Throw The Book At Him

With Chris Getz returning from the disabled list, Victor Marte’s brief stay in the Kansas City bullpen came to an end, as he was optioned back to Omaha, which returns the Royals to a typical seven man bullpen.  So much has been made of the failures of the bullpen in 2010 for the Royals.  And I don’t want to relive the pain, but, hey, I’m a Royals fan.  Pain is what we do around here.

The eight man bullpen was an odd choice to counteract the blown saves.  Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman did so with the thinking that with more options, more relievers are going to be fresh and effective.  Now, that could be possible, but the bullpen’s problems can’t be pinned down entirely to the construction or use of those options.  At various points, Royals relievers can’t or won’t throw strikes.  Look at April 27, when Josh Rupe threw four consecutive balls to Chone Figgins (in a 4 for 36 slump at the time) to put the tying run on base in the top of the eighth.  Later in the inning, Bruce Chen walked Milton Bradley with the bases loaded to bring in the winning run.  It’s inexcusable.

“I’d rather see them banging the fences down on our bullpen than see them walking guys,” Hillman said. “We had three different guys that ended up giving walks in situations where it can’t happen.”

Thankfully, the Royals have a relief pitcher who throws strikes and rarely walks anyone. They have a reliever who currently has a 15/1 K/BB ratio in 9.2 IP. His name, you may remember, is Joakim Soria.

Yes, THAT Joakim Soria. Top-5 closer. Sub-1.00 WHIP. ERA hovering at about 2.00 for his career.

The Royals have blown seven saves in 2010. Soria’s responsible for one of those himself, but only on a fluke right-field foul-pole homerun off the bat of Miguel Cabrera after a ten pitch at bat. Can’t really fault him for that one. So what about the other six? Why wasn’t Soria available to protect a lead in those games?

Here’s the thing. A pitcher’s value can only be realized if they’re in the game. Nobody made an out based on the potential of a pitcher making an appearance. They have to be on the mound. Their value is based on the innings they pitch. And to be fair, Trey Hillman has mostly used Soria properly. Mostly.

For small market teams, payroll restrictions mean you must find a way to use your resources to their maximum effect. With a bullpen comprised mostly of league-minimum minor-league contract types, why not use your enforcer when the time calls for it?

Trey Hillman is a traditional baseball manager. He’s not one to shake up the conventions of how the game is managed and how players are used. Since the late-80s, closers come in in the ninth inning. Maybe the eighth, if the situation is right, but usually only if you need one out. That’s how it works. Bullpens are so specialized now, that often, a team’s best reliever may not pitch more than 70 innings. That’s bad value.

I want to be fair. Hillman has shown a willingness to use Soria for four-out saves more than most managers. Actually, surprisingly, I won’t criticize the moments when Hillman has brought Soria into the game, but instead the times he didn’t.   Like on April 13 vs. Detroit.  Brian Bannister threw six shutout innings and came back out in the seventh.  He gave up a couple of hits and gave way to the bullpen, but still had the lead.  Even with two outs, the Royals had a 5-3 lead and were close to getting out of the jam, despite the middle of the order coming up.   You need one out to wipe the bases clean and keep the lead going to the top of the eighth and a former all-star at the plate.  This is why you have that superstar closer – to put out the fire (hence the old-school term “fireman”).

Hillman didn’t bring in Soria to face Magglio Ordonez, who walked to load the bases.  Okay, now, Miguel Cabrera comes up with the bases loaded, but there’s still 2 outs.  So now Soria, who hadn’t pitched since April 9, comes in, right?  You NEED this out.  Nope.  Instead Juan Cruz walked in a run.  The Royals gave up two more runs, lost any momentum, and lost the game 6-5.

Hillman after the game was asked if Soria was an option in that situation.  His answer?

“No. 1, it’s a very unusual time for Joakim Soria to pitch in a ballgame,” Hillman said. “No. 2, you’ve still got the same bats coming up in the ninth, the same middle of the lineup, in a higher-leverage situation because it is the ninth.”

No. 1, Soria has come in for two inning saves before.  If that’s not unusual, then why is getting one out unusual?  It’s not like Soria’s a robot that can only be activated by inning eight.  He started his Royals career as the setup man for Octavio Dotel in 2007.  He was effective in the seventh and eighth inning then, and it wasn’t unusual.

