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One small step for a manager, a giant leap for man(agerial)kind

SOUTH HILLS – I would not be surprised if we see Jason Grilli relieved of closing duties, at least temporarily, after Pirates manager Clint Hurdle didn’t exactly come out in strong support of his embattled closer, following Grilli’s fourth blown save of the season Thursday. (The Pirates’ MLB-worst 14th blown save.)

Hard to believe it was the one-year anniversary of Grilli’s first blown save of 2013. Grilli opened last year with 25 consecutive saves before allowing a home run to Jay Bruce on June 19, 2013 at Great American BallPark. The Pirates had not lost a game when leading after eight innings until that point.

Asked about Grilli’s ninth-inning status: “I’ll talk to who I need to talk to: the coaches involved, Neal (Huntington),” Hurdle said. “We’ll make a decision that we feel is best for the ballclub.”

Any time a manager starts spreading responsibility for a future decision – i.e. needing to talk to all parties – that indicates a change might be coming.

Grilli isn’t the same guy as he was pre-injury last year.

While the velocity is only down a tick, the location has been off and the slider hasn’t been the same special pitch. He made another mistake with a hanging slider to Devin Mesoraco on Thursday.  He’s turned into an extreme flyball pitcher (25 percent groundball rate) who is susceptible to home runs. His strikeouts are down by five per nine innings and his walks have nearly doubled.

Maybe Grilli can get righted but it should be in lower-leverage situations for awhile.

And here’s where the opportunity is for Hurdle to advance his profession …

Last year, Hurdle surprised many in his willingness to go away from convention and become an extreme adopter of shifts.

Several years earlier in Colorado, the Rockies, under Hurdle, became the first team to adopt a four-man rotation in more than a decade.

Now Hurdle has another opportunity to be something of a trailblazer again. He can simply not name a replacement closer and manage the bullpen by situations not by a flawed statistic (the save). He can save Tony Watson, Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon for high-leverage situations whether they come in the sixth inning, the seven or the ninth.

Ace relievers were once called “firemen” not closers because they entered games in high-stress situations and got teams out of jams.

Now we save or best relievers to begin clean ninth innings with two- and three-run leads? It makes no strategic sense.

Some manager will eventually begin managing his bullpen in more thoughtful and beneficial ways and stop conforming. That manager will gain an advantage.

This marks Hurdle’s chance.

- TS

Comments

  1. Tom P. says:

    Travis,

    +1 on your analysis of the past use of relievers as “firemen”. Although, in the past week, the Pirates’ relievers have more resembled those bullpens nicknamed “the arson squad.”

  2. Jordan White says:

    I’ve also been calling for this “new position” for several years. Only I propose we call this reliever “The Wolf” #PulpFictionReference

  3. Jim S. says:

    Very timely topic, Travis. The Bucs still have 2 excellent 1-inning relievers, in Watson and Melancon, plus a guy who was excellent last year in Wilson. If the Pirates are in a tie game, or protecting a 1 or 2 run lead in the 7th-9th inning, I would essentially treat Watson and Melancon equally – meaning they would pitch interchangeably in the most critical situations. Those would generally be in the 8th & 9th, but not always. I would attempt to mix Wilson in that group as my #3 guy, and Hughes as my #4 at present. Grilli/Stolmy would be next in line.

    There would be critical times where I might find it necessary to use either Watson or Melancon prior to the 8th. To me, protecting a 1-run lead in the 7th might very well be more important than protecting a 2 or 3-run lead in the 9th. So, there might be times when Wilson or Hughes, or even Grilli, closes the game if I felt my two best guys were needed earlier. Stolmy could also fill in the Hughes role, and possibly even Mazzaro if/when he is promoted.

    I think what I’m essentially saying is the bullpen needs to be managed situation by situation, rather than with defined roles in which guys always pitch in the same inning. But, there is no doubt the Bucs bullpen is now thinner in terms of dependable short relievers compared to last season.

  4. JohnS says:

    I am glad to see someone pick up my banner. I hate that the key relievers enter the game in the ninth with a lead and are asked to get three outs. I want my best guy coming into a one run game in the 7th with men on second and third with no outs, and that guy slamming the door. That is what makes a truly great relief pitcher in my book.

  5. Travis Sawchik says:

    UPDATE: Jason Grilli has been removed from closer’s role.

  6. NMR says:

    Revised copy of “Just My Game” to follow.

