Joe Maddon is regarded as one of the best managers in baseball in part because of his bullpen management. No manager is perfect but, in general, Maddon uses his best relievers in the high-leverage situations and puts the rest of his pen in situations where they can succeed. Whether exploiting a platoon matchup or gambling on a batted-ball profile, Maddon has a firm grasp on how to use what he has.
Andrew Friedman’s job is to provide those options. And in recent seasons, Friedman’s work in the winter has made Maddon’s job easier in the summer.
It wasn’t long ago that the Rays bullpen was comprised largely of specialists. Though looked upon as a single entity, the group was made up pitchers with different skill-sets and specific areas of expertise, working almost like independent departments of a larger corporation.
In 2010, the Rays bullpen pitched with the platoon advantage nearly 60 percent of the time.Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit handled the eighth and ninth innings while Maddon employed two extreme specialists to get outs earlier in the game leading up to the final six. From the right side Dan Wheeler faced a right-handed batter 77 percent of the time. On the left, side-winding Randy Choate faced a fellow southpaw in 71 percent of his plate appearances. Both numbers represented the highest platoon advantage by hand in all of baseball. In fact, Lance Cormier was the only regular Rays’ reliever to not hold the platoon advantage in at least 50 of his plate appearance that season (and remember, Cormier was a unique reverse-split right-hander who had past success against lefties).
The quartet of Wheeler, Choate, Soriano, and Benoit (along with Cormier and Grant Balfour) left Tampa Bay after the 2010 season. The mass exodus led to an impressive reworking. Friedman’s top additions, righties Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, filled in admirably for Benoit and Soriano. The rest of the depth chart was comprised of a mix of rehabbing veterans (Juan Cruz and J.P. Howell) and inexperienced youngsters (Brandon Gomes, Adam Russell, Cesar Ramos, and Jake McGee). Though there were no extreme platoon specialists like Choate or Wheeler, only one reliever pitched to a platoon disadvantage over the course of the season—Howell, who pitched with a 49 percent platoon edge. The group as a whole pitched against same-sided hitters 56 percent of the time.
Though less drastic than the previous season, the 2012 looked a bit differently than it did in 2011 and the usage rates followed suit. Fernando Rodney took over the ninth inning from an injured Farnsworth and turned in the best individual relief season in modern history, as told by ERA. Left or right-handed, it didn’t matter to Rodney, he just got outs.The same can be said for most of the Rays’ relievers last season.
After having just two pitchers with platoon advantage usage under 50 percent in the previous two years, five relievers from last year’s team (Rodney included) faced the opposite hand more than their own. Only Burke Badenhop could be classified as a true specialist. The three left-handers used in 2012 (McGee, Howell, Ramos) faced right-handers more than they did lefties. Meanwhile, righty Joel Peralta faced a left-hander 52 percent of the time. In total, the core of Rays’ relievers had leg-up on the platoon in just 51 percent of plate appearances.
This unusual usage was not a case of Maddon losing his mind, but perhaps a methodical change in roster construction. Instead of using multiple roster spots on limited arms like Wheeler, Choate, Brian Shouse or Chad Bradford, the Rays appear to have shifted toward platoon-neural relievers capable of getting hitters out on both side of the box instead of extreme specialists. In general, these types of pitchers cost a lot of money on the open market; however, the Rays have blended re-invented veterans like Rodney, Peralta, and Farnsworth—equipped with pitches that play across the box—with the youth of McGee, Davis, and others—armed with good enough stuff to combat splits.
Looking ahead, the Rays are unlikely to revert back to specialists in 2013. The top three returning relievers: McGee, Peralta, and Rodney are not confined to same-sided duty. Another likely member of the pen, Cesar Ramos, is a converted starter with secondary offerings that may make him more playable against righties than a typical one-out guy. Even if the Rays look outside of the organization for help, arms like Brandon Lyon, Matt Lindstrom, Jose Valverde, or a returning Farnsworth among others others have had past success against the split.
Maddon’s tinkering may draw the ire of locals when it fails, but as the bullpen has transformed from specialized to neutral, it means one less thing for Maddon to fiddle with—and one less thing for us all to complain about.