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July 1, 2003

Breaking Balls

Dissecting Melvin

by Derek Zumsteg

I love new managers. Each one is a chance for a new approach to rotation and bullpen management, in-game strategy, and roster handling. This off-season, Bob Melvin was called the dark horse candidate by local media. To the surprise of many, he interviewed so well that the Mariners hired him over others who had more managerial experience. Since his hire, Melvin has the best record in baseball at 52-28. And yet...the dark horse has shown himself to be a dim bulb.

Melvin has two big, predictable flaws that have emerged in the first half of the season, both ripe for post-season exploitation: He uses his best relievers to protect a lead, any lead, and is prone to punt the game when the team is behind by even a run, putting his worst relievers in. He's also inordinately fixated on "playing the percentages," frequently pinch-hitting to his disadvantage in order to get a lefty/righty matchup or play a guy who's 5-15 lifetime against a particular pitcher--the same is true with his use of the relievers.

In both cases, it appears that Melvin is operating out of fear, or at best, a fixation on being conservative. If a team's behind by one run and Joe Mopup gives up six runs, the fans aren't going to be as mad about that as they would if the team blew a six-run lead and lost the game. There's a psychological impact of a bad bullpen that can drive teams to spend a lot of money to patch holes. Fans expect to see a lead protected, and they get more angry with every collapse. By protecting any lead, Melvin assures the paying crowds that almost any lead will be a win. The flip side, that the team may never come back from a deficit, is ignored.

Similarly, Melvin's matchup games are easily defensible in the press. A manager can't be faulted if he pushes what are perceived as the right buttons and it doesn't work out; there's not a lot of second-guessing about that kind of old-school thinking.

Melvin and the Mariners blew a four-run lead in the ninth and lost Sunday to the Padres and Bruce Bochy. They did so in part because they finally went against Melvin's tendencies.

Starting Lineup

  1. Ichiro Suzuki L-RF
  2. Carlos Guillen B-SS
  3. Bret Boone R-2B
  4. Edgar Martinez R-DH
  5. John Olerud L-1B
  6. Mike Cameron R-CF
  7. Mark McLemore "B"-LF
  8. Jeff Cirillo R-3B
  9. Dan Wilson R-C

SP: Freddy Garcia

Bench

  • Ben Davis B-C
  • Randy Winn B-OF
  • John Mabry L-?
  • Willie Bloomquist R-UT
  • Luis Ugueto B-PR

    There's an argument immediately that Davis should be starting. Even job-sharing, Davis deserves at least 2/3 of the starts. He's by far the superior catcher this year, as Dan Wilson's rewarded the Mariners for their two-year, $7 million contract by having a terrible season. But maybe Melvin's clued into that: Davis played the three previous games, had two days off before that, and played the three games before that.

    Mark McLemore gets the start for Randy Winn, giving Winn his first day off in a long while, which brings us to something: with Greg Colbrunn on the DL, this is one terrible bench.

      Mariners bench splits, 2003  
    	
                       v. LHP	   v. RHP 	
                     OBP	SLG	OBP	SLG 
    McLemore*	.529	.571	.278	.304 
    Mabry	         --	 --	.270	.424 
    Bloomquist	.319	.300	.207	.148 
    Ugueto**	 --	 --	 --	 --  
    * fluke, previous three-year vs. LHP split is .350/.302 
    ** does not hit: projected actual line is .000/.000 
     

    Great off-season there, Gillick. And Alex Ochoa's playing in Japan.

      
    Today's bench additions
    
      	   v. LHP	   v. RHP 	
             OBP	SLG	OBP	SLG 
    Davis	.371	.421	.279	.378 
    Winn	.365	.436	.288	.310 
     

    So this is a Scrub-day Sunday lineup, with two regulars getting a sit.

    Bullpen, with last five days of usage

  • Shigetoshi Hasegawa R, threw three innings on the 26th
  • Julio Mateo R, one inning night before, two on the 25th
  • Jeff Nelson R, one pointless batter on the 27th, one inning on 24th
  • Arthur Rhodes L, one inning on the 27th, one inning on the 24th
  • Rafael Soriano R, one inning on the 28th
  • Matt White L, two batters on the 25th

    Everyone looks pretty fresh. To divvy up the bullpen by Melvin's usage patterns: Hasegawa, Nelson, Rhodes are the lead-protectors, Mateo, Soriano, and White are the rest. Before he was called up for purposes of ignoring him, Soriano was starting (3.19 ERA in Triple-A Tacoma, 62 IP, 43 H, 2 HR, 12 BB, 63 K...that's not a typo) and should be either getting regular work or starting in Tacoma. White's a Rule 5er and sucks.

