The One Way I’ll Second Guess Bruce Bochy

This probably has to be said up front; Bruce Bochy has historically done a masterful job of running his pitching staff in the postseason. It’s one of the main reasons — well, along with Madison Bumgarner anyway — that he has three world series championships, and is almost certainly going into the Hall of Fame someday. Over the long run, I don’t think bullpen management has been a weakness of Bochy’s Giants.

But there’s one thing about this Giants second half bullpen meltdown that I’ve never really been able to understand, or seen explained with solid reasoning. And this thing was only magnified during the season-ending bullpen meltdown in the ninth inning of the NLDS; why doesn’t Bochy trust Will Smith?

Over the last few years, Smith has been one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball. Since moving to the bullpen in 2013, he’s held opposing hitters to a .218/.300/.365 line, good for just a .291 wOBA. As a reliever, he’s struck out 32% of the batters he faced, so while he does walk more guys than you’d like, he’s still been highly effective overall.

To put that .291 wOBA allowed in perspective, batters have a career .281 wOBA against Madison Bumgarner. Smith has been, on a per batter faced basis, nearly as effective as the Giants ace. Which is why the Giants paid a pretty high price to acquire him at the deadline, making him their big bullpen acquisition for the stretch run.

And it’s not like he has ran any kind of significant platoon split. Lefties have put up a .280 wOBA against Smith (in his relief appearances), while righties have put up a .299 wOBA. He’s a little better against lefties, as you’d expect, but a .299 wOBA allowed is still quite good, and that’s against guys who have the platoon advantage against him.

Overall, Smith pitched pretty well in San Francisco. During the regular season, he pitched 18 1/3 innings for the Giants, holding hitters to a .197/.293/.258 line, just a paltry .254 wOBA. In the first three games of this series, Bochy had asked Smith to retire three batters, and he’d set them all down. During a time at which the Giants bullpen was a walking catastrophe, Smith was getting people out regularly.

And yet, Bochy just didn’t ever seem inclined to use him as part of the revolving wheel of closers, seeing him as more of a one or two out guy. Here’s how the Brewers used Smith the last few years, and then how Bochy used him in San Francisco.

Will Smith, Usage by Team
Season vs LHB%
2013 37%
2014 44%
2015 46%
2016 MIL 42%
2016 SF 51%

Bochy didn’t turn Smith into Javier Lopez or anything, but most good left-handed relievers face more RHBs than LHBs, since teams will often pinch-hit for their weak LH starters late in games. For comparison, only 27% of the batters Andrew Miller faced this year were left-handed. To get Smith more at-bats against left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters, Bochy had to not use him to start an inning if a right-hander was due up, and then regularly lift him for inferior right-handed pitchers if more right-handed batters were coming up after the lefty that Smith was called in to face.

We saw that exact situation unfold last night. Up 5-2 heading into the 9th inning, with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist due up, Bochy handed the ball to Derek Law. Law has been quite good for the Giants this year as well, but he threw 35 pitches in game three, the most of any reliever in the Giants bullpen. It is pretty rare that a manager will ask a reliever to pitch the day after he threw 35 pitches, but it’s the postseason, and based on how Law pitched in the regular season and last night, it’s not that hard to see why Bochy trusted him more than anyone else in that situation.

But once Bryant reached, Bochy decided to play the match-up game, going with Lopez to face the left-handed Anthony Rizzo, and then bringing in Sergio Romo to face the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist, even though Romo has given up a .295/.374/.464 line against left-handed batters the last few years. When those moves backfired, Bochy finally went to Smith only after left-handed hitting Chris Coghlan was sent up to pinch-hit for Addison Russell, even though Smith is the best left-handed pitcher the Giants had, and would probably have been a better match-up against both Rizzo and Zobrist.

Smith ended up facing Willson Contreras instead of Russell after Joe Maddon pinch-hit, and he gave up the game-tying single, so from one perspective, maybe this all seems like silliness; Smith was given the ball with the lead, and the Giants lost that lead after the first batter he faced. So why am I wondering why Bochy didn’t trust the guy who was on the mound when 5-3 became 5-5?

Because in that 9th inning disaster, Smith is the only one who deserved better. Law gave up a 94 mph grounder that Baseball Savant calculated would be a hit 60% of the time. Lopez walked Rizzo, even though up by three in the ninth inning, putting a guy on base isn’t much better than giving up a home run. Romo gave up a 99 mph line drive to Zobrist on a ball that’s a hit 65% of the time. These guys pitched badly, and got the Giants in trouble.

Smith? He gave up an 89 mph comebacker that was a few inches away from being an easy 1-3 putout. The expected average of Contreras’ ball? .214. As far as contact goes, that was about as perfect as the Giants could have asked for, except it managed to just get up the middle for a two run single. That’s baseball, but that wasn’t bad pitching.

Smith was left in to face another lefty, Jason Heyward, but was then removed after making a nice play on Heyward’s lousy bunt. That was Smith’s usage in San Francisco in a nutshell.

