October 8, 2004
New Ways to Spell Relief
A while back, I did something I called The Jack Morris Project, which largely entailed reading years upon years of boxscores from the right-hander's career, stretching back to 1977.
One of the amazing things for me in doing the research was seeing the evolution of relief pitching over the course of Morris' 18 years in the majors. When he broke into the game, it wasn't uncommon to see relievers come in and pitch three, four, up to seven innings at a clip. Outings of less than an inning were rare, and teams brought in their best relievers in all kinds of situations, often having them pitch when trailing or for three or four innings at once.
Nominal innovators such as Herman Franks and Tony La Russa changed all that, reducing the workload on their best relievers throughout the late '70s and 1980s. We've evolved, if you can call it that, to a situation where teams routinely use inferior pitchers in high-leverage situations that don't meet the qualifications for a save. Moreover, teams pay more for and get less from their best relievers than at any time in the game's history.
It seems like every October, though, teams revert back to a time when they asked a lot of their best bullpen arms, treating them not as closers, but as firemen.
That trend peaked yesterday afternoon in Atlanta. In the eighth inning, both the Braves and the Astros had their best relievers in the game, and in very non-standard situations. John Smoltz entered the game to start the eighth with his team trailing 2-1. Individually, those two situations--using the closer to start the eighth and while trailing--are rare. Using an ace reliever when both are in effect has generally been saved for the most extreme situations. The Yankees, for example, used Mariano Rivera for the last two innings of World Series Game Six last year in an attempt to keep a two-run deficit right there and make a comeback against Josh Beckett possible. Overall, it's a rarely-used strategy.
The Astros' Phil Garner had been even more daring. With one out in the bottom of the seventh, he called upon his closer, Brad Lidge, to pitch with the tying run on first base and one out, his Astros clinging to a 2-1 lead. It was Garner's Jack McKeon moment, the postseason rookie's indication that while he'd never been here before, he understood the idea that playoff games weren't to be managed in the same way as a June tilt with the Pirates. While using your top reliever in the eighth inning has become de rigeur in October, bringing him in to get more than six outs is more rare than a direct answer to a debate question.
Note the term "top reliever." We are talking about perceived value, or more accurately, how the manager perceives his pitchers' roles. That the Angels used Francisco Rodriguez or Brendan Donnelly as early as the sixth inning in 2002 isn't quite the same as Garner going to Lidge, because it was Troy Percival who was thought of as the guy on that team.
Over the past decade, there have been some cases of a team leader in saves, or someone who had the closer role for part of a season, making an early appearance. Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield each had 15 saves for the '99 Red Sox, who passed the closer's role around after Tom Gordon was hurt in May. The team didn't have a defined closer headed into the postseason, and both those guys pitched in middle and long relief, coming in as early as the second inning. That same off-season, John Franco entered a Mets playoff game in the seventh inning. Although he had 19 saves, he wasn't the closer in October: Armando Benitez was.
The last clear closer for a playoff team to come in before the eighth inning was Norm Charlton. Charlton had just 14 saves, but all of them came in the season's last two months. In the '95 Division Series, Charlton made two seventh-inning appearances, throwing four innings in Game Two of that series (Yankee closer John Wetteland added 3 1/3 innings in the same game).
The last time a pitcher with at least 20 saves entered a postseason game before the eighth inning was in Game Five of the 1993 ALCS. Roberto Hernandez, with 45 saves that year, came in with one out in the seventh with the Sox trailing 4-1 in a game they would eventually lose 5-3.
So Garner wasn't just going against the book, but against a decade of examples that said teams don't use their best relief pitchers in the seventh inning. Now, it didn't work out--while Lidge escaped the seventh, he allowed the tying run in the eighth--but the thinking behind the decision, to get the best pitcher into the toughest spot, marks Garner as more than just the guy who happened to not be Jimy Williams. Maybe the Astros win this series, maybe they don't, but Garner's stock went up a lot yesterday.
The Braves certainly tried to help Lidge along. The first five batters he faced went strikeout, single, walk, single, double. Thanks to the Braves running into outs, that sequence garnered them just one run.
The first baserunner kill provided an interesting contrast with how Wednesday night's game in New York ended. With two outs and Rafael Furcal on third base, Lidge bounced a pitch that got away from Raul Chavez. Furcal hesitated, then decided to come home; he was out by five feet, or about what he lost in making up his mind, ending the inning.
Remember that the Yankees won Game Two of their Division Series matchup when Derek Jeter didn't hesitate, allowing him to tag up and score from third on a shallow line drive to right field. Jacque Jones didn't make the play (nor, it should be said, did Matt LeCroy or Pat Borders), but Jeter didn't provide any extra opportunity. Furcal created an opening for Chavez and Lidge, and they took it.
In the eighth inning, J.D. Drew wasted a leadoff single by getting caught trying to steal second base with Chipper Jones at the plate and no one out. Jones has the injured hand and is completing his worst season since 1995, but that's still an inexcusable decision. You have to give him a chance to move you around, especially with no one out.
The Braves ended up winning in the 11th inning when Furcal atoned with a two-run homer off of Dan Miceli that tied the series. They blew a lot of opportunities in Game Two--as they had against Roger Clemens in Game One--but salvaging a win allows them to go to Houston with a chance to end the series by beating the back end of the Astros rotation.
Blown opportunities didn't turn out so well for the Dodgers, who might have scored 11 runs in the first four innings last night with some better distribution of their actions. As it was, though, they hit three solo home runs while stranding seven runners in the first four innings.
Sometimes, you can see the moment when a dream dies. With the Dodgers having tied the game at three in the fourth, and having chased Jason Marquis from the mound, they were one pitch away from taking the lead and bringing Adrian Beltre to the plate. In relief of Marquis, Cal Eldred had walked consecutive batters and gone to a 3-0 count on Steve Finley with the bases loaded.
Eldred got a fastball over for a strike, with Finley taking all the way. Finley then overswung at the 3-1 fastball, perhaps the key moment in the series. He then popped up a well-placed heater on the 3-2 pitch, ending the threat. The Cardinals picked up three runs in the bottom of the fifth, the Dodgers were shut out the rest of the way, and the series likely came to an end.
I thought there might be an upset to be had here, but the Cardinals aren't having an off week at the plate. It's a great offensive team when everyone's playing as they normally do. When Mike Matheny mixes in some power, it gets out of hand. The Dodgers aren't dead yet; they've been dangerous at home, and all their good relievers will be well-rested for the weekend. It's just going to be hard to beat the Cardinals three straight times.
I wanted to follow up on something from yesterday's column. A number of readers pointed out that Justin Morneau's single came off of Mariano Rivera, not Tom Gordon. I knew this, just screwed up the copy. I mention that I knew it because the hit reminded me for all the world of the single by Luis Gonzalez that ended the 2001 World Series, coincidentally the last time Rivera had blown a postseason save.
Morneau's ball was hit higher and went farther, but the resemblance was eerie.
One last thing: I've been remiss in not mentioning that I'm going to get to be a part of something pretty cool for the third straight year. Ron Shandler has invited me to be be a panelist at Baseball HQ's First Pitch Arizona, the fantasy baseball think tank held in conjunction with the Arizona Fall League in Phoenix.
For all the details, check the event Web site. It's a great weekend, a chance to watch AFL prospects and talk baseball with Shandler, John Sickels, Baseball America's Jim Callis and a bevy of fantasy baseball experts. Because of the timing of the event this year, it might also be the nation's best World Series party: World Series Games Six and Seven are scheduled for the Saturday and Sunday of the gathering.