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April 7, 2012

Inside The Park Blog

Davey's A & B Bullpen

by Bradford Doolittle

Yes, there is a big yellow tube that says, "You know you love it" on it, located in front of the new Cubs-owned merchandise mart. That's what the club has done with the southern part of the McDonald's lot across Clark Street from Wrigley Field. The Ricketts family purchased the property over the winter and pledged to do great things with it. If that means getting rid of that infernal McDonald's, I'll consider it progress.

There's no way to seque from that outburst, so I'll just blurt this out: Davey Johnson gave a long explanation of his philosophy on bullpen usage before the game. It was really interesting, if a bit inscrutable. I don't intend to always insert big blocks of quotes in this blog, but I don't see any way around it in this case. I'm hoping you guys actually make more sense of it than I have been able to.

Basically, Johnson says that he has always divided his bullpen into two groups, A and B. The group he uses alternates by the day with only the closer remaining constant. That is except for this season because he's designated Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge as A and B closers. I'm not sure which is which, or which is better. That's only part of my confusion.

I'll let Davey take if from here:

"I've done it my whole career," Johnson said. "I don't see any other way, if you're handling arms at a very high level, than that the ideal situation is pitch, day off, pitch. I won't give examples, but if you go with your main guys every time you're tied or up, they're gonna run out of gas halfway through the season. So you have to have confidence in the other side of your bullpen.

"Early on, young pitching coaches didn't understand it. One pitching coach I had for the USA in the Olympics understood, guy named Marcel Lachemann. I told him that I like to divide the bullpens and he said, 'Oh you do. That's interesting.' So I said you go ahead and divide it but I normally divide them myself.

"What you try to do is have balance on both sides between the lefty and righty, then you have your closer, then you have your backup closer. Obviously it's become more of an issue this year because I have Rodriguez and I also have Brad Lidge closing. So now you guys, all of a sudden after 27 years of me managing, you have questions about A and B because I have A and B closers."

Johnson is one of the more analytical managers of all time and it's great to be able to cover him more than a decade after it seemed like he had led his last big-league team. The Nationals were in town last year to play the White Sox right after Jim Riggleman decided to walk away. Johnson was moved over from his advisory/developmental role to return to the dugout, but he didn't make it to Chicago that weekend. So this is my first experience in dealing with him first hand. I don't know if he's starting to channel a little bit of Casey Stengel in his old age, but he definitely now has a tendency to talk himself into feedback loops.

The concept of dividing up the pen in this manner doesn't seem too complicated, or at least it didn't until he cited an example from his early days of leading the great Mets teams of the mid-1980s:

"A prime example was my first year managing in the big leagues in 1984," Johnson said. "We were 18 games over .500. We were outscored by the opposition by 18 runs. If we didn't have a lead, I went to the lesser side of our pen. If we had a lead, I went to my stronger side and so we held onto those games. We might have gotten beat more and more when we were behind. When we got better, we went from 90 wins to 98. When it really got good, we won 108, and they were strong at the end of the season. It's very important you handle your bullpen properly if you're going to win games."

Isn't this the way every manager runs his bullpen? You use your top-shelf guys to preserve leads and ties and the other guys to, hopefully, keep the damage to a minimum if the starting pitcher has faltered. By the way, just to fact-check Johnson, while he remembers correctly that his first Mets teams went from 90 to 98 to 108 wins, his first team was actually outscored by 24 runs. Still, that's a pretty good memory for a guy that has been around the game as long as he has.

Over the years, Johnson has hardly proven to be better than anyone else at beating Pythagoras. In his 12 full seasons as a big-league manager, his won-loss record has outperformed his run differential five times, and he's at plus-nine for his career. That 1984 team he alluded to was +12; the rest of his career is unremarkable. I'm not offering that as an evaluation of him as a manager, but only that if he has a better way to manager bullpens, it's not evident in the bottom line. (Or at least in this superficial look.)

In any event, it seems like the whole point of this kind of platooning would be to avoid designating a weak/strong half. When I think of A and B, I think back to junior high basketball and those unfortunate bastards that had to play on the 'B' team and wear the crappy uniforms. However, Johnson said that kind of distinction should not be applied to his current squad.

"I'm not saying my A is stronger than my B," Johnson said. "You're assuming that because of the example I gave you. I just gave you an example of how I can tweak it. But I like my bullpen. I think it's very well balanced. If you were paying attention in the spring, the last 10 days, you saw that I kind of divided them up and started using them more like I would during the year.

"When (Drew) Storen went down I started going with Matheus and Henry (Rodriguez) on one side, Matheus setting up and Rodriguez closing. The other side I had Clip and Lidge. You know why I divided them that way? One guy has a fastball/changeup, the other guy has a breaking ball. That's why I went with that."

So … if you want to read into all this, then Ryan Matheus and Henry Rodriguez would be B relievers -- the A contingent would have gone on Thursday -- while Tyler Clippard and Brad Lidge would be A-teamers. Well, Clippard indeed set up Lidge for a save on Thursday. On Saturday, Craig Stammen was pressed into duty because of Gio Gonzalez's short outing but later on Mattheus did pitch in advance of a successful Rodriguez save opportunity. However, Clippard pitched again. So color me confused. Well, I guess I shouldn't be. Clippard was only righty left in the bullpen at the time, and the Cubs started an all-righty lineup on Saturday. I guess the A and B plan is flexible enough to make for certain allowances.

Some other tidbits from the Cubs' second blown save in two games:

  • Before the game, the Cubs outrighted Luis Valbuena to Triple-A Iowa and placed Rodrigo Lopez on the roster as a long reliever. The move leaves the Cubs with a short bench and seven relievers. I hate that roster construction period, but especially so for a National League team.
  • Making things worse, six of those relievers are righties and first-year Cubs manager Dale Sveum apparently has little confidence in the lone lefty, James Russell. During Washington's five-run, eighth-inning rally,he did not have Russell warm up, only closer Carlos Marmol. As Kerry Wood worked himself into trouble, the only looming lefty bat for the Nationals was Adam LaRoche, who already had a homer and a single on the day. LaRoche has a career .735 OPS against lefties, while Russell has limited lefties to a .702 OPS. It's not overwhelming, but it's better than Wood against LaRoche. Not surprisingly, LaRoche singled off Wood, chasing him from the game, then Marmol came on and failed to retire any of the four batters he faced. Perhaps Sveum assumed that if he had brought in Russell, who gets hammered against righties, Johnson would go to one of his righty hitter from the bench -- Brett Carroll or Xavier Nady -- but I still don't understand why you don't at least get Russell up in the pen. Nevertheless, it was an offseason failure that the Cubs didn't find a stopgap lefty to take the place of the traded Sean Marshall.
  • The key at-bat of the game was Danny Espinosa's appearance against Wood in the eighth. With two outs and nobody on, Espinosa fouled off five pitches, then hit Wood's 10th pitch into the left-field bleachers to cut Chicago's lead to 4-3. The Cubs bullpen then proceeded to regurgitate a massive hairball.
  • Maybe it's the locker. Matt Garza moved his stuff down a couple of stalls in the Cubs' clubhouse and now occupies the prime corner spot that was the former home of Carlos Zambrano. Garza of course has also been known to lose his cool at times. On Saturday, he went absolutely ballistic in the dugout soon after he left a fastball over the middle of the plate that LaRoche hit for a two-run homer off the right-field foul pole in the fourth. It was a display worthy of Big Z. Overall, it was good outing for Garza, who was lifted after 91 pitches.

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

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