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June 20, 2012

The Platoon Advantage

Venting About Bullpen Woes

by Cee Angi

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Fredi Gonzalez swore he would change, and he has. Dusty Baker never learned to love Mark Bellhorn, and Joe Torre never became a young player’s manager, but Gonzalez took the bullpen pedal off the floor. The Braves' manager started the 2011 season racing his bullpen around every turn, and by September the team was left with bald tires and in need of a pit-stop just sort of the finish line, blowing an eight-game lead to lose the wild card to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the biggest collapse in National League history. When the season ended, Gonzalez promised that next year would be different, and he changed… but perhaps he isn’t the only Brave who needs to adjust his strategy.

Gonzalez’s mantra in early 2011 was win early and win often, seemingly viewing nearly every game as an opportunity to use one of his big relievers Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, and closer Craig Kimbrel—a three-headed, three-armed force of despair and dashed hopes for a comeback. If the Vikings sacked villages and carried off its riches, the VOK-ings sacked opposing hitters and carried off their manhoods. Gonzalez went to them even if the situation didn’t follow the conventional wisdom as to when a manager should deploy his best relievers. This resulted in an unrealistically heavy workload for the trio, with the number of one-run games the Braves had in the first half (24) only serving to exacerbate an-already unrealistic pace for the pitchers.

In the first half of 2011, the Braves bullpen pitched 288 2/3 innings in relief, which put them on pace to be the 10th-most-used bullpen in major-league history. Of those innings, 143 1/3 (49.46 percent) of those were thrown by the VOK-ings—Venters (55.1), Kimbrel (46), and O’Flaherty (42). Ignoring that slow and steady might win the pennant race, Gonzalez continued to exercise his right to pitch his top relievers nightly, ignoring the fact that every game they pitched early in the season was an appearance they couldn’t make at a later date—even if they somehow magically withstood the rigors of overuse, there was still the simple matter of every pitcher's basic limitations—not even Mike Marshall could pitch every day.

Aided by a decrease in one-run and extra-inning games, Gonzalez changed his strategy somewhat in the second half, using his relievers in 233 2/3 innings—55 fewer innings than the first half. The VOK-ings collectively pitched 94.4 (40.48 percent) of those frames, as Gonzalez made a conscious decision to use them less due to all of the front-loaded activity. As general manager Frank Wren later observed, “I think if you really look post-All-Star Game last year, the workload was down. That was intentional. Fredi and Roger [McDowell, Atlanta pitching coach] both started being very intentional about trying not to use them unless it was a save situation. Because we were all aware that their workload was heavy in the first half.”

The Braves suffered the biggest collapse in National League history, in part, because the pitchers were VOK-ing exhausted from early-season use, the manager being unable to decide when not to use them. Casey Stengel once said that the Yankees didn't pay him to win every day, just two out of three. It's a good line, but it contains some truth in that sometimes there is an opportunity cost to going all out in every game, particularly with pitchers—you might win the battle but lose the war. Gonzalez wasn't capable of making this kind of nuanced value judgment. "We were playing so many one-run games and tie games and extra-inning games," Gonzalez said. "You hate to pick up microphone in the middle of the ninth inning and say, 'I'm going to use Martin Prado to pitch because I don't want to use Kimbrel today' to your fans, because we're trying to win ballgames. The hyperbole only slightly obscures the fact that the Braves had more than three relievers in their bullpen, some of whom pitched very well despite their secondary status.

The wounds of Kimbrel’s blown save in Game 162 were still bleeding when Wren, McDowell, and Gonzalez came together to make a pact as to how the bullpen would function this season: that the VOK-ings would only be used in high-leverage situations of saves and tied games, pacing them for a more even participation throughout the 162-game season, and if they prove to be lucky, the playoffs. So far, Gonzalez has stayed with the plan as outlined—using his relievers, but especially the VOK-ings, in fewer appearances and innings.

Comparing the first 66 games of 2011 versus 2012, the trio has made fewer appearances (an aggregate 23) and innings (26.1) than last season. The pace of all Braves relievers used is down as well—from 211 innings to 198.5, with the VOK-ings pitching just 36.42 percent of the relief innings. 

