One of my baseball pet peeves right now is bullpen use. While Joe Girardi has often been the target of my ire, this disease infects Major League managers everywhere, and as Joe noted to me earlier this week, Girardi isn’t doing anything another manager wouldn’t be doing.
The issue is this: If a team has a small lead in the 8th and their opponents’ 3-4-5 hitters are due up, I believe a team should use its best reliever in that spot. Generally, that would mean turning to the closer. The closer would then probably not pitch the 9th and not receive a save in the box score. Managers, however, are loath to follow this path. Some deploy their closers for saves longer than three outs, but many turn to the set-up men to get through the 8th regardless of who that lesser reliever has to face.
From a pure leverage situation, my method, the one post-save-rule baseball traditionalists object to, seems like a sounder strategy. After all, if the lesser relievers give up the lead to the heart of the order, the best reliever can’t make it into the game, and as Yankee fans saw after Jeff Weaver’s 2003 World Series appearance, it hurts to lose without using the team’s best bullpen weapon.
Earlier this week, I got to see some of my theory play itself out in a rather unorthodox way. After three very close games against the Twins, the Yankees did not have Mariano Rivera available when a save situation presented itself. With Brian Bruney still shelved, Joe Girardi turned to Phil Coke to get his first Major League save.
With a two-run run lead and the Twins’ 5-6-7 hitters due up, Coke should have been able to breeze through the 9th. He couldn’t. He gave up a run on two walks, and it took a visit from his manager and two from his catcher to get him through the inning.
After the game, Coke spoke with Marc Carig about pitching in a high-pressure situation in the 9th. “I was trying to play mind games with myself rather than think ‘oh God, where’s Enter Sandman?'” Coke said. “It just seemed like everything was way more amplified.”
Carig’s piece goes more in-depth about what the reporter calls Coke’s harrowing 9th inning experience. By the end of the game, an exhausted Coke had one phrase to sum up his night as the Yanks’ closer. “I’m completely and totally gassed,” he said.
So maybe Coke’s experience should teach me something about the bullpen. Maybe there is something to that closer mentality and having a bullpen with set roles. Maybe Coke is more focused and less bothered by the pressure in the 7th and 8th innings, and maybe he wouldn’t handle the 9th inning with the grace and aplomb of Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner or the emotional and demonstrative approaches of Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez. Or maybe he’s just more cerebral and concerned about his role than the vast majority of other relievers.
Much like the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I didn’t believe in Closer Mentality before reading this piece. After all, it’s just another inning with three outs to it. But if the players believe it and live it out through adrenaline and nerves, maybe those of us watching and analyzing the games should too.