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September 20, 2007

Prospectus Today

Where Was Coco?

by Joe Sheehan

Please, please, please tell me you watched the end of the Brewers-Astros game tonite. How Ned Yost could use SEVEN pitchers in a 10-inning game, not one of them being Francisco Cordero, is beyond me. These included Chris Spurling, a September callup in his fifth game of the year, and to cap it all off, a completely lost Matt Wise, who has been horrible post All-Star break/post Pedro Lopez beanball. This was an absolutely winnable game that the Brewers really needed (especially with the Cubs pulling out a dramatic win), and Yost's bullpen management was simply atrocious. Love your stuff buddy...keep up the good work!!
--Jerod Livengood

---

"Ned Yost can't manage/can't manage his bullpen" has been an ongoing theme in my inbox this year, just behind "you're a moron" and just ahead of "you hate the Yankees." There's a vocal subset of Brewers fans who believe that Yost, who is running the first contending Brewers team since 1992, has hamstrung the team with his personnel usage throughout the season, especially in how he's handling the bullpen. Last night's game, as Jerod points out, was just the latest in a string of data points supporting the argument.

Cut to the game. For the first eight innings, there wasn't much to complain about. Yost went first to Scott Linebrink, then Brian Shouse and Derrick Turnbow, trying to protect a one-run lead and then a tied game in the seventh and eighth innings. This is consistent with his usage patterns, and defensible based on the pitchers and their performances this season. Shouse would allow a baserunner, Yost would put another on by calling for an intentional pass, and then the oft-wild Turnbow would allow them to score. You could make an argument that Cordero should have been charged with the task of escaping the eighth inning rather than the control-challenged righty, but I wouldn't devote a column to that decision.

No, it was what came after that earns Yost some deserved opprobrium. The Brewers tied the game on a Rickie Weeks' two-run homer (Weeks, by the way, has been about the best player in the NL since his recall on August 10), right around the time the Cubs locked up their win over the Reds in Chicago. The Brewers would have to win this game to remain tied for first in the NL Central. It was, arguably, their most important game since October of 1992, when they were eliminated from the AL East race on the next-to-last day of the season.

To commemorate this moment, Ned Yost turned to Chris Spurling. Spurling is a 30-year-old righty with a career ERA of 4.31 in 213 innings. He'd been throwing mostly low-leverage relief for the Brewers this year, when not spending time in Triple-A. Spurling has the lowest Leverage score of any Brewers' reliever with at least 20 innings pitched. In four appearances since his recall, he'd been used as someone to finish a game the Brewers were well out of. Since the All-Star break, Spurling had been brought into just four games in which the difference in score was fewer than three runs. He is, if not the last man in the bullpen, at least readily defined as a low-leverage replacement-level pitcher.

If I wanted to be generous, I might actually let Yost slide on this call. After all, the Astros would be sending up the bottom of their lineup in the ninth. I've written in the past that teams should pay more attention to this kind of consideration when choosing which relievers they use, generally in the context of eighth inning versus ninth inning. You could argue that Yost was trying to squeeze three outs out of his sixth reliever in a situation where he was likely to get them. As it turned out, Spurling needed to be rescued by rookie Mitch Stetter-another low-leverage reliever who was being asked to pitch in the highest high-pressure situation of his life-who came on to retire Josh Anderson and end the inning.

The Brewers went down 1-2-3 in the tenth. The Astros had the middle of their lineup due up in the bottom of the inning. At this point, Yost made a series of mistakes. With Lidge leading off the inning for the Astros, Yost could have sent Stetter to the mound, gotten Cecil Cooper to commit to a pinch-hitter, then made a change accordingly, gaining a platoon advantage or forcing Cooper to use multiple players. Instead, he double-switched Matt Wise into the game, which upgraded his outfield defense, but handed a tactical advantage to Cooper. The double-switch wasn't the problem, but the timing was. It's possible that Orlando Palmeiro would have been sent up regardless, at which point you could take the platoon advantage (Stetter is left-handed) and then keep the lefty in the game to face Lance Berkman, who has been a much worse hitter from the right side for his entire career. If Cooper sent up a right-handed batter instead of Palmeiro, he could still double-switch, or he could let Stetter face the righty-probably some non-threat like Eric Bruntlett-so that he would keep Berkman off of his good side. The risk is that you have slightly worse outfield defense for two batters. That's a tradeoff you have to make.

The more obvious option is throwing out all the tactical concerns and just using your best pitcher. Francisco Cordero is the Brewers closer, and by far their best right-handed reliever. He hadn't pitched since Sunday in Cincinnati, and in fact, had made just two appearances, throwing 44 pitches total, since September 8. Yost had his best reliever available, fully rested, in a game that his team had to win to keep pace, with the middle of the opponent's lineup coming up, with a clean double-switch opportunity available to him that would allow him to use Cordero for two innings…and he instead went to Matt Wise.

Yeah, maybe Brewers fans are on to something.

Once the third out was made in the top of the tenth, Yost could have gone in a number of directions. He could have forced the Astros to pinch-hit without the platoon advantage. He could have forced the Astros to burn a player. He could have ensured that Berkman batted from his less-dangerous right side. He could have passed on all of that and just used his best reliever.

He did none of those things, instead allowing Palmeiro and Berkman to bat against Wise with the platoon advantage. A walk and a single later, the Astros had two runners on with no one out, and the game was essentially over. Yost was so married to the idea that the closer pitches in save situations only that he reduced his team's chances of winning a game it absolutely had to have. If you can't recognize that "tied in the tenth inning, other team's best guys up, a half-game out of first place, 12 days left" is about the highest-leverage situation you're going to come across, and act accordingly, it's possible that you're not the best person for your job.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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