Next Tiger manager could bring new ideas on use of the bullpen, or maybe not

Drew Smyly was the most effective pitcher out of the Detroit bullpen in terms of allowing the fewest baserunners in 2013..

Drew Smyly was the most effective pitcher out of the Detroit bullpen in terms of allowing the fewest baserunners in 2013..

Who will be the Detroit Tigers’ new manager? Speculation is rampant, and no one can say at this point who is really in the running. Had the Tigers not been so loyal to Jim Leyland, Detroit could have hired Terry Francona after he left the Boston Red Sox. Since his father, Tito, played part of his career for the Tigers, and the younger Francona coached in Detroit in the 1990s, there is a Detroit connection to draw on. But Cleveland grabbed him.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda: a favorite pastime for the hot stove. What if Babe Ruth hadn’t been on vacation and incommunicado in Hawaii when Frank Navin offered him the manager’s job after the 1933 season? Without Mickey Cochrane, the Tigers might have missed a couple pennants, but at least the ladies-of-the-evening at the spas in Mount Clemens that the Babe liked to frequent would have made some extra cash.

And do you ever wonder what would have happened had skipper Jimmy Dykes not been traded for skipper Joe Gordon? Answer: absolutely nothing different.

Speaking of rewriting history, my fantasy is that Dave Dombrowski will hire a manager with the courage and mental agility to buck the current fad in the superstition-based use of relief pitchers.

A major league pitching staff now consists of five starters who hurl somewhere between 140 to 210 innings a season, and six or seven relievers who pitch maybe 40 to 75 innings. Everyone in the bullpen must have a set role. This is the fashion, and it’s patently ridiculous.

The idea is that if you have a lot of power arms in the pen, as teams increasingly do, you can overmatch the hitters in the late innings. Since the inflation of pitching staffs has left fewer roster spots for reserves and pinch-hitters, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The offensive manager is handicapped in late-inning match-ups, because he has so few options on the bench.

The new practice of fresh arms and specialists pouring out of the pen has completely replaced the old “hot hand” theory of managing pitchers (stay with a pitcher until he shows he’s tiring). As far as I can tell, the only theoretical underpinning to the current strategy is numerology: finding the ideal men to pitch in the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. The mere number of the frame dictates who can pitch. It’s as if you were playing poker and decided whether to draw or fold by the numbers on the clock at the time. This push-button approach, technocratic in the worst sense, has replaced thinking managers who respond to the unique situations that present themselves in unique games.

I’m not going to argue pitch counts. A fan, even a traditionalist, simply has to accept that nowadays starters are going to leave the game soon after they reach the magic 100-pitch mark, if not before. It’s no use decrying how Jack Morris or Mickey Lolich would never have gone to the manager and told him “I’m gassed” after seven innings, Even Justin Verlander, who passes for a bulldog these days, takes his seat on the pine willingly and watches in helpless agony as relievers try to ruin his masterwork. The glory days of complete games are gone. The clubs have too much at stake in babying those arms to keep their big investments healthy.

But that doesn’t mean a maverick manager couldn’t break out of the current rigid mind-set and recognize other ways to use a bullpen than the inning-by-inning parade of specialists. Such an innovator would combine the old-school wisdom of recognizing that all pitchers have off days when they don’t have their stuff — and that therefore you are rolling the dice every time you call in a new arm — with the new analytics that show it’s best to use your bullpen’s best arms to work out of a jam (rather than save them for the closer situation that may never arrive or give somebody an easy save for getting three outs before allowing three runs).

Yes, it’s my pet peeve about today’s game. I wish the Tigers had a manager who would pitch Drew Smyly 100-130 innings in relief, because Smyly had the fourth-lowest WHIP of any AL pitcher this year who pitched at least 70 innings in relief, behind only Koji Uehara, Luke Hochevar, and Tommy Hunter. (Interestingly enough, Hochevar and Hunter are guys who failed repeated tests as starters.)

The next leap in baseball strategy could be to find the lost answer to the question of how much rest a reliever would need if he threw three innings or fifty pitches in a game. How often could a Smyly type do that? By doing something like this you could save two or three roster spots for pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, and defensive replacements. And those are roster spots the Tigers definitely could use to protect any lead achieved by their lineup of slow-footed, range-challenged bashers.

Is there such a managerial candidate out there? It’s highly doubtful, and my phone is not ringing. But this is the time of year to dream.

