May 24, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly (8) relieves starting pitcher Chris Capuano (35) in the sixth inning after giving up a two run home run against St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese (23) at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Game Strategies-Proper Bullpen Usage Goes A Long Way


Nothing irritates me more than a blown game. It’s wasted opportunities to me. Having a strong bullpen is very important to being a competitive Baseball team. If you can’t hold leads in the late innings, then you’re not going to win many games. Last night’s loss was the most annoying of variety. The Dodgers were down 3-2 to the Padres in the top of the ninth. It’s one thing when a bullpen blows a lead, but when the Dodgers don’t even have a lead, but are still in the game with one inning to play, the bullpen blew their chance of having a chance to win.

With the Dodgers flaccid offense, trailing by more than two runs is like a death warrant. So if the bullpen can’t even hold the game within two runs, then we’re going to have problems. Clayton Kershaw didn’t have his usual dominant stuff but he still pitched a solid six innings. Newly added Peter Moylan gave another solid outing, pitching a scoreless top of the seventh. He made only 12 pitches but was not allowed to pitch the eighth. Why? I have no idea. This is how Don Mattingly uses the bullpen and it’s so infuriatingly reckless.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Paco Rodriguez throws a pitch against the San Diego Padres during the game at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Why couldn’t Moylan pitch another inning? Mattingly makes way too many pitching changes in the middle of innings. By letting your non-closer relievers pitch two inning appearances stretches out your bullpen, and saves arms for the following game or games. When you use a long game with your bullpen, you lessen the chances of injury. But that’s not what Mattingly does, he plays a short game. Each reliever only pitches one frame at a time, or less. Multiple pitchers in every inning. Over managing 101.

Of course this applies when the reliever is getting outs. If he is pitching well, and getting outs, then you leave him in. Let him go another frame. Save your bullpen. Only make pitching changes in the middle of an inning if the reliever on the mound isn’t getting outs.

But no, no noooooo Mattingly just couldn’t leave Moylan in to pitch another inning. Nope. I mean the world would stop spinning if that happened. So in came Ronald Belisario to pitch the top of the eighth with the Dodgers still trailing by a run 3-2. Ok, fine. Belisario has been terrible, largely due to lack of command. He’s leaving way too many pitches out over the plate. Belisario gets a fly out, then gives up a single to Jesus Guzman, and then he’s instantly hooked. Enter lefty Paco Rodriguez.

Normally I would be fine with yanking Belisario so quick, but I don’t know, maybe he gets out of that? I mean there was only a runner at first. I would have liked to see if he could have, but then again, why even bring him in if you don’t intend on him pitching at least an inning?

However Paco does a great job getting out of the inning. There’s a walk to Yasmani Grandal. Then Paco whiffs Mark Kotsay, and gets Denorfia to ground into a force. Inning over. Great. Now remember, the Dodgers are something like 0-20 when trailing after six innings. So when the Dodgers get knocked down, they do not get back up. The Dodgers are no heavyweight boxer.

So obviously holding the deficit to one-run as long as you can is critical to winning. As usual the bullpen failed to do that.

After the Dodgers couldn’t score again in the bottom of the eighth, the bullpen had to pitch one more scoreless frame in the top of the ninth to even give the team a chance of coming back. Please don’t give me that “It’s the offense’s fault because they don’t score enough, and the bullpen has to be perfect, and there’s no room for error nonsense”. Yes, the offense sucks, and yes that’s an article or two articles for another day, but right now I am talking about the bullpen. And most major league bullpens can hold one-run leads. Most major league bullpens can pitch three scoreless innings. That’s the bullpen’s job. Otherwise what good are they?

So with Paco back on the mound in the ninth, you would expect for me to be pleased right? “But Scott, there’s a reliever pitching more than an inning. Isn’t that what you wanted?” (In annoying nasally voice) yes it is, but if the pitcher stops getting outs, then you have to be prepared to hook him quick, and always prepare with someone throwing behind him.

