Managing a bullpen is one of the biggest challenges a big-league skipper faces. Starters are going fewer and fewer innings, multi-inning closers have gone the way of the dinosaur, and roles have begun to blur. Matc-ups have thus become increasingly important, and determining them isn’t as simple as scanning a stat sheet. This isn’t Strat-O-Matic, it’s real life, and workloads and psyches need to be factored into the equation.
A.J. Hinch has done a good job with this balancing act. Having quality arms at one’s disposal obviously helps — and the Astros clearly have some quality arms — but optimizing their usage is nonetheless an art form. The numbers suggest that Hinch is more of a Rembrandt van Rijn than a Jackson Pollock (no disrespect to the latter, the reference is to technical proficiency). Houston relievers have both the best ERA and best FIP of any team in the majors, while their walk and strikeout rates are things of beauty. By and large, Hinch knows which buttons to push… and when to push them.
A.J. Hinch: “It’s definitely changed from my playing days to now. We’ve been softly eliminating perfect roles. I think there will always be a closer. There will always be setup guys. There will always be guys who are long men or lefty specialists. I’m not taking about those roles. It’s more that I’ve watched the game evolve to the point where managers are using their relievers creatively.
“There’s how Terry Francona used Andrew Miller a couple of years ago. There’s how we used the bullpen in the playoffs last year. Closers are being used on the road more often. Lefties are getting righties out if the numbers suggest you don’t have to play a perfect matchup. I think the creativity within organizations has grown, and that’s impacted the manager role, how we utilize our weapons.
“Matchups are more specific than just handedness. For a long time, handedness would be used as the single most important factor, and that’s just not the case anymore. Now it’s, ‘Where in the strike zone can a pitcher exploit with his best pitches?’ Is it a guy with hop, a high-carry fastball with great spin? Is it a guy who can spin a breaking ball more effectively? Is it the angle of the breaking ball — a sideways, lateral breaking ball versus a top-down breaking ball? Those are things that factor in and layer context into a decision of who the best matchup is for each specific hitter. The more we study it, the more we experience it and have success with it… that creates confidence to try to always have your best weapon up against their best hitters.
“You have to remind yourself to factor in what you see with what you know. A specific data point can only take you so far. When you’re seeing a guy with a really good fastball that day or a really good curveball that day… the information may tell you that a different pitcher is a better matchup, but what you’re seeing from the pitcher that’s already in the game could be telling you to ride the hot hand. There’s a human element in decision-making. You can get carried away and do too much of that, but you can also do too little of it and be too systemic, trying to get that perfect matchup.
“Every pitcher I’ve ever had has told me, ‘I can get this guy.’ In my short managerial career, I haven’t had one guy seem anxious to give the ball to me or thank me for taking him out of the game. They all think they can get the guy out, and you want that mindset. I want our guys to fight the matchup-friendly usage, because that means they’re keeping their edge, keeping their confidence, keeping their mindset, in the right place.
“One of the hardest things to do is to read the game and have the right guy warmed up at the right time. The guy who has a heavy ground-ball rate. The guy who has a heavy strikeout rate. The game situation… strikeouts are always going to be key. You’ll take a strikeout 100 out of 100 times. You never run away from the strikeout. Some of the other things, whether it’s… say you have a fly-ball guy on the mound and it’s sacrifice-fly situation. That can be very frustrating. You don’t want to warm your guys up too much, but at the same time, you want to have the right pitcher characteristic available to you when you need it.
“The industry has shown value in keeping relievers available on a day-to-day basis, rather than extending them in any particular game and then not being able to use them for a couple of days. Case in point: you use a reliever for two-plus, which was somewhat customary in the 1980s and into the 1990s… Now we factor in moving forward into the daily schedule. Keeping guys eligible more often and getting them into more games is showing to be more valuable than extending their outs.
“In general, relievers are the most volatile part of a team, both with performance and health-wise. We focus so much on health and durability, and relievers come and go more often than any other position in the big leagues. That’s because it’s a really tough job. It’s also usage. If you use a guy… not every pitcher is capable of getting into 70-80 games, and that would mean they were probably up in another 10-12 games. Approaching a 100-game total is simply not worth risking.
“We’ve increased velocity across the board in the bullpen. You rarely see guys coming out of the bullpen who aren’t throwing 95-plus. That’s a valuable piece on your team that you’re always careful with. You always have to stay careful with your best arms, because we want them available at the most crucial times of the season. A quality reliever on the DL threatens wins.
“From the manager’s seat, the most important out might be… it’s usually the 27th out — that’s what everybody remembers, and what everybody wants to get — but the most important out may be in the seventh or eight inning. You want your best pitcher mentally available to throw to that hitter. Guys are going to want the saves, but I think we’ve seen the industry reward leverage. There were some huge contracts given out to middle and late relievers over the last couple of years. We’re starting to see a trend toward where you’re going to get paid if you get important outs, and not necessarily the last three outs.
“Everybody would be more comfortable having a set role, having the knowns of when he’s going to pitch, but the reality is, to give yourself the best opportunity to win… you have to train your pitchers mentally — even more so than physically — to be able to come into a game when they’re not used to coming into a game.
“I think we are going to [see more “openers”]. But your team has to fit that. It also has to be managed a certain way. You need to have available relievers every single game. If you routinely empty your tank in one particular game, that’s going to create issues for your roster. If you do it randomly, every now and then, to give your starters extra rest, I think that’s more feasible.
“Managing relievers is just as much about managing their psyches as it is their workloads. I think the hidden, or the unspoken, is just how much work goes into managing the volatility of the role — and not just the number of pitches and innings, which is being done at an all-time high. It’s also the psyches, and that ultimately falls on me. I’m the one putting them in and taking them out, and not using them in certain situations. The communication within the pitching department is important, but the connection from the manager’s seat is crucial.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.