About That Bullpen

You were probably watching the game. On Monday night, Madison Bumgarner threw a gem: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K. The only real mistake he made was giving up a home run to world-beater Yasiel Puig in the first inning. He had thrown 107 pitches. Despite 8 hits and 4 walks off the Dodgers’ starter, Hyun-jin Ryu, the Giants had only managed to score one run, and so the game was tied at one apiece. In the top of the eighth, the Giants went down in order, and the game proceeded to the bottom of the eighth.

And Madison Bumgarner came out to pitch in the bottom of the eighth.

Why? Why would Bruce Bochy do this? Bringing in a reliever to start the eighth, rather than waiting to see if/when MadBum got in trouble, was the obvious move even as it was happening. While 107 pitches isn’t an extraordinary amount, it’s not like Bumgarner had been truly cruising. In the bottom of the seventh The Dodgers coming up to bat were Nick Punto (switch-hitter), Mark Ellis (righty), and Yasiel Puig (righty). Bringing in George Kontos to start the innings seems like it would have been a much better decision than waiting to bring him in until there were runners on first and third with none out, as would eventually be the case.

This year in the National League pitchers have held opposing batters to a .690 OPS with no one on and a .731 OPS with runners on. For the Giants, the split has been even more dramatic: .665 OPS against with runners empty, .771 OPS against with runners on base. It’s simply easier to pitch with no one on base than it is with runners on, and this effect is even more magnified as the leverage of the situation goes up. Yes, you would hope that your relievers can handle a high-leverage situation more times than not, seeing as that is a major part of their job description, but as manager there are things you can do to make their job easier. In the situation Kontos was eventually thrust into, you had a young reliever, just up from a stint in Fresno, men on first and third with no outs and perhaps the hottest hitter in the NL at the plate.

This has been a recurring motif this year with Bochy, too. The Giants lead the NL in inherited runners with 148 – there’s a bigger margin between the Giants and 6th place than there is between 6th place and last. (That 148 inherited runners figure actually leads all of baseball. The Angels are second with 140 and the Dodgers third with 136). Giants relievers are actually allowing inherited runners to score at a rate lower than league average (28% for the Giants, league average is 29%), it’s just that they’re being put in that situation far more than any other relief staff in the league. A Giants reliever has entered the game with runners on 91 times this year – most in the NL – and they have entered the league with no runners on 152 times this year – second-lowest in the league, to the Cardinals. Also, Giants relievers have entered a game in a high-leverage situation – with a Leverage Index of 1.5 or higher – 97 times this season, the most in the NL. By constantly putting your relievers in a situation in which they are most likely to fail, guess what? Sometimes, they’re going to fail.

Blame for this does not rest entirely on Bruce Bochy’s shoulders. When the starters struggle as they have so far this year, relievers are often forced to come in and clean up messes. I understand the impulse behind letting a starter who’s cruising stay out there as long as possible – you never know if you’re going to need 5 good innings out of the ‘pen the next day. The situation on Monday simply didn’t call for it, and the Giants paid the price.

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