June 20, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
Venting About Bullpen Woes
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
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
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.