So what happens? Mattingly leaves poor Paco into die in this inning. Paco gave up a single to Cabrera, then a walk, and another walk. The bases are loaded with none out. Finally Mattingly trudges out to the mound to make another pitching change with the bases loaded. Paco had made 40 pitches. 40! That seems a bit reckless to me doesn’t it? Or is it careless?

If a reliever isn’t getting guys out then they have to have a short rope. Leaving in a reliever to run up his pitch count to 40 pitches in an inning is a bad idea. Remember back in 2010 when Jonathon Broxton was left in to make 48 pitches in a game against the Yankees? If you remember he never recovered from that. He had to have elbow surgery eventually. He came back, but was never quite the same as he used to be.

J.P. Howell was brought in to relieve Paco, and he couldn’t get anybody out. Howell has been decent this year, but whatever. He shouldn’t have even had to have come in in the first place. Two singles and two sac flies later, the 3-2 game has now become a 6-2 game. Now the Dodgers are down by four runs instead of two going into the bottom of the ninth. Game set match.

I am starting to think Mattingly has some sort of sick obsession with using the entire bullpen every game. Or as I call it the Joe Torre disease. This disease leaves a horde of blown arms in its wake. So great strategy here. You used four pitchers to pitch three innings, and gave up three runs. You used the pitchers in the wrong order, and took out the guy who was getting outs, and left in the guy who wasn’t. Brilliant.

The Dodger bullpen remains one of the worst in the majors. The Dodger relievers rank 21st in ERA (4.16), 27th in BAA (.266), and have lost 14 games. The bullpen is 16 for 28 in save opportunities. They rank 23rd in runs allowed (88). When runners are inherited, they score. When leads are obtained, they are blown. I haven’t even scratched the surface of Brandon League’s atrociousness.

With Scott Elbert out with Tommy John surgery, and by the way, that’s another arm blown. But with Elbert out, and Moylan already with the team means that there is no cavalry coming. Of course the Dodgers could call up someone like a Chris Withrow to help. I heard he throws real hard, and the Dodgers could use some power arms in this pen.

Oh and by the way, Withrow is 4-0 with a 2.01 ERA in 21 games, and a 10.9 strike out per nine rate, in Albuquerque.

Chris Withrow could help the Dodger bullpen-Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

For now, if the Dodgers aren’t going to call anyone else up to help, then they’re going to have to start scouring the waiver wire, or start actually using the bullpen properly. The best configuration for victory is to use Paco in the eighth, and Jansen in the ninth. Use Howell, and Moylan in the sixth and seventh innings, and you pray. That’s about the best you can do with what you have, but at least use your best pitchers in the high leverage innings. Give your team the best chance of winning.

Whatever you do, DON’T use the atrocious League in the ninth inning. DON’T make a hundred pitching changes before the seventh inning. DON’T empty your entire bullpen by the eighth. DON’T leave a guy in for 40 pitches when he’s struggling and not getting guys out. DON’T wait until the last minute when the bases are loaded to make a pitching change.

Do prepare by thinking ahead. Do have someone warming up just in case, BEFORE the inning starts, or BEFORE there is a rally. Do let your non-closer relievers make two inning appearances. Do use your best pitchers in the right order at the end of games. It’s not brain surgery.

If the Dodgers can’t hold leads late in games then they will never get out of last place. Oh and yes the Dodgers lost last night 6-2. They did win two of three from the Padres, but have a long way to go before getting back to .500. They’re going to need a strong bullpen that can hold leads to do that.  And no before you ask, Yasiel Puig can’t pitch.

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Tags: Don Mattingly J.P. Howell Kenley Jansen Los Angeles Dodgers Paco Rodriguez Peter Moylan Ronald Belisario Scott Elbert

  • AaronKnuckleCurve

    I have to say he leaves guys in too long. a reliever should never throw more than 20 pitches.

    • LasordasLair

      I agree, if they’re not getting outs.