  7. No. 9 says:

    While I fully understand the arguments put forth, I think that it is also fair to ask . . . where do you draw the line? If the Pirates have a 5-3 lead in the fifth inning at home and the opponent has runners on second and third with no outs and the 3-4-5 hitters are next up for the opponent, do you bring in the team’s “best reliever” at that point to try to get out of the jam? Shutting down the opponent in that situation could be the key point in the game. However, if the runs score, your “best guy” is done for the game.

    Or . . . is the 5th inning too early? If you think that the 5th inning is too early, what about the 6th inning? How about using righty/righty and lefty/lefty matchups in the 7th inning where you use up both Melancon and Watson and leave the 8th and 9th inning to Wilson and/or Hughes?

    Let’s use John S’s example of runners on second and third and no outs. Let’s also just assume that Melancon is the team’s “best guy.” When do you start warming up Melancon? At the beginning of the inning? If so, don’t you risk burning out Melancon’s arm if you get him warming up every time a starter “might” get into trouble? Or, is it when there is a lead off single? Again, if you wait until the lead off single, you are having Melancon rushing to get loose “just in case” there is another hit. You’d face plenty of situations where the subsequent hitters make outs and the “best guy” will sit down and wait for an emergency situation to arise. If you wait until the double to put runners on second and third, there is a real possibility that your “best guy” isn’t warmed up enough.

    There are arguments which can be advanced for defined roles. Heck, even the manager who is gushed over by the SABR crowd – Joe Maddon – utilized a defined closer this year (Balfour) and gave Balfour a longer leash before removing him as closer than Hurdle did with Grilli.

    In sum, I get the argument and acknowledge the logic with the argument. However, I do think that there are other factors to be considered and it may not be as “simple” as “a good manager will bring in his best reliever in the highest leverage situation.” Any baseball game may have one, two or many more “high leverage” situations and, unless someone comes up with a crystal ball to know the highest leverage situation in advance, managers will always be subject to second guessing as to how they use the bullpen.

  8. Keith says:

    #freethefiremen

  9. RobertoForever says:

    The problem with the concept is not that Hurdle would be fighting tradition, its that he would be fighting how these pitches have been CONDITIONED for years to be ready for the 8th and 9th.

    We talk about how difficult it is for a good hitter to become a bench player and still be ready to hit in a moments notice from the 4th inning on, and still perform to the level. I would think its the same with these guys. You have a routine. It builds up over the 6th to the 7th thru singing take me out to the ball game, thru the 8 the, and then they are amped up. You may jot get the same results from a human being with flaws, when you move them around every appearance.

    The human element is a big factor, as stats are not necessarily drag and drop.

  10. Andrew says:

    Yes, but Travis addressed this, relievers used to be firemen. The save was recognized as a stat in 1970 then redefined slightly in 1974, it is not exactly an old statistic. I have heard pitchers discuss FIP and much new statistic and prefer that to ERA when evaluating performance.

    Additionally, if pitchers were so easily conditioned to adopt routines around as fairly useless stat, why cannot they be recondition? I just view defense of defined inning roles as nothing more than status quo bias.

  11. RobertoForever says:

    Andrew, fair point about pitchers being reconditioned. But what are the ramp up costs in terms of poor performances by doing it in season?

    And bringing up how pitchers operated on an everyday basis forty years ago really has no bearing on today’s game. Athletes really are completely different today. Starting pitchers also used to throw fifteen plus complete games per season back then, including in losses.

  12. Ri-do says:

    Thanks Travis for your post Travis. Like a few others on this blog for years I’ve complained to anyone that would listen about use of a team’s best reliever as a 9th-inning-only closer.

    I’ve always felt that in many games there’s one pitching situation that the game hinges on. If the other team’s 3, 4, and 5 hitters are due up in the 8th inning with your team holding a one run lead the 8th inning becomes more important than the 9th. If there a two on and one out in the 7th, why would should you hold back you best reliever until a clean start in the 9th?

    I like using term “Stopper” for the role I’m describing – the team’s best reliever to handle the key turning point late in a game.

  13. Andrew says:

    Certainly it would be difficult to make specific changes in season. My point about bringing up history of the save statistic is to show how utterly artificial the current bullpen construction is in the MLB. Mangers and teams have developed bullpens around a statistic that is of questionable value.

    As Ri-Do discussed, below it is maddening that bullpen decisions are made based mostly upon the inning in question and whether the lead is three runs or more.

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