    The Padres field this lineup:

    1. Mark Kotsay L-CF
    2. Mark Loretta R-2B
    3. Ryan Klesko L-1B
    4. Rondell White R-DH
    5. Sean Burroughs L-3B
    6. Gary Matthews Jr. B-LF
    7. Xavier Nady R-RF
    8. Gary Bennett R-C
    9. Donaldo Mendez R-SS

    To the game! The Mariners are facing Kevin Jarvis. Through six, it's 5-1 in favor of the Mariners. Freddy Garcia looked good and bad at different points in the game, but managed to escape some jams. In his last inning, he walked Klesko, which isn't too awful, and gave up a single to Burroughs. Overall, he'd put eight runners on and struck out five, throwing 102 pitches. Against an average offense, that's nothing to write home about ("Dear Mom, put a lot of balls in play. Boy do I like my defense. Love, Freddy"). Melvin pulls him and (shocking many) puts in Mateo instead of Hasegawa, which would be his expected move.

    Mateo's a serviceable right-handed reliever, and in the 7th ahead by four, Melvin expects Mateo's going to face Bennett and Mendez, pretty weak righties, and then Kotsay, a lefty who's only hitting .253/.347/.356 against right-handed pitching. So now you're wondering: "At 102 pitches, against the bottom of the lineup, it'd seem like a no-brainer to leave him in and see if he can't get a couple more easy outs and still keep his pitch count below 120, so why'd Melvin relieve Garcia at all?"

    No idea. The team's been aggressive about keeping their pitchers under 120 pitches a game, and Garcia's average is about 105 game, but it would make sense here to let him pick up a couple of cheap outs and relieve him at the first sign of trouble.

    Still, no points deducted for being overly protective of a starter without his best game that night, already over 100 pitches, with a four-run lead. Seventh inning, though, I'd have looked to Soriano, who needs the work and would have minced the Padres up for three innings for the win. Against the bottom of the order, though, Mateo's a perfectly good choice assuming Melvin's going to bring in the big guns soon enough.

    Mateo gives up two singles while getting only one out. Melvin pulls the plug, putting in Hasegawa with one out and men on first and third. The next batters are Loretta and Klesko. Loretta singles (run scores from third), Klesko lines out, White grounds out, and the Mariners get out of the inning having only given up one run.

    Eighth inning, Hasegawa lets Burroughs get on base and then gets three outs.

    In the bottom of the 8th, M's are up four runs after a (rare this season) John Olerud home run, so there's no serious motivation to pinch-hit for the anemic McLemore or the hampered-at-home Cirillo, and the game moves into the 9th.

    Here's what the Padres have coming up, behind 6-2:

     
     	           v. LHP	   v. RHP 	
                    OBP	SLG	OBP	SLG 
    Mendez  - R	.333	.385	.333	.413 
    Kotsay  - L	.321	.310	.347	.356 
    Loretta - R	.385	.427	.357	.433 
     

    What do you do as the Mariners manager? Leaving the righty in makes Kotsay a little better, Loretta slightly worse, but overall, it's not that big a deal. Complicating things is the Padres bench and a manger with nothing to lose.

     
     	           v. LHP	   v. RHP 	
                    OBP	SLG	OBP	SLG 
    Ojeda,    R-C			.226	.355 
    Hansen,   L-CO			.382	.301 
    Lockhart, L-IF			.349	.447 
    Buchanan, R-OF	.443	.712	.232	.308 
     

    I ignored extremely small sample sizes, and even the ones shown aren't huge. Still, Buchanan's got 76 PA vs. LHP this year, and his three-year split is .345/.498 against lefties and .313/.414 against righties.

    Look at this from Bochy's dugout: if they leave the right-hander in, I'd pinch-hit for Mendez with Hansen, try and get him on, and then try and get into the punchy middle of your lineup and scrape out three runs. No use giving up the first out: start firing early and keep firing when you're out of ammunition, that's my in-game strategy. But knowing that Melvin wants to bring Rhodes in, pinch-hitting Hansen means you could be burning a pinch-hitter to no use.

    From Melvin's point of view: bringing in a lefty gets you not only a couple of outs, but it neutralizes much of the Padres bench. Plus, Rhodes has historically been hard on both righties and lefties, so you can wait for the other manager to come to you.

    We're at an impasse. Both managers do nothing. Mendez strikes out, and now the fun begins. With the lefty-swinging Kotsay up, Melvin goes to Rhodes, leaving two righties (Nelson, Soriano) and a terrible lefty (White) still in the pen.

    Rhodes leaves his stuff in the bullpen. He gives up a single to Kotsay, another to Loretta, and here's trouble.

