How managers use their bullpens like the worst Civil War generals

Jason Miller

History is like a city bus or a subway car. If you miss one, a virtually identical model will be along shortly. While baseball should in no way be equated to something as serious as a war (right, Big Papi?), sometimes there are useful analogies to be found.

In the Red Sox-Rays game of May 24, a contest that went 15 innings, Red Sox manager John Farrell's bullpen usage came under some unfair criticism. Of the seven relievers utilized by Red Sox manager John Farrell, Koji Uehara, presumably the best of the lot, threw the fewest pitches. He was gone after just a dozen offerings, whereas lesser luminaries such as Edward Mujica threw twice as many.

In the absence of other information, we might consider it criminally negligent to give Mujica -- until recently a very fine pitcher, but also one who has clearly had something wrong with him since last September, and the owner of an 8.26 ERA in the 28.1 innings he's thrown subsequently -- more playing time than Uehara in anything other than a blowout. However, Uehara has a long injury history himself, including some right-shoulder soreness this spring, and Farrell's in-and-out with his closer can be interpreted as his saying, "This May game is not one which I find worth gambling Uehara's health."

Flash forward 11 days, to Wednesday night of this week. Boston's fortunes turned some thanks to a seven-game winning streak, but the team was still nowhere near where World Series champions would be expected to be. The Sox had followed that positive streak by dropping two in a row to the Indians at Progressive Field, so we can imagine -- forgive the tiniest bit of mind-reading here, just this once -- that on Wednesday, when confronted with another tie game, Farrell might have thought of the standings, considered the later date, and put more emphasis on stopping the Sox' slide at two. This time, he let Uehara work two innings and throw 30 pitches.

At that point, having failed to break the tie, he went back to Mujica, who swiftly Mujica'ed it up, allowing two singles and a walk-off three-run home run to Asdrubal Cabrera. Sometimes you do the right thing and the fates still squelch you. Yes, there is some inconsistency in Farrell's approach here, but he's the manager precisely so as to make value judgments such as these.

In pushing Uehara, Farrell had finally honored one of the smartest observations Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher ever made. Durocher had faults too numerous to mention here, but he was as right as anyone ever was about anything when he said, "Never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it might rain."

This goes to the quizzical way bullpens are managed these days. As I and others have pointed out, the emphasis on using closers in save situations tends to off-shift innings to pitchers who, at least by their designation as non-closers, are not the best in the bullpen. Here are the 2014 innings pitched leaders among pure relievers as contrasted with the innings pitched totals for the leaders in saves, through Wednesday's games:

Non-Closers

Closers


Pitcher

G

IP

ERA

SV

Pitcher

G

IP

ERA

SV

1

Dan Otero

27

36.1

2.23

0

Sergio Romo

25

24

3.38

18

2

Carlos Torres

31

35.1

2.29

2

Huston Street

24

24

1.13

18

3

Dellin Betances

24

34

1.59

0

Kenley Jansen

28

25

3.60

17

4

Jerome Williams

17

33.1

5.40

0

Francisco Rodriguez

28

28

2.25

17

5

Burke Badenhop

27

33.1

1.89

1

Trevor Rosenthal

27

28.1

4.13

16

6

Adam Warren

26

32

2.53

1

Fernando Rodney

24

22.2

2.38

16

7

Ronald Belisario

27

32

4.78

5

Greg Holland

24

22.2

1.59

16

8

Jake Petricka

24

31.2

1.42

1

Glen Perkins

26

26.1

3.08

16

9

Luke Gregerson

30

31

2.32

3

Addison Reed

27

26.1

4.10

15

10

Carlos Martinez

27

30.2

4.70

0

Craig Kimbrel

22

20.1

1.77

15

11

Jamey Wright

25

30.2

2.64

1

Steve Cishek

25

24.2

2.55

13

12

Zach Britton

24

30.2

0.88

5

Joe Nathan

23

21

6.86

13


TOTAL

309

388.2




303

291



With the 150th anniversary of the war years upon us, the Civil War has never been far from my mind. Not that one needs an excuse -- books on every conceivable aspect of the war continue to be published at a fantastic rate. The next 50 Shades of Grey-like phenomenon will probably be something like Clara Barton's Excessively Sanguinary Petticoats. And so it is that, after consideration during these fatigue-cap days and nights, it has come to seem to me that modern bullpen usage is a bit like one of the most important moments of the conflict, the Battle of Antietam, which took place on September 17, 1862.

Back-breaking tomes have been written on what remains one of the bloodiest days in American history and.this is a baseball site, so I assume you really don't want to know from me what you could more easily get from Ken Burns. As such, rather than do the impossible and try to give you every detail, I'm just going to supply the broadest of outlines.

