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.

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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.