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Managing Pitchers 101: Some Guidelines To Consider

Ask any fan about how well his/her team's manager handles the pitching staff and it's like taking a trip to Lake Nogebow: "Welcome to Lake Nogebow, where all the managers are below-average!" In this post, I aim to provide, from my point of view, somewhat of a "Managing Pitchers For Dummies" guidebook to help fans know when it really is appropriate to scream "FIRE GEREN NOW!!!"...and when it actually isn't.

The first thing you have to consider is that a manager cannot always put in his best relievers. Sure, when you're ahead in the 8th you'd like to see your two best relievers, when you're only down a run in the 7th you'd also prefer to see your two best relievers, and when the game is slipping away in the 4th you'd like to see the starter yanked -- but not replaced by someone even worse, like your 5th or 6th best reliever.

However, if a manager were to manage like a fan, always yanking struggling pitchers and always to going to his "best available reliever," he would quickly burn out the arms of his best relief pitchers. So when Geren goes to a "meh" reliever, it doesn't suggest he is "punting" the game, nor does it suggest he overvalues that reliever's ability. It simply reflects that he is rolling the dice with a worse reliever because there have been, or will be, games that offer better uses for his better guys.

The second thing to remember is that a manager usually does not have more than a couple relievers that he and you will both feel good about seeing out there. To begin with, relievers are not usually as good as starters are, plus the dropoff from "your best or next-best reliever" to "your 3rd/4th best reliever" is steep. When Geren puts Craig Breslow or Edwar Ramirez or Chad Gaudin into a game that is not yet decided, it's not a sign that Geren thinks more highly of those pitchers than you do. It's a sign that he understands you can't always go to Bailey and Ziegler and that like every other team, the A's bullpen, beyond a couple guys, is filled with pitchers who range from "inconsistent" to "Oh not him!"

So where does this leave us in terms of how good managers handle their pitching staffs?

Guideline #1: It is usually the right move to try to get at least 6 innings or 90-100 pitches out of your starter -- even if he is struggling.

Your starters are among your best pitchers and if you start yanking them after 5.1 IP because they are looking vulnerable, or after 80 pitches because the matchups favor your lefty reliever, you will just wind up using really bad pitchers more (because those additional innings ultimately have to go to your "low-leverage relievers," since your best relievers can't pitch all the time and they will already pitch as much as you can reasonably get them in).

So if a manager panics and pulls Braden, after 85 pitches, during a 6th inning jam, then gives the early hook to a struggling Cahill after 3.2 IP because "we're only down 4-3 and we could still win this game," those innings are going to go -- either immediately or eventually -- to the Edwar Ramirez', Brad Kilbys, and Chad Gaudins of the bullpen.

The vast majority of the time, if the starter hasn't reached his pitch limit, the right move is to try to get him through 6IP, or as close as possible, even if it appears that doing so is giving the team a worse chance to win that day. Exceptions include times when the starter is just getting lit up and you feel it's truly "one of those days" (today with Sheets was a perfect illustration) -- partly because in these cases, chances are that by staying in the starter won't eat up many more innings anyway -- and times when your starter has looked wobbly the whole time (not just in the current inning) yet your offense has given you a really good chance to win; maybe it's the 4th inning, your starter has struggled throughout, yet you lead 6-4 and can actually use your best relievers soon if you can just stop the bleeding now. Those instances, it should be noted, are few and far between.

Guideline #2: A guy who is in and pitching really well is a better bet than a new pitcher of similar ability.

I think a common mistake managers make is to pull pitchers who are clearly throwing well that day in favor of a new reliever. Relievers tend to be inconsistent, so if you have Ziegler in and he is "on his game" and you pull him for Blevins, you may find out that Blevins is not sharp today and it's too late to go back to Ziegler. The same goes for Blevins sailing through an inning with Ziegler warming up -- you don't know which Ziggy will show up today but you know which Blevins you have.

So while platoon advantages have to be considered -- especially with pitchers like Ziegler -- remember that a reliever who hasn't pitched yet is an unknown quantity and that when a pitcher is already in the game looking especially good, you might not want to go for "what's behind door #2."

