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Bullpen Management May Be Harder Than You Think

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MLB: Texas Rangers at Oakland Athletics
“Did I get the win?” “No, you didn’t actually pitch.”
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Thankfully Bob Melvin managed the bullpen well last night, because Jake Diekman, Lou Trivino, and Sergio Romo were all effective. Of course all those times one of the three of them imploded, we should have known better. Such is the life of a manager with a bevy of shaky relievers, trying to figure out how to leverage a group that has talent but no reliability.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road with fans. Fans understand that each reliever is a roll of dice, capable of getting the job done and completely not guaranteed to do so. What many fans want is for the manager to try a reliever, but be ready to quickly pivot to someone else when that reliever struggles.

And herein lies the complexity of managing a bullpen, because managers cannot actually do what fans want. Most fans are unaware of the part of pitching that is warming up, but in all the years I have covered baseball I have never found a manager, a pitching coach, a pitcher, who was indifferent to the “getting up and sitting down” routine. Warming up is not reflected in the pitch count, or counted in appearances, but it is a very real thing.

Most managers use a rule of thumb that if a pitcher warms up a second time, he is coming into the game and in general a manager tries not to get a reliever up if he is not planning to put him in. However, the urgency of the past week offered a rare exception that likely many fans did not even notice.

In Sean Manaea’s last start, a game the A’s led the Royals 12-5 and hung on to win 12-10, the box score showed Manaea earning the win with 5 innings, With Lou Trivino tossing 2 full innings, Jake Diekman getting 2 outs, and Andrew Chafin earning the save by pitching the final 1.1 IP.

In fact, in giving up 3 runs in the fourth inning, Manaea struggled to the point that Bob Melvin felt the need to get Deolis Guerra up in the bullpen just in case. Despite being “batter to batter,” Manaea survived the fourth, and even completed the fifth. Then in the 9th inning, Chafin was on the verge of blowing the lead and maybe even losing the game, as the Royals scored once and loaded the bases. left with few options, A desperate Melvin got Guerra up again and had Chafin not retired the left handed batting Ryan O’Hearn most likely Guerra was coming in. But Chafin did retire O’Hearn, and Guerra threw twice in the bullpen but never pitched.

That occurrence, where a reliever gets ready only to sit down and not come in, not once but twice, is a rare one because it is completely unsustainable. And yet if fans were allowed to manage both ends, relievers would do this constantly. The idea that every time Romo throws a flat slider you get another reliever up is as ridiculous as it sounds, and is pretty much a staple of game threads.

The reality is that once you select a reliever, by the time you observe more than an ordinary level of struggle, and then by the time you give a reliever the opportunity to warm up and get ready, you are generally looking at 5 batters — which means the reliever you selected is going to have an opportunity to greatly impact the inning, like it or not.

Of course, this comes into greater focus when every reliever you have is capable of struggling, capable of imploding, wasn’t a guy you were sure about to begin with. And sadly, a bunch of those guys pretty much describes the only choices Melvin has each day.

But it’s just not as simple as, “Try this guy, but have someone else ready before it’s too late!” You are describing a philosophy that would physically, and mentally, backfire almost immediately as pitchers don’t operate well that way and would get hurt anyway. It’s fine for a reliever to warm up, but not actually come in, 10% of the time. But it can’t be anything like a 50/50 proposition, with the famous Justin Case constantly getting loose. And that’s why innings play out the way they do so often for the A’s with an unreliable reliever, clearly struggling, allowed to face another batter or two — when you and I can see, “so why can’t Melvin?”, the trainwreck that appears to be coming.

It’s not bad bullpen managing, it’s managing a bad bullpen. Sometimes you wind up having to dance with the girl you brought for longer than you would like, but at least all the girls aren’t on the IL. Or something like that.

A’s-Angels tonight at 6:00pm! The bullpen promises to be a factor. Stay tuned...