare for them in specific ways. If the starter gives it up right away, long relievers are the first guys that will be called into the game. A long reliever stays loose and focused through the first five innings or so. Once the starter makes it through those five or so innings, the long reliever can sit down; he probably won’t be throwing that day. Now the middle relievers focus up and start to move around. If the starter makes it through seven innings with a lead, the game is now moving into set-up man and closer territory.

Everybody knows their job; everybody knows when to be ready.

According to Wakefield, when the Red Sox tried a closer by committee approach, the result was chaos; nobody knew what they were doing that day, nobody knew when to get ready. When pitchers had a set role they’d do stretches and loosen up before they ever begin to throw; that way they could be ready on short notice. If they didn’t know when they were going to pitch, they couldn’t stretch and get ready in advance and they’d get caught unprepared.

And the idea that pitching is pitching and anybody can close a game—it’s just three more outs—has been refuted by just about everybody who ever stood on a big league mound and tried to get those last three outs. Put a 12-inch wide plank on the ground and ask someone to walk its length; most of us could do that easily. Now put the same plank 100 feet in the air; is it really the same task?

Refusing to admit there’s a psychological aspect to performing under pressure in front of 40,000 people is to refuse to admit reality. Some guys can handle closing, lots of guys can’t.

A bullpen by committee ought to work in theory, but in reality, Tim Wakefield thought it was a disaster.