I don’t know that Will Smith would have done any better than the guys in front of him had he started the ninth inning. Certainly, it’s easy to sit here and say that a manager should have done this or that with the benefit of hindsight, and realistically, pretty much any collection of relievers should be able to hold a three run lead with three outs to go.

But the way Smith was used the last few months has just been weird. The team paid a high price to get a good reliever to upgrade their bullpen, and despite a total implosion from the internal options, Bochy kept going to just about anyone besides the good reliever the team traded for, even as the good reliever pitched really well. And then, with three outs to preserve their season and force a game five, Bochy went to three other relievers before he went to Will Smith, starting the inning with a guy who threw 35 pitches last night, then going to his second best left-handed reliever, and then going to a right-handed specialist against a switch-hitter; that right-handed specialist had thrown 32 pitches the night before too.

During his entire tenure in Milwaukee, Smith was never a lefty specialist, and the Giants certainly didn’t acquire him with the thought of having him serve in that role. But that’s kind of how Bochy used him, even when his alternatives were exhausted inferior pitchers.

Bochy has done a lot of things really well in his career, and I definitely don’t think I could manage a bullpen any better than he can. But I don’t know why he didn’t trust Will Smith in the final two months of the year, and I don’t know why he didn’t trust Will Smith in game four of the NLDS.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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jacobfagan
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jacobfagan

Followed the club all year. Trying to be objective as possible, he was horrible. I lost track at how many times he blatantly made bad decisions. Oh well, fun season regardless.

TroutMask
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TroutMask

Who do you propose was “horrible”? Bruce Bochy or Will Smith?

jacobfagan
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jacobfagan

Idk how I forgot to say Bochy. oy

jacobfagan
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jacobfagan

talking about Bochy btw

carter
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carter

Honestly I would personally leave Moore out there for the 9th. Pitch count be damned.

jacobfagan
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jacobfagan

I would’ve used Smith

carter
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carter

obv better than the decision they went with. I love how the bullpens are used these days, but I do think the concern with pitch counts is a little overblown. When they show a correlation between pitch counts and injuries I will believe it, but I would venture it might be a negative correlation.

jacobfagan
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jacobfagan

more about effectiveness over injury

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Why worry about an injury to Moore? The reason you play is to get to this point. It is not like he is some 18 y/o kid. His best days are already behind him.

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

Best days behind him?? Former top prospect that just had his first full year back from Tommy John entering his prime years with 3 years of team control left. Taking him out is fine, a reliever could have had an 18.00 era and gotten the save. Crawford making 2 errors last night loomed large, when one of the best in baseball on d plays like that your not supposed to win.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

As you saw, no lead in the 9th inning is safe with the Giants’ bullpen. They should have left him in. Crawford’s two errors were very big, no question, although his double (near HR) was also big and the first might have been handled by Belt. But absolutely, we were shocked and disappointed.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

I would have left in Moore but then put in Smith if he let anyone on.

Battlecar Compactica
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Battlecar Compactica

I was thinking the same thing (at least in terms of letting Moore start the ninth; I don’t know the Giants’ pen well enough to have an opinion on who should’ve come in after that). He’d retired nine in a row when he was pulled. With a three-run lead, and given the Giants’ bullpen struggles, it seems like giving Moore a chance to at least get Bryant out would’ve made sense. I’m not even sure how strongly the usual logic of “pick a fresh reliever over a fatigued starter” applies here. I mean, sometimes you don’t realize a pitcher is fatigued until it’s too late, but with a three-run lead you have the luxury of judging Moore’s effectiveness batter-by-batter without risking letting the tying run reach the plate. And, while I’m no expert on the stamina of the Giants’ relievers or how they’ve generally been used this season, it’s not obvious to me that all the guys Bochy brought in were “fresher” than Moore. Law threw 35 pitches the night before; Romo threw 32; Strickland threw 19.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

BLASPHEMY – this is the playoffs if you have not heard. This is a different brand of baseball. Of course, I am not being serious at all.

I thought that was the move as well. He was cruising.

WARrior
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WARrior

The Dodgers left Kershaw in with a very similar situation—leading 5-2—and look how well that worked out.

Dave T
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Dave T

Kershaw was on 3 days’ rest. Moore had last pitched in a game on October 2.

I’m not sure that Bochy should have stayed with Moore, but I’d say letting Moore start the 9th and then pulling him if anyone reached base was a better idea than his plan of Law, then Lopez, and then Romo.

koufaxmachine
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koufaxmachine

Free Casilla!

ziprel
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ziprel

He’s a Free Agent to-be.
Just needs to file for it to be free for anyone to sign

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Was he healthy? I get that he got removed as closer, but how is he not an option? He is on the roster right?

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

He was on the roster but there was no way he was going to be used in an important situation unless there was absolutely no choice.

chrisbee80
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chrisbee80

I’ve said for years Giants need to get rid of him. People are finally seeing it. This year his decisions really showed through to even hardcore fans.

The ONLY thing people have are “3 rings” but guess what the PLAYERS won those.