First off, I want to address the main criticism I’ve heard about my last article. As reader Dan wrote in the comment section:
“I’m really surprised that Rany missed Craig’s point, which many have already pointed out. The best use of the best reliever in your bullpen is not necessarily as a closer. Bring him in anytime in the last three innings when the scoring threat is greatest (men are on base, middle of the order, etc). Let him get out of that jam, and whether he gets three outs or stay[s] in for six, he got you out of the jam and you still have the lead. Worry about keeping a lead in the ninth when there is actually a lead in the ninth to worry about.”
I’ve seen a lot of comments like these, saying that it’s okay for Soria to come in to pitch the 7th inning in a key situation, because he doesn’t necessarily have to finish the game – once the crisis has passed, someone else can pitch the ninth.
I get this point, I really do. And I agree with it to some extent – in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have “closers”, we’d have “stoppers”, who are brought in to stop an opponent’s rally cold.
But the whole point of my article was that the way teams use their bullpens has evolved so drastically over the last 30 years that it’s a foolish utopian dream to argue that Trey Hillman should immediately jump back into the Dan Quisenberry model. Before we turn Joakim Soria into Quisenberry, I argued, let’s first turn him into Jeff Montgomery. Once the Royals see that Soria can handle that kind of role without the world ending, then we can talk about extending things further.
But to idea that the Royals should bring Soria in to pitch in the 7th and then come out of the game, letting someone else to pitch the 9th (and earn the save), is even more of a pipe dream than having him go 7 or 8 outs for the save. It’s simply never been done before. Never mind that the fans and media will absolutely revolt the first time Robinson Tejeda or Josh Rupe blows the 2-run lead in the 9th that Soria hands off to him. (This to me is actually a minor concern, because – for reasons I may get into in a future post – the media and fan base in Kansas City is probably more willing to accept sabermetric and other “unconventional” baseball ideas than anywhere else in America.)
Here’s a rough description of the four ways a team can use its closer, from the least efficient to the most efficient:
1) The Eckersley model: 9th-inning save situations only.
2) The Montgomery model: pitch the 9th, and sometimes the 8th, usually save situations but also in tie games.
3) The Quisenberry model: come in whenever the game is on the line, from the 6th inning on, and stay in to close out the game.
4) The Utopian model: come in to put out fires at any point in the game, then exit the game and let a lesser reliever pitch once the fire is out.
Currently, pretty much every team in baseball follows the first method; a few teams (including the Royals) will dabble with the second method. In my last article I argued for the Royals to whole-heartedly adopt Method #2, and worry about Method #3 later. The response has been “what about Method #4?” To which I can only say, “let’s get the Royals to embrace Method #2 first.” Sure, I’d love to see the Royals adopt Method #4 – but I’d also love to see them embrace the 4-man rotation, and carry just 10 pitchers, and build a platoon at a couple of positions, and clone George Brett. But step by step, guys.
Otto Von Bismarck once said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” I am trying to be political here, because I want to see the Royals (and every other team) use their best reliever more efficiently, and I’d rather push for a small change that’s possible than a large change that isn’t. I’m not saying that the people pushing for the Royals to use Soria in the Utopian model are wrong. They’re not. I’m not even saying that they’re wasting their time, because they’re not. As I’ve learned from reading Nate Silver, if nothing else, suggesting the Utopian model may help move the Overton Window, which may make a less extreme but still radical idea like using Soria for 6 outs become more palatable.
So by all means, let’s keep reminding the Royals that there’s a better way to use Soria. But let’s also temper our expectations. It took 30 years for teams to make a complete mess of the way they use their closers. It’s going to take time – and a lot of intermediate steps – to reverse the damage.
- Last night, Hillman brought Soria in to pitch the 9th in a tie game. This isn’t that notable – once the game goes into the 9th inning tied, it becomes impossible for the home team to have a save situation, so you have no choice but to use your closer in a tie game. Still, there are a lot of managers who would have waited at least until extra innings before bringing in their closer. Then, after Soria worked a rather efficient 9th inning with just 12 pitches, Hillman let him throw the 10th as well. If Yuniesky Betancourt had ever bothered to learn that you don’t actually have to swing at every pitch, Hillman might have been rewarded for his willingness to defy conventional wisdom with a victory. (In the bottom of the 10th, with the winning run on third and one out, Betancourt saw four pitches. None of them were in the strike zone, yet he swung at three of them, and struck out.)
