Saturday, May 29, 2010

Trembley and the bullpen

"When you've given up as many runs as we've given up late in the ball game I think it starts to limit or narrow what you feel your choices are."

That's what Dave Trembley said yesterday when talking about the O's struggling bullpen. Does anyone doubt that this is true?

I think most people would agree that Trembley is a chronic bullpen over-manager. He likes to frequently play matchups as far as right-handed and left-handed pitchers are concerned, and he likes to have defined roles for relievers. And he's hardly the only manager in the major leagues to believe in those two things.

Unfortunately, several decisions by Trembley simply haven't worked out this year. And honestly, with a 15-34 record, not many things will be working out. The latest debated bullpen decision by Trembley occurred in the O's 7-5 loss to the A's on Thursday. Heading into the eighth inning, the O's held a semi-comfortable 5-2 lead. But that didn't last long. Brad Bergesen had allowed just two runs and two hits up to that point, but the A's led off the inning with two singles. With runners on first and second and Bergesen's pitch count up to 93, Trembley decided to remove Bergesen and replace him with Jason Berken -- not a bad choice.

Berken, filling mostly a long-relief role this season, has pitched well so far in 2010 -- 24.0 IP, 1.50 ERA, 11 K, 4 BB. Berken, who entered the game to face the right-handed Rajai Davis, got Davis to fly out to right field for the inning's first out. But here's where things started to get tricky: with two left-handed batters coming up, Trembley removed Berken and brought in lefty Mark Hendrickson. Hendrickson, like Berken, has also mostly pitched in a long-relief role this year. But with the amount of injuries the bullpen has been dealing with (more on that later), Hendrickson has been needed in more high-leverage game situations lately.

Anyway, Hendrickson got Daric Barton to pop out to Cesar Izturis for the second out. Ryan Sweeney batted next, and he singled to left field to knock in a run and cut the O's lead to 5-3. Then things started to get weird, even by O's standards. Kurt Suzuki, the A's cleanup hitter by default, reached on an infield single to load the bases. The A's then pinch-hit for the left-handed Jack Cust with righty Jake Fox. With a right-handed batter up and another one, Kevin Kouzmanoff, in the on-deck circle, Trembley stuck with Hendrickson. Ahead in the count 0-1, Hendrickson got Fox to reach for an outside fastball and ground the ball to Izturis. The play looked routine at first, but on the ball's third hop it takes a bad bounce, obviously catching Izturis by surprise. Because of the bad hop, Izturis isn't able to get the ball to second baseman Julio Lugo quick enough to get the runner at second and everyone is safe. Seriously, watch the play. That's just bad luck.

But bad hops do happen, and at this point the O's still had the lead, 5-4, with two outs. The bases were still loaded, though, and Kouzmanoff was due up. Trembley removed Hendrickson and brought in righty Cla Meredith to face Kouzmanoff. On the second pitch, an 84 mph fastball right down the middle of the plate, Kouzmanoff lined a bases-clearing double to left center. The double gave the A's a 7-5 lead. After intentionally walking the next batter, Meredith got the final out to end the inning. But the damage had been done. The A's had scored five runs, completely shifting momentum, and most importantly, the score, in their favor. The O's couldn't muster any runs in the eighth or ninth and lost by that same score, 7-5.

After the game, many people blamed Trembley. The main complaint was that Berken should have been allowed to pitch to more than one batter. And they weren't necessarily wrong. Berken has been one of the few bright spots for the O's this year, and he may have been able to prevent the A's from taking the lead that inning.

But, really, we'll never know that for sure. Without that bad hop, the O's would have taken a two-run lead into the ninth with Will Ohman getting the ball for a potential save opportunity. But that sentence in itself shows just how bad things have gotten for the O's bullpen this season. Will Ohman, though he has pitched extremely well, is the team's closer.

