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The Complicated Nature of Bullpen Management

Chris Hrabe
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Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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Why do we always try to make sports uncomplicated? Baseball is a complicated game, and major league managers are at the center of the chaos. Some of them can navigate the chaos, and some get swept away and ultimately relieved of their duties. Sometimes it isn’t a wrong decision by a manager that dooms a team, but deliberately being in a position to not need to make a decision. Still with me? I’ll explain.

Bullpen management, especially in the National League, is one of the biggest issues a manager wrestles with everyday. The Cardinals have found themselves in trouble this year when force-feeding the 9th inning of a game to a guy pre-determined as the closer. Closers are blowing saves, and teams are blowing leads and losing games. So why is there still a perception that the 9th inning keys need to be handed to ONE pitcher anointed as the closer?

To some extent, I understand the level of comfort there is in knowing exactly who will throw the 9th inning for you every night. It must be nice. I’m sure that there can almost be a sense of “washing your hands” of the situation once you get to the 9th with a lead.

A manager spends the entire game working through numbers, scenarios and matchups. Once you reach a save situation, the decision making for most managers is over. Even if the closer blows a save, does the manger typically get blamed or questioned? No. It all falls on the closer. After all – he’s the closer!

Having said all of that, it was refreshing to hear Mike Matheny’s response to a question last night after Edward Mujica turned in just the 5th 1-2-3 9th inning of the year for the Cardinals (and only the 3rd by a reliever):

The story of whether Mujica can realistically function as an everyday closer for the Cardinals is one for another day. But last night, as Matheny said, he gave the team what they needed. As bullpen issues are worked out, I hope Matheny and his coaching staff truly deal with them on a day-by-day basis. Being a major league manager is complicated enough to begin with. Losing Jason Motte’s 42 saves from 2012 (at least for the time being) and apparently the confidence of Mitchell Boggs only make the job even more complicated. It would be easy for Matheny to look for a simple answer to “uncomplicate” things. But there might not be a simple answer.

Sometimes complicated can work out. In fact, wasn’t it a complication that led to Adam Wainwright being thrown into the fire in 2006? Teams around baseball are dealing with complications all over their rosters. The teams and managers that handle them, often in unconventional and innovative ways, are the ones that will survive the season and advance into the postseason. And that’s a complication I think fans and clubs are willing to face.

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