So: in September of 1862, the Confederate Army of Virginia under General Robert E. Lee crossed the Potomac River and invaded Maryland, moving towards Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George McClellan, gave chase. Due to a bit of good luck -- someone had wrapped Lee's orders around some cigars and dropped them -- McClellan knew that Lee had sent a good chunk of his army to Harper's Ferry, about 17 miles away from his main concentration of troops near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Given this knowledge, McClellan understood that Lee's army was diminished and could be picked apart. Instead, because he was obsessed by the idea that Lee was trailing 100,000 reserves around with him in some giant invisible lawn-and-leaf bag, McClellan sat on the information. This allowed Lee to get himself organized along a series of ridges around the town of Sharpsburg, with the Antietam Creek separating his army and McClellan's. McClellan set up his headquarters about a mile and a half from there, which in those days might as well have been in the next state.

The battle that followed basically unfolded in three stages over one very long day. Put extremely simply, first McClellan tried Lee's left. This resulted in some ultra-violence done to an innocent cornfield, but it didn't work out. Then he tried the center, where the Rebels had an excellent position along a sunken road which functioned something like a World War I trench, the occupying soldiers having piled fence rails in front of it. Somehow, that kind of did work, because the Bluecoats managed to get a position astride the road and fire down into it. The sunken road became "Bloody Lane" as its defenders were mowed down.

And yet, as had become typical of his management style, McClellan declined to press an advantage. McClellan initially outnumbered Lee three to one. He had reserves back with him in his faraway bolt-hole, General William Franklin's VI Corps. "Put me in, coach!" Franklin said, or words to that effect.

"It would not be prudent to make the attack," McClellan replied, visualizing the 100,000-strong clone army that Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas had commissioned in the last days of the Galactic Republic, which McClellan for some reason believed Lee had in reserve. In fact, the entire white male population of the South not in uniform at that time numbered about 11, but no one could convince George and his effulgent mustache of that. Thus, Lee found time to reinforce his center by transferring troops from quiet sectors of the battlefield.

Finally, though Antietam Creek was not particularly deep, Union General Ambrose Burnside, one of the war's true incompetents, sent most of his IX Corps across a narrow bridge within range of Confederate guns, thoughtfully allowing the enemy to pick them off one by one in shooting gallery fashion. Somehow, Burnside's men got a foothold on the other side -- right around when the troops Lee had sent to Harper's Ferry, hastily recalled, arrived on the scene. Much confusion ensued, as some of the new combatants were wearing captured blue uniforms.

Burnside sent to McClellan for reinforcements. This time it was General Fitz John Porter and his V Corps all warmed up in the bullpen. Well, maybe not quite so warmed up. Does the manager ever signal to the bullpen for a reliever and have the pitcher refuse to enter the game? That's what happened here. McClellan opened his mouth to say something -- we'll never know what -- and Porter cut him off by shaking his head. "Remember, General," he chided, "I command the last reserve of the last army of the Republic."

So McClellan, visualizing Lee's secret army of White Walkers, goblins, balrogs, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine coming over that ridge, stream-rollering past him, and sacking Washington, again said no. Burnside's men were thrown back across the bridge. Battle over. Total casualties: about 22,700 Americans, 12,401 on the Union side, 10,316 on the other.

The Confederates retreated back into Virginia, so the battle was enough of a victory that President Lincoln felt he could follow up with the Emancipation Proclamation, but a great opportunity to hasten the war's end was lost. One of McClellan's aides later observed, "McClellan brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but he also brought himself." As for the General's own postgame assessment, he reported to his wife, "Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art."

It was, incidentally, comments like these after getting shelled that got Ian Kennedy traded away from the Yankees. They also got McClellan elected governor of New Jersey later in his life, which if you know New Jersey makes a certain kind of sense. In between, Lincoln waited for McClellan to follow Lee past those damned hills, and when six weeks passed without anything happening, Lincoln fired him.

Lincoln_and_mcclellan_1862-10-03_medium

Abraham Lincoln meets with General George McClellan after the Battle of Antietam. Note that Lincoln lacks his customary mellow expression. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Managers who save their closers the way McClellan saved his reserves should suffer the same fate, but skippers conduct themselves as if McClellan was their hero. For me, the quintessential version of this self-emasculating strategy will be Joe Torre holding Mariano Rivera out of Game 4 of the 2003 World Series so that the great Jeff Weaver could serve up a walk-off home run to shortstop Alex Gonzalez. It was a tie game on the road, you know.

It is fair to argue that a closer can only throw a certain number of innings/pitches in a given season and that a manager must pick his spots, just as a general must choose the right moment to throw in his reserves. At the outset, I said that John Farrell is in his position to make just those kinds of value judgments, although as Burnside and McClellan attest, not all generals are created equal. McClellan was blind to his opportunities. It remains to be seen whether today's managers will ever awaken to theirs.

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