Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Four Pitchers in an Inning

Gone too soon? Jim Leyland pulls Max Scherzer from ALCS Game 6
(photo: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)
Last Saturday night, the Boston Red Sox defeated the Detroit Tigers 5-2 in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series to advance to the 2013 World Series. In what seemed like an eerie bit of déjà vu from Game 2 of the same series, Tigers starter Max Scherzer left the game while the Tigers were ahead, only to see a parade of relievers struggle and ultimately give up a grand slam home run.

Scherzer went 21-3 during the regular season. He will win this year's AL Cy Young Award. In Game 2 he was dominating, and departed after throwing 108 pitches over 7 innings. In several other outings this year, Scherzer had often thrown more pitches; he had averaged over 120 pitches in his prior two starts. The Tigers led, 5-1. But when three relievers combined to get just 2 outs while loading the bases in the bottom of the 8th, manager Jim Leyland called on closer Joaquin Benoit to face David Ortiz. Ortiz hit Benoit's first pitch for a game-tying grand slam home run, and the Red Sox eventually won the game.

In game 6, Scherzer was removed after walking Xander Bogaerts on a borderline full count pitch; to many observers as well as television and radio announcers it appeared to have been strike three. No matter; Scherzer didn't get the call. The walk put two men on with one out. Scherzer had thrown 110 pitches. Jim Leyland came out, and the merry-go-round (for Boston) commenced. Leyland First called on Drew Smyly. Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury hit Smyly's second pitch on the ground for a potential inning-ending double play... but Tigers shortstop José Iglesias bobbled the ball, loading the bases. Never mind that Smyly had thrown only two pitches and done his job: Leyland went to the bullpen again. When Shane Victorino hit José Veras's 0-2 pitch out of the park, it was two grand slams in 6 days against pitchers who had neither started the inning nor been the first reliever. Phil Coke eventually came on to finish the inning for the Tigers.

Twice in 6 days, the Jim Leyland used 4 pitchers in a single inning that had started with the Tigers in front. Both times, the results were disastrous, both times the Tigers surrendered the lead, and both times, the damage occurred after the second pitching change -- in Game 2, the 4th pitcher gave up the grand slam, and in Game 6 the second reliever (the inning's third pitcher) gave it up.

What Red Sox fans will remember: Stan Grossfeld's iconic photograph of Detroit's Torii Hunter and Boston police officer Steve Horgan, in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.
I've always been somewhat biased to believe that on any given day, somebody among the relievers won't have their best stuff, and that many pitching changes increases the risk of finding that reliever at the worst possible time. I know that risk is not always totally avoidable; if the starter has run out of gas or the first reliever is getting hit hard, changes may be necessary. But that hadn't been the case in the two Tigers losses this year: Scherzer was still dominating when he was removed in Game 2, and both he and Smyly had pitched more than well enough before getting pulled in Game 6.

I also know that managers making rapid-fire pitching changes for the tiniest perceived advantage isn't exactly new: In the final inning of the 1979 World Series, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver famously used 5 pitchers (no one has yet to use 6). It didn't help; the Pirates scored 2 runs to seal their series victory.

Still, there seems to me to be an emerging towards more pitching changes in very short order. So I decided to take a look at post-season games since 2000. And then I looked at all of major league post-season history:


The first time a manager called upon 4 pitchers in a single inning was in 1929, in the greatest comeback in World Series history. The Cubs' Charlie Root had a 3-hit shutout and an 8-0 lead in to the bottom of the 7th, but the Philadelphia A's scored 10 runs off of him and 3 relievers for an improbable 10-8 win. Over the first two thirds of the 20th century, multiple calls to the bullpen were very rare, and typically only for similar disasters, e.g., the Detroit Tigers during the 3rd inning of Game 7 in 1934, when the St. Louis Cardinals scored 7 runs.

I found 26 instances of managers using 4 or more pitchers in a single inning since 2000. In every case, the inning's first pitcher surrendered at least one baserunner, and 16 times the first pitcher allowed at least two baserunners. In all, 51 batters reached base off those innings' first pitchers, against just 23 outs. (Hardly a surprise; had the first pitcher done well, they'd have stayed in the game and the inning would likely have ended without much damage) All but 4 of the 51 led to runs being scored. But the vast majority of those runs -- more than 80% -- scored while the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th pitcher of the inning was on the mound.

The second pitchers of the carousel were the worst of the arsonists: recording just 9 total outs while allowing 41 baserunners. 11 of the 26 faced just one batter; in 9 of those 11 instances the batter reached safely.