8 replies on “Next Tiger manager could bring new ideas on use of the bullpen, or maybe not

  • Johnie Rains

    I often recall how Tommy Lasorda would put Valenzuela in right field for one or two batters, then bring him back in to face the lefties. It always seemed to work.

  • Cecilia

    The theory behind using one reliever per inning is that that reliever does not pace himself to pitch two or three innings, fifty to seventy pitches, but instead gives it all he has in the one inning he is assigned.

    That pacing allows this reliever to throw his fastball all out, not reserve something for later on.

    And that works, if he has a fastball that can ramp up his fastball while keeping the same movement on it.

    Often it works out that a faster fastball is a straighter fastball, and the hitters just have to move a fraction of a second earlier to hit it. The famed example of that was Matt Anderson. He kept trying like crazy to get an extra mile per hour on his fastball, and it just flattened out even more. Major league hitters could hit it easily, because they knew where it would be.

    The opposite problem is also possible. Speeding up the fastball could put too much movement on it I get the feeling sometimes that that is why Al Alburquerque has such command issues–he is trying to speed up his fastball too much, and the faster it is, the more erratic the movement on it becomes.

    I used to have a friend who would complain about the “parade of pitchers.” His observation was that, the more pitchers a manager uses, the more likely it is that he will find one who just does not have it that day. I would keep pointing out to him that this seemed to be more a problem for ht Tigers than for the other team, which is a bit simplistic but true–the Tigers did seem to suffer more from this problem, even as far back as when Phil Garner was their manager. That tells me that a part of the problem may be the particular pitchers, rather than the manager.

    All that said, I wouldn’t mind trying a new approach with regards to relief pitchers.

    FWIW, my pet peeve is the “situational lefty”, also known as the “LOOGY”. There may be a use for such a pitcher against the very few left-handed hitters who have large splits, but most of the best left-handed hitters can hit against a left-handed pitcher fairly well, and especially so against a pitcher who only on the team to get that one out. If the guy does not pitch well enough to face a typical righty hitter, you really should not be calling on him to face on the the best left-handed hitters in the game.

    Give me less of the knee-jerk lefty-lefty match-up, and I will be happy.

  • Al Seder

    Very good observation. And so true. Managers have got so wrapped up in this speciality pitching game it is taking their teams out of the game. I won’t go into all the over managing that happen in the games except that why was Smyly used the way he was. Here is a sometime starter and very long reliever and he only pitches to one batter. We had some of the best starting pitching in the history of the World Series and we sit home. Reading comments from the players on the last two Tiger World Series Champions and they all said that the key to their winning the Series was the strength of their Benches. More so the 68 team. But players from 84 said it too. Although by 84 the bullpen was growing but not as bad as these days. The Tigers just played themselves out of the games

  • MikeC.

    Another benefit to having fewer relievers is shorter games..fewer slow downs in action to get pitchers up and warm.. slow dawdling strolls to the mound by pitching coaches..(I do like Jeff Jones as a pitching coach though)to remind his relief pitchers that the coaches have an early tee time in the AM. Some of these marathon games stretch into the late night beyond the average joes waking times.

  • Bob

    Lot of crying still going on. Does it really matter who the Tigers select as manager? The wannabe, arm chair managers will be second guessing the new manager before the first game of the season is over. Personally, I look forward to the first, “We should have kept Leyland” rant.

  • Daryl

    LOOGY was the only reason Coke was added too the ALCS roster and then Leyland doesn’t use him against Papi in game WTF.

  • Michael Betzold

    LOOGY is an employment program for otherwise unemployable lefty pitchers, just as the DH is an employment program for otherwise unemployable hitters who can’t field or run anymore.
    And it diminishes the game in a similar fashion: by specialization.
    At least LOOGY has a rationale of sorts, whereas “closer” and “set-up man” have only the phony statistic (and manufactured hype) of the save as their raison d’être.
    Why not a first-inning specialist? It makes just as much sense as, if not more than, a closer. The runs count just as much no matter what inning they’re scored in. And the pressure is just as great if not greater at the start of the game than with the bases empty and a 1-, 2- or 3-run lead in the ninth. Which is why a lot of starters turn in their worst performances in the first.

  • jeff gooch

    I have had that thought for years. Why not have say 8 starters, 4-A’s who throw 5 innings and 4-B’s who throw 3 innings. You can pair guys with opposite tendencies, and you go on a 4 day rotation. That still leaves us 3 specialists.

Comments are closed.