No. 2, it’s irrelevant who’s coming up later if you need the outs now.  The Royals lost the game.  Soria didn’t throw a pitch because there was no game to save.  No lead to protect.  It’s like crawling through the desert, parched, dehydrated, desperate for a drink of water while holding a canteen full of liquid refreshment.  But you can’t drink it in your time of need – you have to wait until you’ve made it to the oasis.  Problem is, if you don’t survive the trip, you’re never getting to the oasis.  Take the damn drink, buddy.

But the most amazing part of that quote is Hillman’s use of the term leverage.  Ah leverage.  It’s like Trey picked up a Sabermetric flashcard and read half of it.  Here’s a brief description: leverage is an index that measures the relative importance of a moment.  The higher the leverage, the more important it is to a team’s winning expectancy.  Theoretically, a manager should use their ace reliever in the highest leverage situations late.  So Hillman has it half-right.  It’s not proper to bring in Soria in the fourth inning, but in the later innings, when leverage increases (as both teams have less opportunities at bat), it’s necessary.

According to Tom Tango in The Book:  Playing the Percentages in Baseball, he determines that a leverage index of 1.50 or greater late is the best time to use your ace reliever.  “To leverage a situation, you need to use something valuable at an opportune time,” he says.

So if we use 1.50 as the baseline for correct use of Soria (or any ace reliever), how has Trey done?

Here’s a breakdown of when Hillman has brought in Soria in 2010:

  • 4/7:  Soria entered a 1-0 game vs. Detroit in the top of the eighth with two outs and a runner on second in a leverage situation of 2.38.  He got through the eighth inning and got two outs in the ninth before Miguel Cabrera hit the fluke homerun to right field.
  • 4/9:  Soria came in during a traditional save situation, up 4-3 with no outs in the ninth.  He got the save in a 2.94 leverage situation.
  • 4/14: With 2 outs and a runner on first, Soria came in to protect a 6-3 lead.  The leverage when he came in was .78.
  • 4/18:  Soria came in with two outs in the bottom of the eighth with a runner on first and Justin Morneau at the plate.  With the score 7-5, the leverage of the situation was 1.58.  Soria hadn’t pitched in a few days, so he got to protect the lead and get some work.
  • 4/21: To start the bottom of the tenth at Toronto, Soria came in to protect the 4-3 lead after Alex Gordon’s homer.  In the 3.52 leverage situation, Soria got the save.
  • 4/24:  Soria came into the game with the score tied 6-6 at Minnesota with no outs in the ninth inning.  The leverage started at 2.38.  Interestingly, Hillman chose to not use Soria in a similar situation at Texas in April 2009.  Kyle Farnsworth gave up a walk-off homerun for the loss.  Trey would talk about how it wasn’t normal to use Soria in that situation then.  Hey at least he learned a little.  Soria pitched two scoreless innings.
  • 4/25: Soria came in to protect a 4-2 lead to start the ninth inning and converted in the 1.61 leverage situation.
  • 4/29: Last night Soria came in and got two outs in the blowout.  It was the only time he came in with the Royals behind.

Other than 4/14, when the leverage didn’t dictate it, Hillman has actually used Soria within reasonable guidelines.  So why the outrage?  Well, while Soria’s entered the game in high-leverage situations, he’s never been in a game in the highest leverage situations this season.

How about a few spots where Soria’s abilities could have been used, but weren’t:

