Daily Link - On Bullpen Usage

[Author's note: It's Friday so we're trying something a bit different here at Daily Links today. Instead of giving you the rundown of five or six good articles around these here internets, I'm focusing on just one. This article elicited a strong reaction from me and I think it's a good jumping off point to a greater theme. As for the format, unless i hear differently, this will be a one time thing, so don't fret, dear reader. Regular Daily Links will be back bright and early Monday morning. Thanks for indulging me. Sincerely, Management]

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If I may tax your memory, recall all the way back to Wednesday's Red Sox game in Toronto. Boston held a three run lead in the eighth inning and, as per usual, turned to reliever Daniel Bard to hold down the fort. Bard saw the fort, peed on it, set it on fire, then threw his clothes into the blaze and ran away yelling, "I hate the fort!" In baseball terms that translates to five runs, three walks, two Ks, and a hit batter in an inning of work.

Despite Bard's obvious struggles (did I mention three walks and a hit batter?), there came no move from the dugout to bring in the other reliable Red Sox reliever, Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon never even warmed up. Instead Bard was left to rot on the vine, then with damage done but the game not yet out of reach, Terry Francona finally made a move to the pen. He brought in Matt Albers who promptly gave up a double, clearing the bases and effectively ending the game.

So the question arises, why, with the game the very definition of 'on the line', did we see Albers and not Papelbon? According to Rob Bradford of WEEI.com, there were three reasons:

- The reason why Papelbon wasn’t warming up when Terry Francona decided to get Matt Albers up in the eighth was because Papelbon rarely ever warms up in the eight inning. He has pitched three times this season in the eighth, the last occasion coming way back on May 9. He also did it just four times in ’10.


So, Reason #1: The Closer Shall Not Not Close Unless Absolutely Necessary.

Papelbon wasn't warming up in the eighth inning because Papelbon doesn't warm up in the eighth inning. That not only doesn't answer the question, it hurts my brain. It also begs a further question, namely why doesn't Papelbon ever warm up in the eighth inning? Is he allergic to symmetric numbers? Does he have a fear of non-closing situations? It wasn't an over-use issue as Papelbon had only pitched once this month (admittedly it's a short month so far).

Snark aside, it isn't something he's never done. It does ask him to go a bit outside his normal role, but to win a baseball game, that seems like a reasonable request. In my opinion, unless there are other extenuating circumstances (player sickness, physically tired, etc.) this is a pretty poor reason not to use your best reliever in a high leverage situation.

- If this was a playoff game, Francona would have most likely had Papelbon warming. The closer has, after all, pitched in the eighth four times in the playoffs, including two out of the three American League Division Series games against the Angels in ’09. He has also pitched in the eighth on one day’s rest just once (May 9) in the past three seasons, with four days passing before he pitched after that May outing


We have Reason #2: A Pitchers Role Can't Be Altered Unless In The Playoffs.

Had it been a playoff game, Francona would have used Papelbon but since it wasn't, altering the pitcher's role was a non-starter. Maybe oddly, I can kinda see that. The season is long and players get tired. During a 162 game season, a good manager has to play for tomorrow as well as today. But, what if neither of those concerns (seasonal overwork and/or recent usage) applies? Wednesday's game falls into that category. It was a winnable game and Papelbon has pitched once over the last week, an appearance where he threw 27 pitches and which was two days previous. Before that he last pitched on August 31st, four days prior. He's right in line with his career usage levels so there's no reason to back off on using him. To sum up, I'm not buying it. Next.

- Before the at-bat that saw Bard walk in the tying run, Bautista was 0-for-6 against the reliever with three strikeouts. He had also seemingly righted the ship, having struck out two of the three previous batters. On the flip side, Bard had already thrown 31 pitches (on his way to 36, the second-most of his big league career) and Papelbon had success with Bautista (1-for-8) and with the bases loaded (7 batters faced this season, 7 strikeouts).


Reason #3: Specific Batter Versus Pitcher Match-Ups Can Determine Player Usage

Sure there can be extenuating circumstances that can sometimes play a role, most prominently with platoon issues or batter handedness (in some cases you could be looking to match up a hitter's strengths to a pitcher's weaknesses or vice versa) but without that context, and even sometimes with it, looking at a six plate appearance sample is meaningless. This is especially so when you're talking about bringing in your best reliever who gets everyone out.

To illustrate the larger point, take for example the six times Bautista has faced Bard mentioned by Mr. Bradford above. Two of those took place in 2009 a season Bautista finished with a .757 OPS. In contrast, this year he has a 1.074 OPS. So do you subtract one from the other and divide the difference to properly weight the plate appearances? I'm kidding of course, but it's fair to say that Bautista is in a different stratosphere now than he was in '09. What about last night's? Bard wasn't on his game, so do you discount that in the future? With six PAs there's just too much noise and too much that could bias the results in either direction to be useful, at least statistically. Maybe there's some scouting angle that could be gleaned.

I should also say that I don't know if the reasons mentioned in Mr. Bradford's article are the real reasons Papelbon didn't enter the game in the eighth. They are Rob Bradford's reasons, and he never attributes them to anyone else.

To me, the situation was like having two very expensive fire extinguishers, one labeled "day" and one labeled "night." Your house catches fire in the daytime so you grab the "day" extinguisher but it's broken. So you grab a bucket of water and hope you can put it out that way. It is daytime after all.

Would Papelbon have saved the game? Maybe, maybe not, but absent other information, he should have been given the chance to try. He was the Red Sox best chance to put out the fire but for some reason Francona grabbed a bucket.

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