In Defense of Rocco Baldelli's Bullpen Management

Photo credit: David Richard (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Twins dropped four straight games to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals late last week, and it wasn’t hard to find blame from fans.

But the blame felt sort of….misplaced?

The Twins are hitting just .229/.306/.398 as a team. They lost in walk-off fashion in the final game of the Pirates series, then proceeded to drop three in a row to the Royals by scoring just 10 runs over the weekend.

But a large portion of the blame fell on….the bullpen? Or perhaps more accurately — the management of it?

Let’s first take a look at how, on its surface, the bullpen has performed. In short, the bullpen has been pretty good:

  • 3.72 ERA
  • 1.23 WHIP
  • .699 OPS against
  • 11.0 K/9

Before even considering how it’s being used, it must be acknowledged that the results have been there as it’s been used thus far.

But what were the individual gripes? Let’s try look at them individually and deduce what might have been the thought process for manager Rocco Baldelli, pitching coach Wes Johnson and interim bullpen coach Pete Maki.

Situation 1: Friday night in Kansas City — Caleb Thielbar and Sean Poppen work the final two innings with the Twins down 3-2

My best recollection of the gripe here was that Trevor May had not worked since Tuesday and Tyler Duffey had not worked since Wednesday, so why were the Twins using arguably their eighth and ninth relievers — or thereabouts — in a game that was still very close?

On the surface that makes sense in the moment. Certainly looking at it now and how it panned out is easy enough to say, “Hey, they did fine,” but that’s not how bullpen management works in the moment — nor does actually good analysis.

But I also think the Twins are being extremely cautious with their pitchers — especially their bigger bullpen guys. Is it too cautious? You’re allowed to have that opinion, but if we assess the landscape around baseball right now it is not pretty for the health of pitchers at large. The Twins have pretty clearly identified the relievers they need to — added emphasis must be noted here — keep healthy and are going to use relatively judiciously, at least out of the gate after a truncated ramp-up period in July.

Additionally, this goes back to the fact that the bullpen has been good. Outside of Duffey and May, the rest of the bullpen has collectively pitched really well even with the requisite “small sample noise” disclaimer.

Situation 2: Saturday night in Kansas City — Lewis Thorpe, Cody Stashak, Jorge Alcala and Poppen close out a game started by Jake Odorizzi

This is a reminder of how quickly everything can fall apart when one of two things happen — either a short start, or a really bad outing by a reliever when you need some length. Or in this case — both. Odorizzi gutted through 71 pitches and three innings, allowing two earned runs in his first start of the season, only to have Thorpe allow more earned runs (three) on just six pitches before he was headed to the showers.

This was where criticism got a little wacky.

One can make the argument that Thorpe hasn’t been very good this year. It’s a compelling argument. But the need was to get some length from the second man out of the chute — something that was a reasonable expectation out of Thorpe and not really anyone else in the bullpen at the time.

Devin Smeltzer has been working as a starter. Alcala — who pitched very, very well later in the game — was even less proven than Thorpe in that role. In fact, maybe his performance on Saturday moves him up the hierarchy to where he’d get those innings. Still, he was a veteran of 4.2 big-league innings to that point, so it’s pretty likely they’re still trying to ease him in.

So with Thorpe in hot water, Baldelli went to Stashak. Now I’ve seen some #takes on why this wasn’t May, Duffey, Tyler Clippard or Sergio Romo, but keep in mind this is still the fourth inning. It’s easy to look back and say one of those guys could have put the fire out, but a manager again has to manage in the moment and has to map out the rest of the game as he sees potentially happening in front of him.

So he went to Stashak — a perfectly defensible decision that didn’t pan out. Stashak hung an 0-2 slider than Jorge Soler hit to the moon, then three pitches later left a center-cut fastball at 91 mph for Salvador Perez to do the same to.

