Last night, with a 2-1 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh, Ryne Sandberg went to lefty Jake Diekman for the second day in a row. Diekman did not make last year’s Opening Day roster but was quite effective when called up, cutting his walk-rate nearly in half from his 2012 rookie campaign and lowering his ERA nearly a point and a half to 2.58 in 45 appearances. It was, and still is, expected that Diekman, in his third Major League season, will continue to improve as a Major League pitcher and use his mid-90s fastball and low 80s slider to become one of the most solid pieces in the Phillies bullpen.
In yesterday’s appearance, one that followed only his 13 Major League appearance of more than one inning, Diekman allowed an earned run in the 7th. This isn’t problematic in a vacuum: not every pitcher will be perfect every time. But two things stuck out to me about Diekman’s appearance: heading into the season, only 15% of Diekman’s appearances were of longer than one inning and, secondly, Diekman, and later Antonio Bastardo, appeared in the game at nearly the same time in nearly the exact same roles they appeared in the game before.
Since the save was invented by Jerome Holzerman in 1960, and recognized by Major League baseball in 1969, relief pitchers had begun to be used in different ways. Tony LaRussa is generally credited with formalizing the closer role even though dominant closers like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, and Tug McGraw had existed before LaRussa popularized the “put your best pitcher in for the save” route. One of the consequences of the popularization of this thinking was that the players behind the closer also had suddenly defined roles. This was pretty apparent last night when Sandberg’s bullpen decisions cost the Phillies a win in Texas.
A quick run down memory lane shows things used to be different: the Phillies of 1976 through 1980 won four division titles, one pennant, and one World Series. In those five seasons, McGraw had 65 saves, Ron Reed 60, and Gene Garber 25 between 1976 and 1977. The Phillies of that era, whether it was under Danny Ozark or Dallas Green, often put their best available relief pitcher on the mound in the highest leverage situation. Under normal circumstances, I would have had no problem pitching Diekman and Bastardo on back-to-back nights in high leverage situations: they, in my opinion, are the class of the Phillies bullpen. But Sandberg showed little flexibility when he slotted them in to the seventh and eighth innings respectively, particularly in the second game of the season.
This created a bigger problem: a pitcher making his Major League debut, on the road, in a tie game in the ninth facing one of the best hearts-of-the-order in baseball.
The pitcher, without a doubt, that would have given the Phillies the best attempt to prolong the game in that situation was Jonathan Papelbon. Would he obtained a save? No. Would he have closed the game out? No. However, what Papelbon would likely have done was forced the Rangers to go one deeper in their bullpen to face the top of the Phillies line-up. Sandberg fumbled a similar bit of strategy in the top of the ninth, allowing righty Jayson Nix to face right handed pitching when lefty Cody Asche, coming off a hot Opening Day, was left on the bench. Would Asche have gotten a hit? Who knows, but he certainly would have improved the percentages of continuing the inning, which would have gotten another lefty, Ben Revere to the plate.
Instead of Papelbon, Mario Hollands was put into the game to make his Major League debut and suddenly, the Rangers had a runner on second with one out. Playing the hand they were dealt, it made sense to bring in a righty to face Adrian Beltre. Why B.J. Rosenberg, though? Brad Lincoln and Justin De Fratus, seemingly better options based on previous stats, were available and hadn’t pitched the previous day like Rosenberg had. Instead of using their best pitcher out of the gate in a very high-leverage situation in an attempt to continue the game, Sandberg fell down the path of archaic thinking: don’t use your closer on the road in the ninth in a tie game because you might need him later.
Unfortunately for Sandberg, and for many other managers, that opportunity did not come last night and is not guaranteed to come. In the ninth inning, or extra inning, of any game, the object is to either extend the game, by catching up or keeping the game tied, or to win, by scoring more runs or holding the opposing team. In short, Sandberg demonstrated a view that did not give his team the best chance to do this. It was only game two, but I am curious to see if this will develop into a pattern.