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May 11, 2006

Prospectus Today

Pleasantly Surprised

by Joe Sheehan

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John Gibbons might be onto something.

Gibbons called on closer B.J. Ryan with one out and the tying run at the plate in the eighth inning of last night's game against the A's. Ryan got the final five outs for his eighth save, striking out three in the ninth inning.

I took particular note of the Ryan's appearance, because it came on the heels of my piece yesterday that again called for a more aggressive approach in using top relief pitchers. As a matter of fact, Gibbons stands out from the pack as far as his willingness to do that. Yesterday's five-out save was Ryan's third of at least that length this season, on the heels of another Sunday and a six-out save on April 28 against the Yankees. To give you an idea of how unusual this is, just two other established closers have saves of that length this season (Brad Lidge and Chris Reitsma, each with one).

This may not be a fluke. Keith Woolner checked it out and found that last year, Gibbons' used his closer, Miguel Batista, for more five-out or longer saves than any other manager in the game. While many notable closers had at least one appearance of this length, Batista had four, all from June 22 onward. So in the last 125 games or so, Gibbons has used his closer to get at least a five-out save seven times. That seems like a small number, but it's more often than any other two managers have done in that timeframe.

Some of this is circumstance: the Jays have a lot of relievers on the roster, but very few who have been pitching well enough to be trusted in high-leverage situations. Last year's bullpen was even worse. But innovation comes at the intersection of circumstance and original thought. Gibbons went to Batista in non-traditional closing situations last year because Batista was his best reliever. It helped that Batista was coming off being a starter for a few years, which made it more likely that he could handle the higher workload. Batista finished the season with 31 saves in 74 2/3 innings, the latter figure fourth among pitchers with at least 30 saves.

Using Ryan aggressively may make even more sense than using Batista that way. He's a strikeout pitcher--good for getting out of jams--who is effective against right-handed hitters. Batista didn't have a comparable strikeout rate and was generally susceptible to left-handed batters. Ryan, of course, is in the first season of a five-year contract that pays him nearly $10 million a year. That's not Gibbons' concern, but I've argued that if a team is going to pay a reliever that much money, you need to make sure he's getting the opportunity to have a high impact on your season. Gibbons' use of Ryan has done that.

Will Gibbons continue using Ryan this way? I think, like all managers, he'd prefer to have a stable bullpen. The inability of Jays' starters outside of Roy Halladay to work deep into games has prevented this, over and above the ineffectiveness of everyone but Ryan and Justin Speier. As long as he's willing to maximize his use of Ryan--who is fourth among closers with 16 2/3 innings pitched--he can work around these problems and give the Jays a leg up on the competition late in games.

Gibbons' use of Ryan stands out because it's both different and likely to have a positive effect on his team's chances of success. I was talking about managers with someone yesterday, and it occurred to me how few good ones there are today. The position of manager seems to have become primarily about hewing as close to the line of established practices as possible, while making sure you don't make anyone mad. It's a job that people strive to keep, rather than to do. (I think I owe Aaron Sorkin a dollar for that.)

There are good managers out there. Mike Scioscia's use of his bullpen, willingness to give significant roles to unproven players, and implementation of an offensive approach built on contact and baserunning have been significant parts of the Angels' run of success. I can't say I agree with all the things Tony La Russa has done, but there's very clearly a mind at work there. You can see where Terry Francona's been willing to innovate (Kevin Youkilis leadoff, for example), or acknowledge Bobby Cox's ability to break in young players.

But beyond a few examples, what characteristics do the vast majority of managers have? There's virtually no innovation coming from the dugout any longer. What does Buddy Bell do that makes him qualified for his job? How does Eric Wedge or Mike Hargrove or Charlie Manuel or Bruce Bochy make the team better, add value to the organization in a way that shows up in the win column?

I don't mean to single out these guys. My argument isn't that they're bad managers, it's that the standards for what makes a good or bad one aren't clear beyond, "winning good, losing bad." That's not the worst evaluation tactic, but the confounding effects of varying talent levels--I'm looking at you, Mr. Baker--can muddle the issue.

So when a John Gibbons does something that his peers don't do, it stands out, because so few managers take that kind of risk. Hopefully Gibbons will continue to stretch B.J. Ryan out, not just because it's best for the Jays, but because his willingness to do something different should be rewarded and emulated.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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