But going to Stashak there made perfect sense. He’d been absolutely terrific not only to that point in the season (0 ER in 5.0 innings, 12.6 K/9 and .402 OPS against) but his career (2.70 ERA in 30.0 innings, 2.70 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and .719 OPS against) and his place in the chain right now, despite all of his success, is keeping things moving along to the May/Duffey/Taylor Rogers part of the bullpen.

Situation 3: Sunday afternoon in Kansas City — Clippard and Cory Gearrin close out a game started by Jose Berrios

This is where the criticism sort of ramped up, at least from my vantage point. Despite Berrios being out of sorts all afternoon long, the Twins kept things close. But again instead of going to the late-inning guys who usually close out leads — who hadn’t worked in a while since the Twins were on a skid — Rocco went to the well for Clippard and Gearrin, an MLB journeyman of nearly a decade spent with six teams prior to the Twins.

Again the postscript would say it worked out fine. Clippard and Gearrin pitched 2.2 scoreless innings and the offense did nothing against the Kansas City bullpen — a recurring theme — but again, we should address the gripes that happened as the game was playing out. In other words, the ones made in good faith.

Clippard is right there in the pecking order in the Twins bullpen, almost a conduit from the Stashak tier to the May/Duffey tier. You could almost put him and Romo in a tier all their own, which speaks to the luxury Rocco has at his disposal in this bullpen. When Zack Littell is healthy, he’s probably in there too — and that’s a young righty in the mix with two guys who have a combined 1,400-plus innings and nearly 200 saves in the big leagues. These guys aren’t the same pitchers they’ve been all along while compiling these stats, but the fact they’re still here producing means they’ve taken the experience and ran with it as they’ve gotten older — and wiser.

But Gearrin, in a two-run game? I kinda get where fans are coming from here. But I think this can kind of bolster the argument against 28-man rosters. Like, I get the need to be protected in the age of COVID. I’ve seen gripes that the Twins are carrying 16 pitchers, but is there really an argument to carry more position players? Outside of plugging in guys to cover for players slumping on offense — a league-wide issue says Eno Sarris — the surplus is going to be in the form of relievers.

In other words, would it be more helpful to have LaMonte Wade Jr., Travis Blankenhorn or Willians Astudillo playing once every 10 games, or have a guy in the bullpen who can soak up some innings to prevent some sort of cascade effect on the rest of the unit?

To me, that’s a pretty easy decision.

But how many of those guys does a team need? Is Thielbar one? Probably. Should Gearrin be? Most likely. But I also think having them on the roster also invites the perception of a need to use them — at least a little bit.

It worked with Gearrin over someone like, say, Duffey — but does that make it right if Duffey hasn’t pitched in four or five days?

One thing I struggle with when analyzing this — and it’s especially true early in a season — is if I have a thought, feeling or opinion which can be invalidated by the next day’s or game’s action, it probably isn’t a strong one.

And here’s kind of how I gauge the bullpen management situation, with this graphic from Tom Froemming of Twins Daily:

Nothing really seems out of whack with me when I look at this after Monday night’s win in Milwaukee — which saw the Twins empty out the back end of their bullpen. In fact, Baldelli/Johnson/Maki could win a social distancing award for how they’ve spaced out their bullpen usage.

Kidding aside, I think we have to be very, very careful with how we view, perceive and criticize pitching decisions this season. In any season under any circumstance, we often won’t know for sure who is or isn’t available on a given day. At the very least, not beforehand because that’s just not good managerial strategy to telegraph who you have available in your bullpen before a game.

But this year with the awkward ramp up and massive avalanche of pitcher injuries we’ve seen, an abundance of caution being shown by a team’s management — a team that right now is 11-6, mind you, with a manager coming off winning some pretty significant hardware for being good at his job — should be considered thoughtfully before being considered critically.

I don’t know. That’s just my two cents. Every single game I feel like we’re seeing people ask why pitchers aren’t going deeper into games, etc. I think logic lies in the great unknown. It’s better to show an abundance of caution in an abbreviated season than to just throw that caution into the wind — especially when half the league will end up making the playoffs anyway.

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