How Leyland is Using His Bullpen


Managing a bullpen is a balancing act. You need to find everyone work, you need to plan ahead to find the platoon advantage, but really, all you’re trying to do is win the game (or, perhaps, get through a blowout without burning any of your “good” pitchers). It all boils down to getting your best pitchers into the most critical spots, and using your “innings eaters” when the game is not on the line.

Usually, the best reliever on a team is the closer, and the then the primary setup man, and maybe there’s another reliable setup man (an so on). Often times, they’re pigeonholed as the “7th, 8th, and 9th inning guys”. This works as a general rule of thumb, but refusing to use a pitcher outside of “his inning” isn’t sound strategy. There was a lot of eye rolling by fans last week when Jim Leyland said that Benoit wouldn’t be used in the seventh inning of a close game. It’s fine if he meant that he only wants to use him for one inning in any particular game, but some seventh inning situations are “higher leverage” than the eighth inning would be.

Below is a graph of all the situations in which Jim Leyland has brought in a relief pitcher. The leverage index of each situation was determined from this chart. Click on the image for a larger version.

Let’s start looking at this from the top. The Tigers have made a pitching change in three “very high leverage” situations (at or above the red line). The first was in the seventh inning of game six (at Baltimore), and the second and third were in the ninth inning of game 14 (at Oakland). These should be situations for Valverde or Benoit, but instead, Gonzalez, Schlereth, and Villarreal were used. Why is that?

I think the most recent example is explainable. Jose Valverde had been used on three straight days, so he probably wasn’t available (or only available in an emergency). That means that Benoit was the “closer” for the game, so someone other than him was (probably) going to have to pitch in a high leverage situation anyway.

I think the first situation (game six) was bad managing. It was simply a case of a manager saving his 8th and 9th inning guys for the 8th and 9th inning without regard to the actual situation.

It’s still really early in the season, so it’s not really fair to get too worked up about this chart (but I’m going too anyway). The lack of a solid “7th inning” guy could really hurt the club, especially if Leyland does refuse to every throw Benoit into the game before the eighth. He’s been “wasting” Benoit a little bit because of this strategy. Joaquin has been called into the game on seven occasions, and five of those could be classified as medium or low leverage. That’s not why he got the big bucks.

Compare Benoit’s dots on the graph to those belonging to Villarreal. Brayan has actually been brought into the game in higher leverage situations on average (1.12 to 0.96). I hope that this isn’t a trend that continues. A healthy Joel Zumaya or a healthy and effective Ryan Perry would alleviate some of these concerns, but we don’t have either of those guys right now. We’ll have to continue pulling our hair out in the seventh inning.

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