While it was a successful Opening Day for the New York Yankees, you could say it was the exact opposite for the other half of teams that lost. But it was particularly brutal for the Phillies. High on the hopes of signing Carlos Santana, Jake Arrieta, and extending Scott Kingery, Philly dropped their first game to the Braves thanks to a questionable managerial decision. Aaron Nola was taken out of the game with a 5-0 lead and just 68 pitches in the sixth, and new manager Gabe Kapler turned to his bullpen, who promptly tossed away the entire lead and the game.
This decision was lambasted by fans and the media, and justifiably so. The thinking from Kapler is likely the supposed analytical one: It was the third time through the order, so it made more “sense” to use the bullpen. Because it is so early in the season, Kapler also thought he could preserve his pitcher a little more.
What this fails to reckon with is that this assumption is always based on a league-average starter and bullpen, and the probability of winning just this one game in the here and now. It’s a long year and the Phillies would be smart to preserve their bullpen more than their starter in this situation because their bullpen is weaker, and one of the best starters in baseball is on the mound.
That brings us to another new manager in Aaron Boone. This doesn’t mean that Boone is doomed to make the same mistakes as another new manager; that’s drawing a line where there isn’t any. I think it is fair to ask the question of whether micromanagement of bullpens is taken too far, and wonder aloud how a new manager would handle that.
To be fair, this isn’t to say that Joe Girardi is a perfect bullpen manager. One of the reasons he is no longer in pinstripes was because of the poor leverage-based decisions he made last year, and failing to assess relievers’ talent level as it existed in the present. Yet he was still arguably one of the best in baseball during his career, and Boone is still an unknown.
What gives me pause is generally the fact that, like Kapler, he has no managerial experience, and according to interviews with Brian Cashman, it was him in part acing the test on his openness to analytics that got him the job. What that leads me to believe that, like in the Phillies’ case, the directive will be to manage the bullpen in a more sabermetrically-inclined manner. And that isn’t bad! I preach using leverage correctly and third-time-through effect all the time, and I was even delighted to see them employ that strategy in the Wild Card Game.
The Yankees are lucky enough to have one of the best and deepest bullpens in baseball, and I’m hoping as this season progresses that it doesn’t become a cheap trigger to end a start and continue to tax the bullpen. We’ve seen firsthand what a rough first half could do to Dellin Betances, for example, or how the handling of Aroldis Chapman in the 2016 Postseason bled over into his 2017.
I’m optimistic, though, and I would hope that Cashman and Boone both have a tacit understanding of the balance of managing starter and relief workload. You would think I feel wholeheartedly confident at this point in my fandom. Yet it’s hard not to tug your collar when another analytical novice manager pulls the stunt you’re afraid to see on your team, and I’m hoping he sees that and takes note. Here’s to hoping that with the depth, and maybe a trade deadline pickup or two, the decisions are more or less plug-and-play.