Monday, July 4, 2011

Closer fireworks and the psychology of the bullpen

Matt Capps described
Saturday as the
worst day of his career.
On Saturday, Matt Capps came in to pitch the ninth inning with a three-run lead. He gave up four runs in two-thirds of an inning, and the Twins lost.

On Sunday, Capps came in for the ninth with a two-run lead. Two singles and one out later, he left. Glen Perkins struck out Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee to end it.

For better or worse, bullpen use today is built around roles. Pitchers expect it, even demand it of their managers. A manager who isn't predicable to his charges loses their confidence and eventually their respect, and a manager who loses the confidence and respect of his team loses his job. Managers have the right and obligation to change a pitcher's role for the betterment of the team, but the expectation is that those changes will be clear to the pitchers involved.

And the roles begin at the end, with the ninth-inning closer.

Glen Perkins got his first
major-league save on Sunday.
Capps had been effective entering the weekend. He had given up just one run in 10 outings in June, and pitched well once Ron Gardenhire stopped trying to get four and five-out saves from him. But this was a bad weekend for him, and  now there's speculation -- from both distant bloggers who don't enter the clubhouse and traditional media -- that he may have lost, or be losing, the job.

Gardenhire says Capps is still his closer. And I'm fine with that. I think that it IS important to relief pitchers to to have predictable roles, and I DON'T think it's important that the best relief pitcher be relegated to one-inning save situations. I would rather have the team's more reliable relievers used in the most important situations, and, Saturday's debacle notwithstanding, three-run leads in the ninth are not particularly high leverage.

Last year, in the second half, the most reliable reliever was Jesse Crain, and the Twins thrived on using him to get out of jams in the seventh or eighth innings. Right now -- on the morning of July 4, 2011 -- I believe the two most reliable relievers in the Minnesota bullpen are Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan, and I believe the Twins are better off using them to get to Capps.

But again, the key thing in such decisions is what the clubhouse thinks. Right or wrong, the closer role is seen as the pinnacle of relief pitching. It's where the money is. Nathan and Capps combine to make about $19 million because they have a lot of saves on their stat sheets. Gardenhire is right to want to keep Capps in the role, but another bad outing could force a change, just as it did in April, when Nathan gave way to Capps.

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