Coming out of spring training, the O's bullpen looked to at least be decent. Mike Gonzalez had been signed in the offseason to be the new closer, and Jim Johnson would take over eighth-inning duties. Hendrickson and Berken would be middle-relief options, and Meredith and Ohman were also going to be situational choices. Matt Albers and Koji Uehara (when ready) were two other right-handed pitchers to be used whenever needed. Needless to say, that plan hasn't worked out. Gonzalez, Johnson, and Uehara (who just can't stay healthy or pitch in warm or humid weather) are all injured, and it isn't really known when any of the three will return. Even Alfredo Simon, who surprisingly assumed the closer role a few weeks back and pitched relatively well, injured his hamstring and is currently on the disabled list.

Because of those injuries, here's what the bullpen looks like right now: Ohman, Berken, Hendrickson, Albers, Alberto Castillo, Frank Mata, and David Hernandez. Hernandez lost his spot in the rotation to Chris Tillman, who has been called up from Norfolk to make his first start of the season. And Meredith, who has struggled, was sent down.

(By the way, according to that post in Orioles Insider, here's what Meredith had to say about his demotion: "It’s kind of been a weird year for me. I’ve pitched here, I’ve pitched there. Get in a groove for a little bit, get in a rut. I’ve been in a rut before. I don’t panic, but I’m not the one who calls shots around here. So, I don’t know. I’m kind of at the mercy of my employer. I’m 26 years old, my arm’s very healthy as is the rest of my body and I envision pitching for a long time whether it’s here or somewhere else. I’ve learned a couple years ago, you can only control the things you can control, this is one those things I can’t really control."

 What exactly does that mean? Does he think he's pitched well this year? Is it really his employer's fault that he's striking out fewer batters, not getting as many ground balls, and giving up more home runs? Meredith needs to get with the program and just pitch better.)

So, yeah, the O's bullpen certainly looks different than what Andy MacPhail originally planned. Without all of those injuries, the bullpen probably would have performed better. But we'll never know. All we know is that the bullpen has put up some pretty bad numbers. O's relievers have allowed opposing batters to hit .357/.435/.791 with 17 homers. That on-base percentage against is fourth-worst in the American League (all rankings given are AL ranks), and their slugging percentage against is third-worst. Using some stats from Baseball-Reference, O's relievers have allowed the third-most runs per game (4.94) and they have six wins in relief compared to 11 losses. Oddly enough, they're tied for fourth in inherited runner scored percentage (34%), which tracks how often relievers allow inherited runners to score. Unfortunately, they've still allowed the third-most inherited runners to score because, well, they've had so many inherited runners to deal with (97, second-most).

There are a few more stats available to show that the bullpen has been bad, but that's a given at this point. Ineffective pitching and injuries are the two main culprits. But let's go back to Trembley's quote at the beginning of this post. First of all, exactly how many games have the O's bullpen blown? Again, according to Baseball-Reference, the O's have blown 10 saves, tied for the most with Kansas City. In 19 save opportunities, the O's have converted just nine saves, good enough for a league-worst save percentage of 47 percent. That's just not good enough, and even with an underperforming offense, the O's need to convert more of those saves.

Still, how easy is it to just blame Trembley instead? There's no question that he's not the best manager of bullpens out there. Far from it. The O's could probably get rid of Trembley and find someone today who could manage the bullpen better. But that begs the question: How much does it really matter how well a manager chooses to use a bad bullpen? Does it matter more? Less? Probably more, but it's not possible to use a team's best relievers all the time. Sometimes bad relievers have to be used in high-leverage situations, as painful as it may be.

Still, the coach's job is to put the best pitchers in the game with the best chance to succeed and get opposing hitters out, sure. But if that bad hop in the A's game doesn't eat up Izturis at shortstop, the O's probably win the game. And then, at least for one night, fans aren't irate with Trembley for choosing to stay with a reliever one batter too long or to fail to let another pitch longer. These are the little choices a manager has to make, but sometimes, there is no right answer.

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