The Phillies took a close game off of the Atlanta Braves on Friday night thanks to a tenth-inning walk-off home run from Raul Ibanez. Overall, the game was well-pitched on both sides. Roy Halladay shut down the Braves but for two runs over seven innings of work while Brandon Beachy kept the Phillies at bay through six innings. As the tie game moved into the seventh and the Braves dipped into their highly-regarded bullpen, the Phillies had to feel like they let opportunities pass them by as they were able to notch eight hits off of Beachy. Scoring even a single run off of baseball’s best bullpen is a mountain of a task.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez went through a normal progression after he lifted his starter from the game. He went to Eric O’Flaherty, then Jonny Venters, Scott Linebrink, and George Sherrill before going to Scott Proctor. One name you may notice is remarkably absent is Craig Kimbrel, the Braves’ young right-handed closer who leads all pitchers (min. 45 innings) in SIERA at 1.88. Coming into tonight’s series opener, Kimbrel was averaging 14 strikeouts per nine innings, which is pretty good. Most importantly, Kimbrel had allowed just one home run in 45 innings.
Certainly one would not want to lose a game without having used the best available weaponry, right? Unfortunately for the Braves, their manager plays “by the book,” which states that using the best reliever (typically the closer) in a tie game on the road is bad strategy. As such, Gonzalez opted to use Proctor, who has less than half the strikeout rate and a significantly higher walk rate without any good batted ball skills. Additionally, he had allowed two home runs in 17 innings, one more home run than Kimbrel in 37 percent of the innings. Unsurprisingly, Proctor recorded only one out before he surrendered the game-winning home run to the Phillies courtesy Ibanez. All the while, Kimbrel sat in the bullpen unused.
I have been critical of Charlie Manuel for his use of the bullpen, but it is worth pointing out that the same fallacious strategies are employed by other managers across the sport. Essentially, the “by the book” doctrine of bullpen management prays that the worse relievers get by long enough to allow your offense to take a lead, at which point the closer may then be used. Perhaps a team with an above-average offense — one with a higher probability of scoring runs — benefits from this strategy (by and large they don’t, I’m being generous), but the Braves came into the game averaging barely more than four runs per game, the ninth-best rate in the league.
Braves fans will curse Proctor for not being good enough to shut the door, but they should really be going after their manager for not putting his team in the best position to win. Likewise, Phillies fans should do the same when Manuel makes the same egregious error. Fans of every team should be upset when their team’s manager makes easily-correctable strategic blunders. As Sabermetrics (read: basic probability theory) seeps deeper and deeper into baseball culture, we should see these maneuvers fade out over time, but there still remains far too much sub-optimal strategy in the great sport of baseball.