Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 24, 2022 -- "Bullpen Thoughts"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 79
August 24, 2022

I was locked in on the ninth inning of last night’s Yankees/Mets game in the Bronx. The Yankees had a 4-2 lead, and I thought Clarke Schmidt was going for a ten-out save in a competitive game, which would have been something out of the 1970s.

Now, that paragraph fails on two levels. Schmidt ended up being pulled for Wandy Peralta after he loaded the bases with two outs, getting squeezed on some key calls at the top of the zone. Even had he finished the game, though, he wouldn’t have gotten the save -- he was the pitcher of record and would have been credited with the win, as he was after Peralta closed out the game.

Scorekeeping aside, what Aaron Boone did last night was fascinating, bringing Schmidt into a tied game in the sixth and riding him into the ninth. Twenty years ago, I did this massive research project into Jack Morris’s career that, in those days before the Play Index, entailed reading thousands of boxscores from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Doing so forever gave me a bias towards multi-inning relievers and poisoned me against the way modern bullpens are structured. You look at the usage patterns back then, and the thing was, there were no patterns. Sometimes a reliever would get three outs, and sometimes he’d get 13. Sometimes he’d come in in the fourth, and two days later, he'd enter in the eighth.

It was during this period that save specialists emerged, and later the matchup-centric approach and, later, the sharp restriction of reliever workloads. That has led us to today, when many managers want to know at 4 p.m. who they’re putting in the game at 9, 9:30, and 10, to the minute. They don’t want to -- many won’t -- use relievers on three straight days or in three straight innings, and even using a reliever across multiple innings is something to be avoided. I’ve railed against this kind of rigidity, which began with the use of save specialists and then extended back into the eighth and seventh innings. Inning and score are far from the only variables to be considered in changing pitchers.

So when Aaron Boone, who has generally been someone who likes to set up that evening's bullpen in the afternoon, tries to get ten outs from a reliever, I get interested in a hurry. Clarke Schmidt, the Yankees’ first-round pick in 2017, has been up and down with the team for the past three seasons. He has been unable to stay healthy, throwing just 230 professional innings in five years. Almost exclusively a starter in the minors, Schmidt has been almost exclusively a reliever in the majors. The righty picked up a pair of three-inning saves in non-competitive games in July, for which he got the now-standard reward of a demotion. Last night’s appearance, in which he threw 60 pitches, was his first since his recall.

The Yankees’ bullpen has been a mess. Chad Green and Michael King are out for the year. Aroldis Chapman is having the worst season of his career by any measure. Clay Holmes, briefly unhittable, has not been that guy in two months. Jonathan Loaisiga has a 4.15 ERA (3.19 FIP) since coming off the IL, with a 7/4 K/UIBB and a miserable 13% strikeout rate. Holmes, Scott Effross, and Albert Abreu are all on the IL at the moment.

Over the last three nights, Boone has shown a new and welcome flexibility. Sunday afternoon, he let Lou Trivino get the final seven outs of a 4-2 Yankee win, letting him face two lefties as the tying run in the ninth. Monday, he brought in Loaisiga to close out the eighth and then left him in to pitch the ninth, again up 4-2. Then we saw last night, when Boone not only let Schmidt try for a ten-out win, but left Schmidt in as the righty pitched into trouble against good left-handed batters with the game on the line. It was quite a commitment to both Schmidt and the entire approach.

It’s partly circumstance for a team that has just seven wins all month, but the Yankees have just one standard three-out save in August, that by Effross on August 13. Six pitchers have gotten the final out of the Yankees’ seven August wins, and their last four saves are by four different pitchers. I think Boone would prefer to be able to go Effross/Holmes/Chapman starting in the seventh, letting each go one inning, perhaps with some allowances for his matchup lefties. With that not an option for various reasons, he’s experimenting and, so far this week, it’s working.

What we can’t know yet is whether this is a temporary patch or a true change of heart. How will Boone run his bullpen when he has a full complement of effective one-inning guys? Wouldn’t the Yankees, carrying dead bats in a few lineup spots, be better served with an extra pinch-hitter around rather than a sixth right-handed reliever?

A different kind of creativity was on display in St. Petersburg and Los Angeles last night. The Rays and Dodgers both used position players to close out blowouts, something that’s become an everyday occurrence in baseball. The catch? Those two teams were closing out wins. Christian Bethancourt -- showing a Zack Greinkesque change of speeds -- and Hanser Alberto were the final pitchers in a pair of wins three time zones apart.

We’ve covered the fact that position player pitching, once a fun once-a-month quirk, is out of control. Six hitters pitched last night, including for both teams in two different games, which I believe is a record. (There have been three instances of five being used in one day over the last two years, and to be honest, I didn’t look past 2021.) That runs the season total to 89, just shy of the record of 90 set last year, and maybe in 2019 depending on how you want to classify Jared Walsh. It won’t matter because we’re headed for well more than 100 position player pitchers this year.

What Kevin Cash and Dave Roberts did last night, though, is still unusual, though becoming a bit more common. In the first 55 years or so of the expansion era, true position players rarely pitched, and they pretty much never did so outside of losses and extremely long games. In 1968, Rocky Colavito was called into a game in the fourth inning near the end of his career by Ralph Houk on a day when Houk’s bullpen had been drained. A month later, the Twins’ Cesar Tovar started a game as part of a stunt in which he would play all nine innings in one game. Shane Halter would repeat Tovar’s stunt in 2000, as did Andrew Romine in 2017.

From 1961 through 2018, those were the only four instances in which a position player pitched in a nine-inning game his team won.

On March 30, 2019, with the Dodgers up 18-5 over the Diamondbacks, Dave Roberts sent catcher Russell Martin to the mound to eat the ninth inning. Martin’s shutout inning encouraged Roberts, who would use Martin to close out a pair of blowout wins in August. After avoiding the tactic for a couple of seasons, Roberts has now used Alberto five times to close out Dodger wins this year. He's gotten four shutout innings (and a total of one run allowed) for his troubles.

It’s catching on. Something that was never done for nearly 60 years has now happened 12 times in the first five months of 2022.

For reasons I can’t quite explain, teams using position players from ahead bothers me less than teams doing it from behind. It seems to me that if you’re losing, part of the penalty for doing so is playing the game straight up. Using a position player to pitch is quitting, and while that wasn’t so bad when it happened once a month, when it happens almost every day and teams have eight or nine relievers in their bullpen, it’s tedious.

For the team in the lead, though, it’s a benefit. They’ve beaten you so badly they can close out the game with a utility infielder or backup catcher. It’s also not giving up; it is in fact opening the door just a crack for you. This tactic has yet to go awry, either. Since Roberts put Martin into that March game three years ago, we have had 15 instances of a manager using a position player this way. All 15 have finished the game.

As I have written before, the daily use of position players to pitch bothers me only in the context of current roster construction. Were teams carrying six or seven relievers, strengthening their benches and creating more in-game strategy, I wouldn’t mind if they used position players to eat occasional non-competitive innings. What we have now is the worst of both worlds, teams carrying extra relievers at the expense of good bench players and then passing over three or four of those relievers to use position players.

If it is going to happen, though, I see a difference between teams in the lead doing it, and teams trailing doing it. Keep working on that changeup, Hanser.