Good Decision, Take One

At the beginning of the season I posted here bashing a decision made by Bobby Cox in the Braves’ opening series with the Phillies. The decision involved using both Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano in the first two games when the late inning leads were large enough that the two relief aces did not need to appear. In the very next game, the Phillies overcame a 10-3 deficit in the seventh inning to win 12-11.

Neither Soriano nor Gonzalez were available due to their appearances in the prior two games. Of course, the Braves bullpen imploded in that third game and could not find the strike zone, an unforeseen circumstance, but the fact remains that aces like Gonzalez or Soriano could have stopped the bleeding if available.

Well, Cox has effectively redeemed himself in my eyes with his handling of the bullpen in the Braves recent weekend series with the very same Phillies. Most notably, the redemption stems from how he attacked the Phillies hitters in the late innings in Sunday’s 4-2 win.

The Phillies trailed, 3-2, but had a shot to come back in the bottom of the eighth with Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez and the legen… wait for it… dary Matt Stairs due up. Normally at this juncture in a game, the setup man enters to hold the lead for the closer. Not in this particular game. No, instead of Rafael Soriano taking the hill for that eighth inning, Cox sent closer Mike Gonzalez to the mound.

Gonzalez is a power lefty and all three of the power hitters due up that inning were also lefthanded. Gonzalez turned the Phillies away save for a walk to Stairs, preserving the lead. Soriano completed the role reversal the next inning, closing out the win. Granted, Gonzalez is one of few southpaw closers throughout the league but this decision was a breath of fresh air.

It would not have been smart to bring in a righty to face three lefthanded power hitters in order to do nothing other than ensure that Gonzalez entered into a “save opportunity.” For all intents and purposes, Gonzo did record a save in this game because the game had more of a chance of being won or lost in that eighth frame rather than the following inning when Carlos Ruiz was due to leadoff. Yes, Miguel Cairo pinch-hit for Ruiz (what was the point?) and Werth hit for the pitcher, but the more crucial plate appearances took place the inning prior, when Gonzalez did everything he would normally be called on to do, only in an earlier inning.

This is efficient usage of the bullpen, bringing in the right guys at the appropriate times instead of following a dumb, predetermined set of rules. Perhaps Cox feels that both Gonzalez and Soriano are on equal footing and can be flip-flopped as the closer/setup man depending on matchups. If so, bravo, because that is a very sound strategy. This isn’t a closer by committee nor is it sticking to one guy strictly because he makes a lot of money. Instead, using both of these guys in each role plays to their strengths and the weaknesses of the opposition simultaneously rather than one or the other.

Cox arguably mismanaged his bullpen early in the season, but here is to hoping that he continues to use Gonzo and Soriano this way, spitting in the face of a “rule” that states only one pitcher can close out games and these games can only be closed out in the final frame.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

12 Responses to “Good Decision, Take One”

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  1. Kincaid says:

    It’s great to see a bullpen ace used in these spots. This seems to be one of the biggest issues with saves: as long as they are the primary stat used to value closers, the loyalty factor as well as the misconception that that is always where the most value is can lead to managers feeling obligated to save their closers for save situations. And I have often heard fans complain of relievers not being given set roles, that they have to only pitch the 9th or only set up, but there is no reason a set role can’t be coming into the game in the most vital position like this.

    Great catch on picking this up and reporting it. I think too often we focus on what we think the manager is doing wrong, and to see attention brought to a manager going against the conventional grain to make the right move is always nice.

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  2. Rob says:

    Good for real baseball, not so good for fantasy baseball.

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  3. Matt H. says:

    Great usage of Barney Stinson language.

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  4. Andy M. says:

    I was very excited to see a manager using the “closer” at the most significant spot in the game and not just in the 9th.

    One comment about Cholly’s poor use of pinch hitters. Not only was Cairo in the 9th just plain nonsensical, but the fact that he hadn’t already used Werth in the 8th for Stairs was just plain dumb. Werth has been hot, with 4 HRs in the last week, and he mashes lefties. Stairs, a lefty, is in and playing the game in Werth’s position. How could you not insert Werth in the 8th to face Gonzalez replacing Stairs in right? I know that Stairs got the walk, but the outcome doesn’t justify the decision. Cairo, was just the icing on the cake, even though Ruiz is cold, Miguel is no better.

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  5. Toffer Peak says:

    WPA assumes all hitters are equal, correct? Could this be a situation that would argue that WPA should also factor hitter quality? I’m assuming that it would be statistically difficult if not impossible to factor this but in an ideal world this would be preferred?

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  6. Conballs says:

    I agree this being the efficient way in using the bullpen. But in the earlier series, didn’t the Braves win 2 of 3? If you’re Bobby Cox and you have a chance to win Game 2 against the World Champs, wouldn’t you leave nothing to chance? The point of baseball is to win the series. Not having Gonzo or Soriano available in the 3rd game of an already won series is not really important. And furthermore, it’s not Cox’s fault that the Braves practically walked in every run of that climax-less comeback. If the relievers had just hit the mitt, the Braves probably have themselves a sweep. I cannot criticize Bobby for this.

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    • twinsfan says:

      The point of baseball is to win as many games as possible in order to make the postseason. So you win the first 2 games of a series it’s ok to punt game 3 because you already have a “series win?” That’s ridiculous.

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      Furthermore, I addressed your entire comment in the actual post so it is superfluous. I specifically mentioned that the relievers not finding the strike zone is an unforeseen circumstance but the fact remains that 3-run and 4-run leads are lost in the 9th inning 1% of the time, so using Soriano and Gonzalez in those instances did not make a ton of sense. Maybe in the 4-1 game but not 4-0, especially when it can tie you down as it did in game three when the guys were needed.

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