As the Blue Jays prepare to take on the Boston Red Sox for their home opener, in front of a raucous crowd of 48,000 people, we can assume that they will have already forgotten about the four-game series in Tampa Bay. The blown leads, Josh Donaldson’s injury scare (he is expected to suit up tonight), and all the strikeouts are in the rearview mirror. It would probably be best to join the players in moving on, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the red flags from the series that could carry over into ‘Home Opening Weekend’ and beyond.
If you were paying even a little bit of attention to Wednesday’s getaway day, you’re well aware that Arnold Leon came into the game with runners on the corners, one out and a one run lead, and then proceeded to immediately surrender a three-run, game-winning home run. Bringing in Leon in that spot was a questionable decision at best, and a downright awful one at worst. He is a mediocre relief pitcher who couldn’t even catch on in Oakland’s empty bullpen…so why was be pitching with the game on the line in the 8th inning?
Part of that had to do with the unavailability of a large number of Blue Jays relievers. Jesse Chavez, Brett Cecil, and Drew Storen were all deemed unavailable due to previous workloads. The reason for Storen’s inability to pitch has been hotly contested on the airwaves, but if he wasn’t going to pitch, I’m not sure it really matters.
However, the real issue arises when you realize that, even with that group of players out of action, there’s no reason Leon should have seen the mound. Gavin Floyd had pitched 1.1 innings to that point and had registered three strikeouts, with the only two baserunners having reached on soft hits off the end of the bat. He has been stretched out in spring and could easily have kept going. However, even if John Gibbons was 100% sure Floyd needed to come out, there’s no reason not to summon Roberto Osuna to put out the fire.
Of course, you’ve probably read a dozen pieces about this move (or non-move) by now. I only bring it up as a symptom of the greater overall problem: the strict adherence to roles and a fundamental ignorance of leverage.
Baseball’s biggest leverage trap almost almost reared its ugly head during that same Wednesday game, but no one seems to want to talk about it. In the bottom of the fourth, with the Blue Jays leading 3-0, J.A. Happ gave up four singles (and had one strikeout) to reduce the Toronto lead to 3-1 with the bases loaded and one out. As expected in this situation, a reliever began to get loose in the bullpen. When the camera panned down to give us a look, the man standing there was…Joe Biagini.
For those of you unaware, Joe Biagini was a Rule V pick from the Giants. I actually like what the Jays might have in the tall righty; he has a hard fastball and a reasonably sharp curveball. That being said, if the Jays wouldn’t have been forced to send him back to San Francisco, there is a 100 percent chance he would’ve been sent to the minors. He has never pitched in the major leagues; in fact, he has never even pitched above AA. Yet there he was, getting ready to come into Wednesday’s game.
Many of you could be reading this and asking “who cares? It’s the fourth inning?” To which I would respond, “why does that matter?” It was a situation where the game could have easily gotten away from the Blue Jays. That didn’t happen, as Happ bore down and got out of the inning without further damage. Though, as he has done time and time again, when Gibbons went to his bullpen early in the game with runners on base, he reached for his long reliever. How many times have we seen the likes of Todd Redmond, Scott Copeland, or Ramon Ortiz enter a close game early with runners on base? Many. The question is…why?
How did this become the practice? With all the advancements in bullpen usage over the years, how is it written that a long reliever has to be the first man out of the pen in a short outing by the starter? Shouldn’t the first job be to get out of the inning, and keep the game close? You can worry about the rest of the game after that.
Before I continue, I should be clear that this isn’t an issue that is unique to John Gibbons, or that I feel he is unfit as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. I don’t think either of those things are true. In fact, I’d argue that he’s better than many at using his elite relievers in non-traditional ways. This is something that basically all managers do.
In fact, I have only actually seen someone make the right decision once. On June 21st last year, Chris Tillman got shelled by the Blue Jays, lasting just an inning and a third before being removed. However, the Jays starter, Scott Copeland, had already given up seven runs in his own inning and a third, so Baltimore still held a 7-4 lead when Tillman left the game with runners on second and third and one out.
In an effort to preserve the lead, Buck Showalter did not go to a long relief pitcher. Instead, he went to Tommy Hunter, one of his two primary setup men at the time, to shut things down. It didn’t work, as Hunter ended up letting both runners score, but it was a sign of a manager who was aware that he needed to kill the rally. At that instant, he knew that he needed to get to the next inning with a lead before he needed to worry about who would hold it.
It should be said that this probably doesn’t change a lot over the course of season. It might be the difference of one game over an entire season. However, in a division as tightly packed as the AL East, even the tiniest edge could mean the difference between a championship and mediocrity.
Lead Photo: Denny Medley – USA TODAY Sports