Dan Dickerson and Jim Price both expressed their surprise when Jason Grilli was booed mercilessly as he was pulled from the game in the 6th inning on Sunday. Dickerson then proceeded to say something that I will never forget. It went something like this: “I can’t say I understand the boos here. Grilli gave up a three-run homer (the first home run of Carlos Gomez’s career), a double, and a single and hit a batter without recording an out.” I’m guessing that last sentence had something to do with the boos. The crowd had just finished giving Andrew Miller a resounding ovation after he bounced back from a three-run first inning to pitch brilliantly. Even the Tigers infield gathered around the mound to congratulate Miller on a gutsy performance. Grilli’s performance alone was bad enough but considering it followed on the heels of Miller’s removal, the boos were merely a foregone conclusion.
The bigger story here, though, isn’t about Grilli or Miller. If I had to guess, I would say that Grilli’s performance was only 1/3 of the motivation behind the boos. I was surprised that Dickerson and Price didn’t pick up on the fact that the boos were more likely for the bullpen as a whole rather than a condemnation of Grilli. Clearly, Tigers fans are smarter than that. They know what the ‘pen has done as of late. Grilli is no more responsible than the rest of his bullpen cohorts. For the second consecutive day, Tigers fans saw a big lead shrink considerably the minute the starter was pulled from the game. Jeremy Bonderman pitched well through the first six innings on Saturday. He then allowed the first three batters in the 7th to get on base. Jim Leyland went to Yorman Bazardo who promptly allowed two more of Bonderman’s base-runners to score. Fernando Rodney followed in the 8th inning allowing a home run. An 8-3 lead became an 8-7 lead in a matter of an inning and a half.
Sunday presented an almost identical scenario. The Tigers built an 8-3 lead before Leyland pulled Miller for Grilli. The lead quickly shrunk to 8-6. In both instances, Leyland chose to pull a starter who had been effective for the majority of the game for a reliever that was nowhere close to the talent of the guy he was replacing. Bazardo has less than five innings pitched in his entire MLB career. Grilli’s ERA is over 6.00. Other than a pitch count of 120, a huge deficit or an injury, I’m not sure there is ever a time where I would pull Miller or Bonderman for either of those two mid-inning. As far as I’m concerned, none of those factors were present on Saturday or Sunday.
Leyland has been deflecting blame from the bullpen to the starting pitching lately. He has dismissed the bullpen’s 5+ ERA as being a result of the starters not pitching long enough into games. To a certain extent, he has a point. With the injuries that the Tigers have had to deal with in the bullpen this year, nobody expects outstanding numbers considering how inexperienced some of the guys that are filling in are. The starters could make things a whole lot easier by making it into the seventh inning every night without ever running into trouble. But, I would argue that Leyland could make things easier by sticking with the starters longer when the choice is between going with a freaky-talented starter and bringing in a reliever who is only pitching because of an injury.
For instance, Bonderman had been cruising along on Saturday before running into a rough spot in the 7th. Instead of allowing Bonderman to keep going at the Mets and getting out of his own jam—which he has been pretty good at throughout his career—Leyland brought in Yorman Bazardo who struggled to find the plate and let in both of the runners he inherited from Bonderman. I would go with Bonderman with a 92 pitch count over Bazardo with a zero pitch count every time that situation presents itself. Leyland had a chance to rest his bullpen and stick with the guy who gives his team the best chance for success in that situation, but instead decided to self-fulfill his prophecy that the starters don’t go long enough.
The same scenario unfolded with Andrew Miller on Sunday. Miller breezed through innings 2-5 and got the first batter in the 6th out. He then gave up a hit to Julio Franco which prompted Leyland to remove Miller from the game. I understand that Leyland wants to protect his pitchers. Miller’s pitch count was at 101. But again, I would rather have Miller with a pitch count of 101 than Grilli with a pitch count of zero any day of the week. Miller probably would have gotten out of the sixth with minimal damage. Instead, Leyland chose to use an overworked bullpen. Plus, the difference in pitch count between 5 1/3 innings and 6 innings (or 6 1/3 and 7 innings) is probably only 10-15 pitches. It’s not like Leyland would be threatening careers by leaving his starters out there for an extra two outs. The sixth inning is one of the most important innings of a baseball game. That is when the starter generally starts to fatigue and the decision of whether to bring in a reliever flares up. Getting to the 7th inning with the bullpen intact is what every manager hopes for. If 10-15 pitches is the difference between getting to the 7th without having used the bullpen or not, then I would think that it would be worth it to leave the starter in especially when the man replacing him has an ERA close to double that of the starter.
For as much as Leyland complains about the starters not going deep enough into games, he is certainly quick to bail on them at the first sign of trouble. Chuck Hernandez even made a call to the bullpen in the third inning after two errors and two walks loaded the bases. One would think that when you have a bullpen with an ERA of 5.03, you would want your starters out there as long as possible. Bringing in a reliever right now is almost never the right answer for the Tigers. I would love to see Leyland stick with his starters in the middle of the sixth and seventh innings rather than “roll the dice” with a sketchy reliever. Clearly the bullpen will be used but it should never be used when the guy on the mound gives you a better shot at outs than the guy replacing him.
Miller, Verlander, and Bonderman are phenomenal talents routinely capable of getting out of bad situations with minimal damage. The bullpen—sans Joel Zumaya—does not have that ability. The “thing” that makes those starters special is still there when their pitch count reaches 100. They don’t just magically lose their ability to pitch. Fatigue becomes a factor but, even then, letting the starter finish an inning likely gives you a better shot at success over bringing in a reliever with a 5.00+ ERA.
Ozzie Guillen took a lot of flack two years ago for overworking his starters. Even though his White Sox went on to win the World Series, Guillen grossly overworked his starters in comparison to the rest of the league. I’m not sure how much room there is for criticism considering Guillen’s team won the World Series. However, the Tigers have young pitchers. That complicates things a bit. I think somewhere between what Guillen did in ’05 and what Leyland has been doing this year there is a healthy median where the starters don’t get pulled the minute a fluke single drops in. Leyland clearly understands that his bullpen isn’t real strong right now. He also understands that he has been using his bullpen too much. When it all comes down to it, the answer appears to be pretty simple: just use the bullpen less.