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June 7, 2013
What You Need to Know
The Great Closer Debate
The Thursday Takeaway
Last night, we learned that Rangers manager Ron Washington graduated from the same school of bullpen management as his contemporary in Atlanta. The scenarios were different—Gonzalez eschewed his usual set-up men to go with a mop-up man in the bottom of the seventh inning; Washington forewent his closer to go with a scuffling middle reliever in the bottom of the ninth—but the results and the thought processes that led up to them were the same.
The Rangers and Red Sox were tied, 3-3, heading into the home half of the ninth, in a game in which Texas starter Derek Holland needed 115 pitches to complete six innings. Holland’s inefficiency forced Washington to use his set-up men early, and, to Washington’s credit, he obliged. Robbie Ross and Jason Frasor combined to blow a one-run lead in the seventh inning, but at least the Rangers had their most trustworthy pitchers on the mound in their bid to bridge the gap between Holland and closer Joe Nathan. Washington did his job; Ross and Frasor did not do theirs.
But after Tanner Scheppers worked a clean eighth and former Ranger Koji Uehara matched his goose egg in the top of the ninth, Washington encountered a conundrum in which the old-school philosophy on closer usage proved fatal. He revealed to Fort Worth Star-Telegram beat writer Jeff Wilson that left-hander Neal Cotts was unavailable, a consideration that left Washington with three choices: Michael Kirkman, Ross Wolf, or Nathan.
Either through his own understanding of Washington’s approach to bullpen management or by way of an unquoted statement from the manager, Wilson wrote in his blog post, “road teams typically don't use their closers in tie games.” The note was made in passing, as a lead-in to a quote from Washington explaining his decision between Kirkman and Wolf, but it ought to have been the post’s lede.
The Red Sox had the two, three, and four hitters in their order due to begin the last of the ninth, spots occupied by Jonny Gomes, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz. Gomes already had three hits on the day, and his career platoon split (.336 TAv versus lefties, .259 versus righties) should have set off the “bring in a right-hander” alarm in Washington’s mind. The presence of Pedroia, whose split (.313/.281) is not as wide, but who nonetheless prefers to face left-handed opponents, ought to have reinforced that alarm. And with a red-hot Ortiz following the two righties, the importance of retiring the first two batters in the inning, and of having the best-available reliever on the mound to face the third, could not have been overstated.
Nonetheless, Washington’s reasoning, perhaps owing to the still-early stage of the season, was different.
“Kirkman was the most rested. He was the guy."
Washington’s aversion to keeping Scheppers in the game was understandable: The second-year righty had thrown 18 pitches on Wednesday and 16 more in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game, so fatigue could have become a factor. His unwillingness to use Wolf, a right-hander who coughed up two runs in the Red Sox’ 17-5 series-opening rout, was defensible—albeit not by the logic that Washington provided, because Wolf’s appearance on Tuesday marked his first trip to the mound in more than a week.
At any rate, all of that might have been well and good if Washington had been open to the idea of sending Nathan to the hill in a non-save situation on the road. With the state of his arms weighing on his mind, Washington had two options: use Nathan, or use Kirkman, who had permitted at least one run in 11 of his 24 games, who had been scored upon in each of his last two appearances, whose 6.95 ERA was the worst among all qualifying American League relievers, and who would be at a severe platoon disadvantage against each of the first two hitters preparing to dig in against him.
Despite all of those drawbacks, all of those warnings that the game might end before his offense could have another crack at creating a save opportunity for Nathan, all of those reasons to buck the bullpen-management guide to which he generally subscribes, Washington made the call for Kirkman.
The beating that ensued could not have been more striking.
Gomes drilled the first pitch he saw from Kirkman past center fielder Leonys Martin for a leadoff double. With an open base, the lefty-swinging Ortiz on deck, and the winning run on second, Kirkman intentionally walked Pedroia. Then, Ortiz smacked Kirkman’s second “real” pitch of the outing into the visitors’ bullpen for a three-run homer, his first walk-off hit since July 31, 2010.
Kirkman, whose ERA ballooned to 8.18, told reporters that he threw the pitch he wanted to Ortiz. He admitted that his confidence was wavering with each failed assignment. And his pitching coach, Mike Maddux, acknowledged that Kirkman would need to “fight through” the rut, something best done in lower-leverage situations than the one into which he was thrown on Thursday night.
Alas, Kirkman was the guy.
And if Washington’s post-game comments are any indication, no lesson was learned. If the exact same scenario—in terms of available pitchers, the inning and score, the batters due up, and all other considerations—were to arise in the future, Kirkman would be the guy again.
Matchup of the Day
Braun’s ownage of left-handed pitchers stretches far beyond the Scott Olsens of the world; he has punished many a long-term rotation fixture, too. Against Wandy Rodriguez, he is 18-for-47 with 12 extra-base hits. Against Madison Bumgarner, he is 6-for-17 with four of them. Even Johan Santana, one of the best southpaws in the league at containing right-handed sluggers thanks to his world-class changeup, has met Braun’s wrath to the tune of seven hits in 16 at-bats.
As you might expect from that résumé, there aren’t many holes in Braun’s swing that left-handers can reliably exploit.
Outside, inside, high, low—Braun has all of them covered, and his success extends beyond the boundaries of the strike zone in most directions. Braun, compared to many of his fellow right-handed sluggers—such as Miguel Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez—shows a well-trained eye on soft stuff below the knees, an element that contributes to his dominance, both by upping his walk rate and by increasing the likelihood that the pitcher will be forced to throw something that Braun is more apt to punish.
Cliff Lee, who gets the ball for the Phillies in game two of four at Miller Park, is among the many lefties that have incurred damage from Braun’s bat. The 29-year-old Braun is 9-for-19 lifetime against Lee, with a double and three home runs. He has struck out thrice in the 19 plate appearances and never walked, though the latter is unsurprising given Lee’s penchant for attacking the zone.
The three homers, all of which came last year, were hit on a first-pitch, get-me-over slider, a backed-up, knee-high changeup, and a hands-high, inside-corner cutter, epitomizing the broad reach of Braun’s swing. Lee has had some success in getting Braun to chase hard stuff above the zone—recording strikeouts with this cutter in their first-ever meeting and this sinker in an at-bat immediately following Braun’s second long ball on August 16 of last year—so he may attempt to climb the ladder again if he is able to reach a two-strike count.
The Phillies have emerged victorious in each of Lee’s last six assignments, enabling the 34-year-old to collect five wins since May 6, one fewer than he notched during all of last year. Lee’s velocity, a source of modest concern early in the season when it decreased to 90 mph from last year’s range of 91-92, is now back to its typical range, adding a bit of oomph to his already excellent command and control. His 11-strikeout effort versus the Brewers on June 2 provided ample evidence that Cliff Lee is still Cliff Lee, and he’ll try to deliver a worthy encore to that performance tonight (8:10 p.m. ET).
What to Watch for This Weekend