Francona's High-Leverage Reliever Fail

 It is a commonly accepted truth among analytically-minded fans that a team's best relief pitchers should (whenever possible) be used in the most critical game situation, not simply "saved" for the 7th-9th innings. With that in mind, contrast two situations that occurred consecutively in last night's 8-4 Red Sox loss at Cleveland.

Situation #1: Top of the 5th. Cleveland leading 3-2. Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez got themselves on base with 1 out with Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz coming up. Indians starter Mitch Talbot, having exceeded 100 pitches, was seemingly on the ropes. The Indians reacted immediately by bringing in righty Chad Durbin to strike out Youkilis, then lefty Rafael Perez to retire David Ortiz on a weak pull-side grounder. NESN commentators Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy expressed surprise that Cleveland was willing to resort to bullpen matchups so "early" in the game. The move worked out well for the Indians as this turned out to be the highest-leverage situation of the game for them: with two men on base, two extremely dangerous hitters coming up, and a 1-run lead, they escaped any damage. By the time Crawford became the next Boston hitter to get on base in the 7th, the Indians had expanded the lead to 7-2, allowing them to absorb Gonzalez's 2-run HR and close out the victory.

Situation #2: Bottom of the 6th. Cleveland at bat and still leading 3-2. After Dennys Reyes concluded his blindfolded throwing session, the Indians had loaded the bases with no outs and the top of their order coming up. With the Boston offense having shown no sign yet of breaking its season-long anemia, preventing the Indians from breaking open the game was of paramount importance. Inexplicably, Terry Francona chose to give Dan Wheeler the task of escaping this mess. This despite all of the following facts:

-That the four upcoming hitters were: Michael Brantley (Lefthanded), Asdrubal Cabrera (Switch), Shin-Soo Choo (Left), and Carlos Santana (Switch).

-That Wheeler, while highly effective against righties over his career, should *never* be facing lefties. Let me repeat: NEVER. Not “once in a while”, not “only if absolutely necessary”. NEVER. Against righties in 2010, Wheeler had posted a 9.33 K/9 and 3.49 FIP, excellent numbers for a reliever. Against lefties, his K/9 fell to 6.17 and his FIP was a staggering 6.08, mostly due to a mind-boggling 2.31 HR/9 rate. Go back to 2009 and you see the same trend. Against righties: 7.98 K/9, a Schilling-esque 9.75 K/BB ratio, and 3.37 FIP. Against lefties, his K rate was literally cut in half to 3.95 K/9, his K/BB collapsed to 1.20, and he got annihilated for 3.29 HR per 9 innings! The result: a stunning 8.07 FIP. So repeat after me: Wheeler against RHB = Curt Schilling, Wheeler against LHB = Batting practice.

-That not only would Wheeler be thrown to the wolves against FOUR consecutive batters capable of getting the platoon advantage against him, in the most important situation in the game thus far, with no room for error; but he is a heavily flyball pitcher to begin with, and even moreso against lefties, with a 0.78 career G/F ratio. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a pitcher prone to the HR and/or sac fly, in a situation where you are hoping to not allow a single run at all, is not exactly ideal.

What, then, would have been ideal? How about a pitcher with little platoon split, with a high strikeout rate, excellent control, who has demonstrated a strong ability to suppress HR, and has extreme groundball tendencies, greatly increasing my chances of a double play or force play at home to prevent any scoring? Yet, as you may have guessed by now, Bobby Jenks sat in the bullpen and watched. There is no question he would have been available. While Jenks did pitch the day before, throwing 16 pitches, there is no plausible reason that this would have made him unavailable today. Ironically, Jenks’s last game of 2010 was a doubleheader against the Red Sox in which he closed out *both* games in the same day, throwing 31 pitches in all. Even if you think Francona wanted to “ease in” relievers in April by not having them pitch consecutive days, Jenks is not new to this. In fact, in 2010 he pitched on back-to-back days on *three* separate occasions in April. Ironically yet again, his first time doing so was April 7-8 against (you guessed it) the Indians, throwing 44 pitches total. Unless there was some mysterious issue why Jenks could not pitch, I can only assume that Francona thought the 6th inning to be “too early” to bring in a “late-inning” reliever such as Jenks. It is obviously impossible to know for sure that Jenks would have succeeded in this situation, but he sure as hell had a massively better chance of doing so than Wheeler.

Instead, Wheeler dutifully headed to the mound on the baseball equivalent of a suicide mission, and gave up a crushed 3-run HR to Asdrubal Cabrera, surprising nobody.

Moral of the story: Your team’s best relievers should be used in the most critical situations of the game, regardless of whether that situation occurs in an inning that isn’t their “role”. The Indians applied this and prevented a dangerous situation from escalating. The Red Sox did not, and it ended up costing them dearly.

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