July 5, 2007
Lining Up Your Ducks
Conceding that I'm a broken record on the topic of the closer myth, does anyone out there see any justification for the how the Indians ran their bullpen in Tuesday night's win over the Tigers? This was the first game of a critical series for the Tribe, who came in with a slim two-game lead in the AL Central. It is increasingly likely that the Central runner-up will snag the league's wild-card slot, but the more wins you rack up in June, the fewer you have to have in September. There are no unimportant games, and no reason to treat this series lightly.
Thanks to a Ben Francisco homer in the eighth, the Indians went into the ninth tied at four. Rafael Betancourt pitched his second inning, retiring the Tigers 1-2-3, the back end of six straight outs he recorded in a two-inning outing. The Indians did not score in the top of the tenth, and with Betancourt at 27 pitches and now being clocked by the second-base umpire, Eric Wedge went to his bullpen. The Tigers had the top of their order coming up in a tie game, so it would seem like Wedge would want to go to his best relief option, Joe Borowski.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tom Mastny. (Who?) Mastny is a 26-year-old right-hander who entered the game with an ERA of 5.23, having allowed 18 walks in 31 innings. He'd been a disaster in June: nine innings, 11 runs, 13 walks, seven strikeouts. Whatever you think of Joe Borowski-and let's face it, Borowski isn't anything special at all, an average, average-plus reliever who picked up the scarlet "C" while pitching for the Cubs in 2003-the Indians have acted as if he's the pitcher they want on the mound in the most critical situations. Mastny may be the only right-hander in that pen that Borowski is clearly better than. Moreover, the Tigers were sending the top of their batting order to the plate, a group that has driven one of the best offenses in the league all year long. To counter, Eric Wedge sent one of his worst pitchers to the mound in the tenth inning of a tie game against the top of one of the best lineups in the league.
Mastny gave up about 0.999 runs in the bottom of the tenth, allowing singles to Placido Polanco and Gary Sheffield, wild pitching Polanco to third, and then loading the bases with an intentional walk before getting Carlos Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez out. Rodriguez just missed a game-winning grand slam before tapping out to end the inning. Casey Blake homered in the 11th to give the Tribe a 5-4 lead and allow Wedge to push the next button, bringing in Borowski for the save against the Tigers' 7-8-9 hitters.
That difference-using the inferior reliever against the better hitters-is probably my biggest objection to the closer myth. (Deciding that massive platoon differentials don't matter in the ninth inning is close behind.) Every day, across the game, you see this sequence. A team's second- or third-best reliever is asked to get out the opposition's best hitters in the seventh or eighth inning, so that the nominal best reliever can cruise through the ninth against the bottom of the lineup. There's just no way the "pressure" of protecting a ninth-inning lead can be that much greater than the "pressure" of pitching earlier that it outweighs the differences in the caliber of hitter being faced.
For some teams, it doesn't matter that much. The Angels have two shutdown relievers in Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields, so they don't give up much by having Shields pitch the eighth. It's still not the optimal use of the talent on hand, but it's not damaging. The Padres, with good relievers coming out of their ears, are in a similar situation. The Indians, by dint of not identifying their best pitchers correctly, end up with their best guy pitching the seventh and/or eighth (Betancourt) with the saves going to their second-, or perhaps third-best, guy.
Some bullpens spend the year in flux, making it hard to identify their best reliever. But for teams whose closer really is their best pitcher, and whose closer is that much better than the other relievers, silliness occurs. Last Sunday, Manny Acta asked Jon Rauch to get through Freddy Sanchez, Xavier Nady, and Jason Bay with a one-run lead in the eighth, clearing the way for Chad Cordero to manhandle Adam LaRoche, Jose Castillo, and Ronny Paulino in the ninth for the save. A significant number of Mariano Rivera's appearances this season fit this bill, and more would if Joe Torre hadn't been pretty good about bringing Rivera in for four- and five-out saves as needed.
Keep in mind that the relievers sometimes line up correctly as a matter of course, where the eighth-inning pitcher faces the bottom of the order and the closer gets the top or middle. These are coincidental, however, not part of any plan. Managers don't pay any attention to who's coming to the plate in the eighth and ninth, and that's my objection. The model for reliever usage simply has to begin incorporating more than the save rule to maximize the efficiency of bullpens. Until this happens, we're going to see pitchers like Tom Mastny put into situations they have no business being in, while highly-paid pitchers with labels to match watch and wait for their chance to do a much easier job.