Appearances 2011 vs. 2012 (first 66 games)

 

2011

2012

Difference

Pitcher

Appearances

Innings

Appearances

Innings

Appearances

Innings

O'Flaherty

34

29.1

25

22.2

-9

9

Venters

37

38.1

31

25.1

-6

-13

Kimbrel

33

31

25

25

-8

-6

Total

104

98.2

81

73

-23

-26.1

Venters has seen the biggest drop-off in innings and appearances, with six fewer appearances and 13 1/3 fewer innings to this point—which seems to be a response to his overuse in past seasons and his recent struggles on the mound. But Gonzalez faces a unique problem with Venters: Unwilling to accept a reduced workload, the 27-year-old lefty has taken matters into his own hands by pitching more bullpen sessions, a mini-mutiny that may serve to undermine the Gonzalez-McDowell-Wren pact to preserve the VOK-ings.

Venters entered the majors in 2010 and immediately assumed a heavy workload thanks to then-manager Bobby Cox, an old-school manager who didn’t automatically limit left-handed pitchers to specialized roles. Cox used Mike Remlinger in a similar fashion from 1999-2001—he averaged 76.8 innings per season—and other left-handed pitchers such as Mike Gonzalez and Chris Hammond had career-high innings pitched while playing for Cox. Overall, during his second stint as Braves skipper (1991-2010), Cox had eight seasons of 70 or more innings from a left-handed reliever. No other team during that period had as many, the Phillies being the closest with seven, the high totals compiled in seasons in which they were managed by Cox's fellow World War II-era babies Jim Fregosi and Larry Bowa.

A starter in the minors, Venters was used in multiple innings as soon as he reached the majors, throwing six scoreless innings in his first three games. It was an immediate hint to the manager that he was the type of pitcher that didn’t need to be limited to lefty/lefty matchups, especially since his best pitch, the sinker, proved lethal to batters on both sides of the plate. Venters finished his rookie season pitching 83 innings. When Cox retired, Gonzalez simply continued where he left off—using Venters for 88 innings in 2011, the most of any reliever in the league.

The result of Cox's brain on Gonzalez's body was an anachronistic usage pattern, a new manager with an old style. From 1991-2011, 349 pitchers threw 80 or more innings in a season spent purely in relief. Only 80 pitchers reached the 80-inning mark in two seasons, and just 25 pitchers reached 80 innings in three or more seasons. Four of the aforementioned pitchers are left-handed. Venters is the second southpaw since 1992 to throw 80 or more innings in relief in more than one season, providing a rationale for the theory that all of the VOK-ings need to pitch less, but especially him.

It’s fair to say that all Venters has known since entering the league is pitching both often and successfully, which has created a restlessness to him in the bullpen. His performance has suffered, and he’s admitted that he is struggling to find the right balance of rest and preparedness in his newly limited role. Gonzalez has been vocal about the plan to pace the VOK-ings, but his words have fallen on deaf ears with Venters, who has implied that he is pitching more (and longer) bullpen sessions to compensate for the decrease in innings, while hoping to find some of the lost movement in his sinker.

It’s tempting to allow Venters to continue on the pace of 80 innings per season indefinitely, especially since he could show improvement through more innings, but Gonzalez seems to be making the logical choice in limiting Venters not just with this season in mind, but future seasons as well. He has communicated the plan to Venters, who needs to make adjustments to the sprinting mindset that the Braves inculcated in him; otherwise, the unrealistic pace could lead to injury or fatigue, rather than success than defies all odds (the list of lefty relievers who have compiled these totals is not notable for longevity, at least not in the years since pitchers like Craig Lefferts retired).

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a U2 from a base in Alaska accidentally flew over Russian airspace and was subsequently chased by Soviet MIGs. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara received word of the incident and reported it to President Kennedy exclaiming, “…this means war with the Soviet Union!” to which President Kennedy calmly replied, “There’s always one son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the message.” Kennedy’s calm response was actually one of deep frustration, and if Venters keeps pushing the limits of high-pitch counts when he’s been instructed to rest, it’s likely that Gonzalez will have a response of a similar nature, because one the VOK-ing “son-of-a-bitches” didn’t get the memo. 

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