The bullpen remains a cluster**** of the highest order, but I stand by my position that Hillman is mostly an innocent bystander in all this. It’s hard for any manager to look smart when he has exactly one reliable reliever. Hillman deserves better than to be scapegoated because his GM has made such a mess of things.
- Speaking of Dayton Moore and his mess, Moore turned the impressive trick of dumping Luis Mendoza without actually improving the bullpen. Mendoza was replaced with Bruce Chen, and while Chen pitched poorly for the Royals last season, his career ERA (4.71) is barely half that of Mendoza (8.43). Moreover, in three starts for Omaha he had allowed just 13 hits in 21 innings, with 20 strikeouts against just 5 walks. Chen is one of those Quadruple-A guys who always dominates in Triple-A but struggles in the majors, so I’m not expecting much from him, but he’s better than Mendoza.
Unfortunately, Moore also released Juan Cruz and replaced him with Brad Thompson. This is mystifying. I understand that Cruz has been an unbridled failure with the Royals, and it’s impressive that Moore was willing to accept the sunk cost of his contract (and that David Glass let him). But at least Cruz has a history of success, something Thompson really doesn’t. Cruz went on the DL late last year, and based on the results I suspect he was pitching hurt for most of the season. After striking out 33% of the batters he faced in 2007-2008, he struck out just 17% of opposing batters last year.
This year, he was ridiculously ineffective with men on base (he allowed all 6 runners he inherited to score), but he also struck out 7 of the 28 batters he faced. There was at least a glimmer of hope there. I don’t see how, in just 5.1 innings of work, he showed the Royals enough to release him – particularly when they’re keeping Kyle Farnsworth, who’s been almost exactly as ineffective. (Farnsworth has thrown 5.2 innings. Both pitchers have allowed 9 hits. Cruz walked four; Farnsworth has walked only two, but also hit two batters, and he’s given up a homer. And Farnsworth has only three strikeouts.)
In his place, the Royals have brought up Thompson, who had a 4.84 ERA for the Cardinals last year, and is an extreme finesse pitcher who struck out just 34 batters in 80 innings. Given how bad the team’s defense still is – as put on vivid display each of the last few nights – I’m not sure a pitcher who’s primary skill is pitching to contact is going to be any better than Cruz.
The Royals have a wealth of relief options in the minors, from the just-waiting-for-his-turn Carlos Rosa to the nearly-ready Blake Wood to the always-forgotten Chris Hayes to some intriguing Double-A options like Blaine Hardy and Federico Castaneda. None of these guys are sure things; they’re all still better than recycling yet another failed major league pitcher.
- Just to make it clear how much the bullpen has hurt the Royals, consider this: if games ended after six innings, the Royals would be 8-6 with 3 ties. Instead, they’re 6-11. Get this: the Royals have a losing record when leading after six innings. In the eight games they’ve led after six, they’re 3-5.
The 7th inning is the culprit. Thanks to Soria, the Royals have won all 5 games they’ve had a lead going into the 9th. And they’ve only lost 1 game where they had a lead entering the 8th. But between the beginning and the end of the 7th, the Royals go from 8-6 with 3 ties to 6-10 with 1 tie.
- What is most amazing to me about the pitching staff this season is that, despite a middle relief corps that is historically inept, no one has even suggested that one possible solution might be to let the starting pitchers work a little deeper into the game.
The Royals have played 17 games so far, and not once has their starter thrown even 110 pitches. Only six times has the starter thrown 100 pitches. Neither Kyle Davies nor Brian Bannister has thrown 100 pitches yet.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, necessarily – the usage of starting pitchers today is much more sane than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I’m just saying that if you had told me back in 1998, when I first invented Pitcher Abuse Points because Jim Leyland was letting Jesus Sanchez throw 146 pitches and Livan Hernandez throw 153 pitches and Tony Muser was grinding Jose Rosado’s arm into dust, that a scant 12 years later a team would rather lose game after game in the 7th inning than let its starting pitchers (none of whom are younger than 26, mind you) throw even 110 pitches…well, let’s just say I would have been surprised.
The starting pitchers have averaged 5.82 innings per start this year; even if you take Gil Meche out of the equation, it’s 6.17 innings per start. The Royals’ starter has completed the 7th inning just twice all season. The Royals could easily let their starters get another out or two – allowing them to complete the 7th more regularly – without letting them exceed 115 or 120 pitches. For pitchers with mature arms (i.e. older than 25), I don’t really get concerned with their pitch counts until they approach 120.
It’s clear the Royals don’t have a reliever capable of protecting leads in the 7th. Maybe the solution is to see if their starters are capable of protecting leads in the 7th.