      	
                       v. LHP	  v. RHP 	
                    OBP	SLG	OBP	SLG 
    Klesko    - L	.274	.313	.390	.557 
    White     - R	.316	.418	.357	.542 
    Burroughs - R	.364	.458	.362	.421 
     

    Klesko's weakness against LHP is probably a blip: From 2000 to 2002, he got on base at a .354 clip and slugged .430. White's three-year split against lefties is .348/.460.

    That's a pretty nasty couple of guys to face, and no easy way out of it, unless you want to play straight platoon matchups, which as you can see from the splits doesn't buy you much.

    Rhodes is left in and walks Klesko (ball, strike, strike, foul, ball, ball, ball), and then is left in to face White. Now Melvin has another bad at-bat of evidence that Rhodes is not pitching well. However, Nelson's up in the pen and Nelson gave up a grand-slam home run to White during their last series, and Melvin loves the batter vs. pitcher statistics. Rhodes stays in. White hits a grand-slam home run. No move to get Nelson in, one out, and a right-handed batter up. Burroughs singles, and Nelson's called in.

    That's a good offensive core, and Rhodes is a fine pitcher, best in the pen. And yet...Rhodes has appeared in 38 games (35 IP) this season, on track for a career high, and with Melvin leaning on him to protect every lead, coming in for one or two batters, not only is Rhodes appearing a lot, he's throwing a boatload of pitches in the pen, getting up, sitting down, along with Nelson (31 appearances, 25 IP) putting together piecemeal protection for big leads. I know bullpen warm-ups aren't full intensity, but I think these guys are plain-old worn out.

    Nelson's always been an erratic pitcher, a guy who'll come in and strike out the best hitters in baseball one day and the next might walk everyone on a beer league softball team. But by consistently being more Dr. Jekyll than Mr. Hyde and learning to survive outings where his stuff abandons him, Nelson's carved out a nice career for himself, putting up excellent numbers in the last few seasons.

    He's also struggled lately. And with a tie game, you're essentially flipping a coin that the dominating Nelson comes up, and if he doesn't, you've lost the game. With one out and a guy on first, you start to think you'd rather see someone steadier-but-inferior come in, because if Nelson's terrible that day, you're going to give up at least a run and see the new guy come in with one, two guys on and maybe one more out, whereas a flyball guy like Soriano's going to get Ks and flyballs, and with Cameron-Ichiro, it's unlikely that runner comes around to score even if you give up a cheap single or a walk.

    Man on first, tie ballgame, one out, Nelson in. The next three Padres:

      	
                               v. LHP	  v. RHP 	
                            OBP	SLG	OBP	SLG 
    Matthews Jr. - B	.364	.516	.258	.281 
    Nady         - R	.382	.449	.307	.394 
    Bennett      - R	.143	.196	.288	.292 
     

    I'd bet these guys were dying for Rhodes to be left in. Nelson looks like a good move here: it's a good bet he turns these two into outs, and Bochy's in trouble if he pinch-hits for both of them, because then someone has to play the second corner. He sits tight again.

    Matthews flies out (ball, ball, ball, strike, strike, fly out)...Nelson's not looking good.
    Nady singles (first pitch). Men on first and second, two outs, tie game.
    Bochy goes for it: he senses weakness in Nelson, knows Melvin's forgotten Soriano and won't pitch White. He's going to throw everything he can into winning right now.
    Hansen hits for Bennett. Ball, ball, strike, ball, strike, ball. Bases loaded.
    Lockhart hits for Mendez. Strike, strike (Nelson's back, yay!), ball, ball, ball (uh-oh), single. Two runs score.

    Nelson finally gets the last out, striking out Kotsay.

    It's not over though: down by two, facing righty Rod Beck, Melvin has a chance to pinch-hit for the right-handed, awful Dan Wilson, and picks lefty John Mabry, who's sort of his best option, I guess. Mabry strikes out, and Melvin lets the rest of the game play itself out: Ichiro lines out, Guillen walks, and Boone strikes out.

    There's not much room for pinch-hitting with the top of the order up like that.

    What's most interesting about this game, though, is that no matter how you look at it, you see another Melvin error: If he'd played lefty/righty matchups rigidly as he's done through the season, things play out differently (not better, necessarily, though it's hard to imagine how they'd have been worse). If he'd been much more flexible, using Soriano early, Soriano takes him deeper into the game, maybe even into the 9th inning, where he could try to finish off the game or force Bochy to burn his pinch-hitters up front, limiting the damage they could inflict later. Or...I'll quit now.

    Melvin somehow managed to get through the game, sort of follow his heart and his head, use every reliever he remembers he has, and still blow a four-run lead. I hope he's a quick learner, because I don't know how many of these games I can take.

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