  • 4/8: With a runner on first and nobody out in the top of the eighth, Luis Mendoza, the anti-Soria, came in to hold a 2-1 lead and gave up a single and a homerun.  In a 3.38 leverage situation, Soria was nowhere to be found.
  • 4/13: Let’s revisit that 6-run seventh inning in Detroit.  With two outs and runners on first and third, the leverage situation was 1.78.  After a Magglio Ordonez walk, it rose to 3.03.  With a 5-3 lead, Juan Cruz (not Soria) came in and walked Miguel Cabrera.  With the bases still loaded and the score at 5-4, the leverage hit 5.24.  Still no Soria.  Maybe Soria doesn’t get the out, maybe the same sequence happens and the Royals still lose.  But he had a better chance to get the out and carry the 5-3 lead into the eighth inning.  Let’s assume (and we know what happens when we assume) Soria gets three outs in the eighth.  Yes, you still need three more outs in the ninth, but the average reliever can throw a shutout inning 70% of the time – even the Royals.
  • 4/20: Kyle Davies had been efficient to this point, but after a Vernon Wells double, the leverage hit 2.51 in a 3-2 game in the bottom of the seventh with no outs.  But again, you can’t expect Davies to come out after about 80 pitches at this point, so I’ll keep Trey off the hook for this one.
  • 4/24: Wait, Soria already pitched this game, right?  Well he did, but it was in the ninth inning with a tied 6-6 score.  Earlier, with two outs in the seventh inning, Joe Mauer doubled with Justin Morneau coming up and the score 6-4.  On the 18th, Soria came into an eighth inning with two outs, a runner on, a two-run lead and Justin Morneau coming up.  The only difference between the 18th and 24th was one inning.  Yet Hillman went with John Parrish on the 24th, who promptly gave up the game-tying homerun on the first pitch.  Even after that, John Parrish walked two.  Josh Rupe came in, walked another.  Still no Soria.  The Royals lost 9-7 in twelve innings, but hey, Soria got those two scoreless innings of work in.  And was still available to save the tie game.
  • 4/27: After a great start from Zack Greinke, the Royals led 2-0 in the eighth inning.  With one out, Josh Rupe gave up a bunt single to Ichiro.  Fine, it happens.  There’s still one out and the struggling Chone Figgins is up.  Rupe had been pitching well to that point, Chone Figgins walked on four pitches.  The leverage went up to 2.03.  Time for Soria, with the tying run on, yes?  Er, no.  Franklin Gutierrez singled in Ichiro, the leverage went to 3.52.  Still no Soria.  Bruce Chen and Robinson Tejeda were warming up though… And Tejeda gave up a double to Jose Lopez in a 4.58 leverage situation and the score was tied.  Ken Griffey Jr walked and Bruce Chen came in.  Still no Soria.  Milton Bradley walked in what turned out to be the winning run.  Soria wasn’t even an option.  He never picked up a baseball.  But he would have been available in the ninth, if they’d needed him.  That’s…something?

The problem in all of this, and why Hillman comes under fire is that by going “by the book” he strategically avoided using his best asset in the most important situations.  Instead, he went with a Russian roulette.  As Bill Felber mentions in The Book on the Book: An Inquiry into Which Strategies in the Modern Game Actually Work, this approach backfires since “each time you make a programmed move, the prospect looms that you will bring in the one guy who doesn’t have his stuff that night.”  Such a specialized bullpen “requires any reliever to be nearly as competent as the closer” since high-leverage situations don’t just wait for the ninth inning.

And remember, a pitcher’s value is based on the innings they pitch.  It follows that when you use a strong reliever, you’re getting good value for their performance in those innings.  When you neglect to use them, you lose both the value they would contribute, plus whatever negative value resulting from a poorer option.

So what about usage?  It’s a fair point to ask about that, considering the investment franchises have in their pitching staffs, traditionally the most injury-prone position on the roster.  But Tom Tango (after a lot of math – and I’ll be honest, my degree was in history, not math, so I won’t bog you down) posits that current relief pitchers “could probably handle an increase in their workload by 30-40% which is not inconsistent with the workload of relievers in the 1970s.”

In the above examples for when Hillman could have used Soria, you’re looking at adding three to four innings, minus the ninth and tenth innings against Minnesota (since he would have ideally pitched earlier in the game).  That fits with Tango’s determinations, so what’s the excuse?

For the most part, Hillman has used Soria within the right parameters but the times that he’d avoided using him were unconventional moments in the game.  Perhaps Soria would have blown the save just as the other relievers ended up doing.  In that case, Hillman would be getting even more flack from local media for wasting his closer in any situation that isn’t a traditional save.  Instead, the idea is to win a close game today, but not too soon.  Instead, there’s no win to be had.

Look, Zack Greinke is one of the more calm players with the media.  He’ll throw out an odd quote often, but he usually doesn’t question what’s going on or express frustration or much emotion at all.  And even he’s frustrated:

“I feel like we probably should have won another five games than we have this year,” Greinke said. “We’ve been playing well and just finding ways to lose the game, when we should be winning them. That’s frustrating.”
-Greinke after the 4/27 loss to the Mariners

I concur, Zack. I concur.
I’m not advocating for Hillman to use Soria every day or five out of six days. But when the game is on the line, he needs to go to his best weapon, and if that’s the seventh inning, fine. So Soria might not get the save in the boxscore, but the Royals have a better chance of getting the win in the standings.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Dayton Moore Joakim Soria Juan Cruz Kansas City Royals KC MLB Royals Trey Hillman Zack Greinke

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