The champion of the quick hook, no doubt, is Ron Gardenhire of the Minnesota Twins. In his first season as manager, the Twins reached the ALCS. In Game 3, Gardenhire used 4 pitchers to protect a 7th inning 2-1 lead against the eventual World Champion Anaheim Angels. Despite a hit and two walks, Eric Milton, LaTroy Hawkins, Johan Santana kept the Angels from scoring, and the Twins held on for the win. Unfortunately for Gardenhire and the Twins, it was all downhill from there. In Game 4, Gardenhire became the first manager in major league history to use 4 pitchers in an inning in consecutive post-season game: He used 5 pitchers in the 8th inning, including Santana and Hawkins again, but the Angels scored 5 runs to blow the game open. The main damage coming against the 4th pitcher, Michael Jackson. In Game 5, Gardenhire went back to the well for a third straight game. The relievers had nothing left: the 4 pitchers combined to surrender 10 runs in the 7th inning as a 5-3 Twins lead turned in to a 13-5 series-clinch for Anaheim.

Except for Gardenhire's 2002 adventures, I found only 4 other instances of managers using 4 or more pitchers in a single inning, between 2000 and 2007. The most notable among these was in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, when Dusty Baker removed a dominant Russ Ortiz in the 7th inning, at just 98 pitches and with a 5-0 lead. Baker handed Ortiz the ball, as if Ortiz had just clinched the series; Ortiz never threw another pitch for the Giants. Meanwhile, the Angels came back to win the game against the Giants' bullpen, scoring 3 runs off 3 relievers that inning, and 3 more the next inning.

Since 2008, the tactic of using many relievers has become much more common. I counted 19 instances so far over these 6 seasons -- including 3 by Jim Leyland in games started by Max Scherzer.

Perhaps the catalyst for the recent uptick in the trend was Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series. The Tampa Bay Rays led the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox in a tight game. Starting pitcher Matt Garza began the 8th, but after a leadoff error he was at 118 pitches. Manager Joe Maddon brought in three more pitchers who combined to get 2 outs and load the bases. Finally, rookie sensation David Price -- the fifth pitcher, who had just 16 career innings to his name -- struck out JD Drew to end the threat. The strategy worked, and Tampa Bay had its first World Series team. A week later, the Philadelphia Phillies used 4 pitchers in the 7th inning of the 4th game of the World Series, and they also won, by a 10-2 score.

More often, however, the results mirror what happened to Leyland's Tigers. For example, in Game 1 on the 2010 ALCS, CJ Wilson of the Texas Rangers started the 8th inning with a 5-1 lead against the New York Yankees. Wilson allowed 2 hits and had reached 104 pitches, so manager Ron Washington relieved him with Darren Oliver. Oliver and two more relievers combined to allow 4 more Yankees to reach without recording an out, and the Yankees scored 5 runs in the inning to win the game. The winning run scored with the Rangers' 5th pitcher on the mound.

On at least two occasions, managers plainly botched pitching changes. Don Mattingly has been ripped by baseball writers for his handling of Game 2 of the NLDS series against Atlanta this year, when he removed Zack Greinke after just 83 pitches for a pinch-hitter in a 2-1 game, even though Greinke hit .328 this season. Mattingly's handling of the Atlanta 7th inning, when he brought in Paco Rodriguez to issue an intentional walk to a pinch hitter; the Braves scored 2 runs against 4 pitchers and held on for a 4-3 win.

"Embarrassing." Tony LaRussa and Lance Lynn, 2011 Game 5.
Yet, in 2011, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa -- with over 30 years of major league managerial experience -- made a similar error. Game 5 of the World Series was tied at 2, and LaRussa replaced starter Chris Carpenter for the 8th inning, after 101 pitches. Texas scored two runs against 4 Cardinals pitchers for a 4-2 victory; the most bizarre pitching change had LaRussa bringing in Lance Lynn after he had thrown 47 pitches the previous game, by mistake. LaRussa claims that when he saw Lynn at the mound, he said, "What are you doing here?" Lynn was allowed to issue an intentional walk, and was then replaced.

Of course, my sample size is too small for any conclusions. The overall record of teams using 4 or more pitchers in a single inning, since 2000, is 4-22. Several of the losses involved notable blown saves: Besides this year's Tigers, Craig Kimbrel came within a strike of closing out the Giants before he and the rest of the Atlanta bullpen imploded in Game 3 of a 2010 NLDS, and the Phillies bullpen conspired to blow Pedro Martinez's last great game in Game 2 of the 2009 NLCS. The three instances so far this season, one could make a case the excessive and/or early changes had a key role in the losing team's demise.

We'll never know how Max Scherzer might have fared, had he just stayed in the games for a few more batters. From a Detroit perspective, he couldn't have done any worse than what actually happened. Jim Leyland resigned as Detroit manager shortly after the end of this year's ALCS. For my part, I'm hoping the new manager is a little slower on the trigger.