Conventional Wisdom and the Inflexible Bullpen

It’s the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 7 of the World Series. The score is tied. You’re the manager, and in your bullpen you have Joe McAwesome and Gas Can Gallo. Who do you bring out to pitch?

Just in case it wasn’t clear, if you give up a run, your season is over. So, this should not be a difficult decision, right?

If you watch baseball very long, you will see a situation where the manager has to make this decision, albeit usually not with such high stakes. But the outcome is almost always the same. The manager almost invariably will bring in anyone except his ostensible best reliever. This should make you mad whether or not you’re a fan of baseball because it’s common sense. You go with the guy who will give you the best chance to bat again. If you have to put in another pitcher at some point, then you’ll pick the best guy you have left at that time.

The most recent example of this, as of the time of this writing, was Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS. The Giants were ahead of the Cardinals 3 games to 1. It was the bottom of the 9th inning in a tie game. As a reminder, if the Cardinals give up a run, their season is over. Mike Matheny has a decision to make. His closer (ostensible best reliever) Trevor Rosenthal is available to pitch. Instead, though, he calls in Michael Wacha, I assume to the dismay of Cardinals fans everywhere. Wacha is a talented young pitcher, but he’s been injured this year and he hasn’t pitched in 3 weeks. To the surprise of presumably no one except Matheny, Wacha was rusty and had trouble commanding his pitches. He allowed a hit, induced a flyout, and walked the next batter on 4 pitches. Then he got behind the next batter, Travis Ishikawa, 2-0 before throwing a pitch that ended up in the front row of the seats high above right field.

When asked about it in light of the Cardinals’ loss, Matheny defended his decision, spouting the “conventional wisdom” that nearly every manager adheres to:

“We can’t bring [Rosenthal] in, in a tie-game situation. We’re on the road.”

Every time I hear this, I want to throw things. Not because of the outcome of the game (in fact, I was happy with that, in this case), but because of the perpetuation of this bad habit that probably costs teams more games than it wins. Russell A. Carleton recounts another instance of this happening in a game that I remember very well. My dad was in town and we were watching this game, and we were planning to go eat when the game was over. Except it didn’t end after 9 innings. Or 10. Or 11. We kept saying we’d go as soon as it was over, expecting it to end the next inning. But it didn’t. It ended up being an 18-inning marathon game, which the Blue Jays finally won in what was probably the most exasperating loss I watched all year. This particular game didn’t follow quite the same trajectory as the NLCS game I mentioned earlier, but still featured the same incidence of not using the best player available because of some hoary axiom that’s been passed down from manager to manager because, apparently, none of them see a problem with it.

There are instances that give me hope, though. Matthew Pouliot reminds us that the Royals made it out of the Wild Card game by the skin of their teeth, in spite of some managerial miscues on the part of Ned Yost, who just a few weeks before made headlines (on sports blogs, anyway) for doubling down about his stringent bullpen roles after losing a game in a tight pennant race that they might have won if he were at all willing to deviate from the rigid hierarchy when a situation warranted it. So, of course, it was heartening to hear that his pitching coach set him straight. And while he did make some questionable decisions in the Wild Card game, he relented in some subsequent games, turning to Kelvin Herrera before his “assigned inning” when things got heated. And, as usual, the bullpen did their job. If Matheny hadn’t been so dead-set on saving his closer until they had the lead—which, of course, they never did—maybe the Cardinals would have won the pennant instead of the Giants.

I still hold out hope that one day we’ll see some of these antiquated concepts largely phased out, but I’m not holding my breath.

I don’t know how different that 18-inning game would have been if the managers had made different decisions with their pens, but that’s a lot of baseball to take in all at once, and it cut into our evening a little. Three hours after we were originally planning to, we finally went out to eat.

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