That's why ideally I like having middle relievers who can go up to 2 IP. If they're sharp, you can use them for 2 IP, instead of hoping that two different relievers are on for 1 inning each, and if they're not you can punt early and have them available again soon when they might be sharper.

Guideline #3: It's more likely you'll get a good outing from one guy than from three guys; the more different pitchers you try the better chance one guy undoes all the work everyone else did.

Put Tyson Ross, or Chad Gaudin, in for 2-3 innings and if he's on his game he'll succeed, and if he isn't he'll probably get torched. Put in three different relievers and even if two of them are on their game, if one isn't he can give it all back and then some all by himself.

I'm wary of bullpens that are set up like, "If we're up by 1-2 runs, X has the 7th, Y has the 8th, and Z has the 9th," because this means you're counting on your 3rd best reliever and your 2nd best reliever, along with your closer, all to hold a lead in a tight game. In reality, randomly one of your best three guys probably isn't available that day so you're actually counting on, say, #1, 2, and 4 on the depth chart, or #1, 3, and 4 on the depth chart -- and remember, your 3rd or 4th best relievers are generally guys who are at best flawed and at worst highly inconsistent. Keep trying different pitchers and eventually you'll find one who is bad enough to blow the game all by himself.

How to avoid this phenomenon from happening? Well, abide by Guideline #1 -- work hard to get your starters deep into games -- and abide by Guideline #2 -- don't be too quick to pull guys who are throwing well -- and you'll find yourself less reliant on a variety of short relievers all to pitch well on the same day when the margin for error is small.

Guideline #4: Going with mediocre to lousy relievers is not "punting," it's just strategically "rolling the dice" with lower odds.

As per the intro discussion, over the course of a long season managers have to use their entire bullpen, including letting some highly flawed pitchers throw in higher leverage situations than anyone ideally wants. The more teams get out of their starters, the less they have to rely on their 5th, 6th, and 7th best relievers, but even under the best of circumstances a manager will be faced, time and time again, with a situation where the game is still potentially winnable, yet it still calls for the manager to roll the dice with a so-so pitcher.

One example so far this season was when Gio Gonzalez walked 5 in 4.1IP, and got over 90 pitches, in a game the A's trailed 3-0. Gio was not long for the game, nor was he pitching well, and it would have been irresponsible for Geren to go to one of his "better" relievers in the 5th inning of a game the A's trailed. This meant turning things over, with runners on base, to the likes of Craig Breslow or Edwar Ramirez -- hardly inspiring, but necessary given the circumstances.

This didn't mean Geren was conceding the game; it meant he was conceding that if the A's were going to win, his worst pitchers were going to have to step up and his offense would also have to step up. Each was unlikely to happen, so for both to happen was even more unlikely -- yet going to a "meh" pitcher was the right and necessary move. Managers don't always make the right moves expecting success; hoping for success, sure, but you can be certain that Bob Geren knows putting Breslow into the game to face Alex Rodriguez is not "putting his best foot forward."

Now all of these "rules of thumb" have to be balanced with eyeballing when a pitcher is gassed and when he has enough left to work through a bad inning, as well as with the very real consideration of left/right splits. This is what makes baseball so complex and fascinating, because the exception proves the rule -- that is, sometimes the right move might be to violate one of these "guidelines" based on the unique situation and on the combination of available and unavailable arms.

Truth be told, I think Bob Geren has done a pretty good job this year overall because he has generally abided by these basic tenets of what I consider to be smart bullpen management. The fact is, Geren hasn't often had a lot of good options to go to. That is to say, any manager will look like he is managing better if Jerry Blevins is his 5th best reliever than if Blevins is his 3rd best reliever. Geren has often been forced to go to poor or highly inconsistent pitchers in games that are not yet decided, so of course his moves have often turned out badly at inopportune times.

Add Michael Wuertz and suddenly Geren will start managing "smarter" -- though in fact what he'll be doing, thanks to the "depth chart domino effect," is just rolling the dice with Ziegler instead of Breslow and with Breslow instead of Gaudin.

Anyway, the main purpose of this particular post is not so much to dissect what Geren has done right or wrong so far this season, but rather to inspire discussion about how best to manage a pitching staff, and hopefully to provide readers with some key guidelines that I have found to be reliable -- most of the time.