Last week, the Astros and Phillies officially completed the trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston, and with it came an important question; what will his role in the bullpen be? For two years, Giles has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, and was excellent with Philadelphia after taking control of the closer role. However the Astros already have a closer in Luke Gregerson, which as Evan Drellich pointed out, could cause some tension.
"Luke, you’re out." "Oh, who’d we get? Miller?" "A 25-year-old kid with 16 saves for a last place team & 1-plus year of service time" ...— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) December 13, 2015
If last tweet needs translating: Ken Giles huge pick-up for the Astros. But it will be delicate w current bullpen, which is full of veterans— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) December 13, 2015
As we've seen before, the bullpen dynamic can be a tricky thing, and there can be friction when the established order is upset. Just this past season, despite an ERA of 1.69 and an FIP of 1.90, Drew Storen was exiled from the closer role to make room for Jonathan Papelbon; the man who only wanted to win...but only if he could close. The sudden change led Storen to request a trade, and was likely an underlying reason for his outburst which caused him to break his thumb.
The Astros would be wise to avoid this potential situation, and leave Gregerson in his role as the closer; not just to avoid a conflict, but also to maximize Giles' value. A reliever of his elite ability shouldn't be shackled to the ninth inning, and for a team as analyticly oriented as the Astros, they should be the team to take the next step in pushing forward the evolution of the bullpen.
Instead of relegating Giles to a single inning, almost always in the ninth or later, he should be used as the "high leverage" reliever, who would be called on to come into the game when the opposing team's chance of scoring is a near certainty. While there were undoubtedly additional examples, below are three instances from last season in which Giles could have come from the bullpen to "save" or keep the game close for the Phillies.
April 17th, 2015
The Phillies ultimately lost this game 7-2, but heading into the bottom of the 7th, the score was a much more manageable 4-1 in favor of the Nationals. Jeanmar Gomez and Jake Diekman were responsible for the entire inning in which three runs scored, as their best reliever sat in the bullpen and watched.
|Jeanmar Gomez||Dan Uggla||1-4||Uggla flied out to SS|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Ian Desmond||1-4||Desmond singled to 2B|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Jayson Werth||1-4||Werth flied out to right|
|Jake Diekman||Bryce Harper||1-4||Harper BB, Desmond to 2B|
|Jake Diekman||Ryan Zimmerman||1-6||Zimmerman doubled, Desmond & Harper scored|
|Jake Diekman||Wilson Ramos||1-7||Ramos singled to 2B, Zimmerman scored|
|Jake Diekman||Danny Espinosa||1-7||Espinosa flied out to center|
Giles eventually got into the game, but the score was already 7-1, and he faced Michael Taylor, Reed Johnson, Uggla, Desmond, and Werth instead of Harper, Zimmerman, and Ramos when it mattered.
May 12th, 2015
Less than a month later, there was another instance where Giles could have been called upon to stop the game from getting out of hand, but instead Ryne Sandberg let Luis Garcia try and work out of a mess.
|Luis Garcia||Josh Harrison||2-3||Harrison walked & stole 2nd|
|Luis Garcia||Francisco Cervelli||2-3||Cervelli walked|
|Luis Garcia||A.J. Burnett||2-3||Burnett sacrificed, Harrison to 3B, Cervelli to 2B|
|Luis Garcia||Gregory Polanco||2-5||Polanco singled, Harrison & Cervelli scored|
|Luis Garcia||Neil Walker||2-5||Walker grounded out, Polanco to 3B|
|Luis Garcia||Andrew McCutchen||2-7||McCutchen HR, Polanco scored|
|Luis Garcia||Starling Marte||2-7||Marte K'd|
What started out as a one run deficit quickly became a five run deficit, as Garcia was allowed to pitch to the heart of Pittsburgh's lineup after he walked the first two hitters and found himself in a 2nd and 3rd situation with one out. Rather than turn to their best bullpen option, Giles was passed over, and watched his teammate blow the game.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of this game is the fact that Giles was brought in to pitch the next inning, where he faced Pedro Alvarez, Jung-ho Kang, and Harrison, who were all retired in order.
August 18th, 2015
Of the three examples listed, this game is by far the most frustrating, as the Phillies were winning as they entered the sixth inning.
|Elvis Araujo||Ben Revere||5-3||Revere walked|
|Elvis Araujo||Cliff Pennington||5-3||Pennington grounded out to 3B, Revere to 2B|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Chris Colabello||5-4||Colabello singled, Revere scored|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Troy Tulowitzki||5-4||Tulowitzki singled, Colabello to 2B|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Josh Donaldson||5-7||Donaldson HR, Colabello & Tulowitzki scored|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Jose Bautista||5-7||Bautista flied out to 1B|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Edwin Encarnacion||5-8||Encarnacion HR|
|Jeanmar Gomez||Russell Martin||5-8||Martin grounded out to shortstop|
While Philadelphia began the sixth up by two runs, they left it trailing by three. After Araujo was taken out, and Gomez inherited a runner on second and one out, the Blue Jays came storming back while Giles sat beyond the outfield wall, unable to do anything to help his team because of the closer tag that he held.
Once again, he ultimately made it into the game, but the score was 8-5 in favor of Toronto. Instead of being summoned from the bullpen in the sixth inning to face Colabello, Tulowitzki, Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion, he was brought in to face Justin Smoak, Ben Revere, Cliff Pennington, and Kevin Pillar. Because of the archaic ways that teams treat relievers, Giles didn't come in to the game to help preserve the lead, but came in after it was gone to handle mop-up duty.
There's no point in having an elite reliever if the team refuses to use them in the most crucial moments during the game. One of the most common arguments in support of having defined roles is that relievers will have more success if they know when they might be called upon, but unfortunately that doesn't hold up.
Instead of separating the bullpen into specialists, middle relievers, set-up men, and the closer, teams should place them into three groups; specialists (like LOOGYs), low-leverage relievers, and high-leverage relievers.
Rather than tagging someone as the "sixth-inning guy," relievers should be made aware of the plan in the event of certain situations; much like Bruce Bochy did before Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. After it was clear that Tim Hudson wasn't going to be able to make it deep into the game, and Bochy made the decision to remove him, Jeremy Affledt, who's normally a late-inning reliever, was called in to get the Giants back on track.
"I don't think I've even seen inning two since I was a starter, like 2005 [sic]. But I was ready, and it was because of what Bochy prepared me for before the game even started." - Affledt
"Before the game, we talked about it, and told Jeremy be ready, you're our first guy up if we had any trouble." - Bochy" -- 2014 World Series Film
Affeldt went on to throw 2.1 scoreless innings, and was ultimately credited with the win for Game 7. Throughout the regular season, he was primarily a 6th, 7th, and 8th inning reliever, but because Bochy had made him aware of the game plan hours before first pitch, Affledt didn't falter when the phone rang in the second inning.
As bullpens have become more important, the way in which they're utilized needs to evolve as well. Teams need to let go of their desire to place relievers in specific and pre-determined roles, and instead prepare them to be ready for general situations. The Astros now have an elite reliever in Giles, and to maximize his value, Houston should have him ready for when the game is in jeopardy, not just for a save situation.