Anatomy Of A Bullpen Meltdown

I truly don’t mean to be such a masochist, but last night’s walk off loss to the Seattle Mariners was such a disaster on so many levels for the Toronto Blue Jays that it deserves being looked at one more time. It was a perfect storm of bad bullpen management, terrible command, horrible pitch calling and awful decision making.

Let’s use Brooks Baseball Pitch FX tool to look at each reliever’s performance and how it impacted the Blue Jays win probability.

Jason Frasor is the first reliever to take the mound, coming into the game with the score 7-0 in the bottom of the sixth. He faces four batters giving up a single walk, but maddeningly nibbles away at each batter he faces despite having a seven run lead and pitching against the offensively lacking Seattle Mariners. By getting through the inning without allowing a run, he actually increases the Jays win probability by .004.

Instead of coming back with Frasor, manager John Farrell decides to bring in Carlos Villanueva to pitch the seventh, who, now that Casey Janssen has been demoted, is the reliever most likely to be put in for multiple innings, especially with a 7-0 lead during the first game of a series. Villanueva picks up pretty much where Frasor left off, getting the first pitch each batter sees in or near the strike zone, but then begins nibbling away from there. Of his 23 pitches, eleven were thrown for balls. And by giving up a home run to Milton Bradley, but still completing the inning, Villanueva neither improves nor deteriorates his team’s chances of winning according to win probability.

Instead of bringing Villanueva back into the game, Farrell again decides to change pitchers, this time calling on lefty David Purcey to face left handed batter Michael Saunders with right handed batters Brendan Ryan and Jack Wilson due up afterward in the bottom of the eighth. Purcey had little difficulty throwing first pitch strikes, but as evidenced by not recording a single swinging strike in fifteen pitches, he tries painting the corners instead of challenging hitters. This leads to two hard hit singles, a walk and only a single out. With the bases loaded, Purcey is pulled from the game after decreasing the Jays probability of winning by .018.

This is where things go a little bit haywire for me. We’re all aware of Octavio Dotel’s inability to get left handed batters out, but Farrell brings him into the game with the bases loaded and two switch hitters followed by two left handed hitters due up. Last season, left handed batters put up an astounding .993 OPS against him. Only five batters in all of baseball had a higher OPS in 2010.

Once again, the reliever has no difficulty throwing first pitch strikes, but then holds off and tries to hit the corners with subsequent pitches. I understand the bases are loaded, but the score is still 7-1. Even for Dotel, the odds of collecting a few ground balls and getting out of this inning are in his favour. Instead, he walks both batters he faces, resulting in two runs and further decreases the Jays win probability by .085. This number represents an official meltdown.

Coming in next is Marc Rzepczynski, the pitcher that in all likelihood should have been brought in ahead of Dotel. Once again he throws first pitch strikes, although he does get squeezed a little bit, and then tries painting the corners. With the score 7-3, he walks the first batter he sees and then gives up a two run single to Justin Smoak that puts the Mariners within one run of the Blue Jays and spells the end of Rzepczynki’s night. He leaves having decreased the team’s win probability by .248, another meltdown.

With the score 7-6 and still only one out, Shawn Camp then gets put into the game by Farrell. He collects a double play ball from Miguel Olivo with a single pitch located in South Central strike zone. It’s the fifth time in eight innings that Olivo was the Mariners last batter.

Camp then comes back to pitch in the bottom of the ninth to protect the Blue Jays one run lead. It’s a move I agree with considering that that the only other member of the bullpen available is Jon Rauch and it would probably be foolish to burn Camp after only a single pitch in a game that could very well end up in extra innings.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, the pesky Michael Saunders leads the inning off with a double. He’s then bunted over to third base before Adam Kennedy grounds out with a weak dribbler that allows the Jays hold Saunders. With the team a single out away from the victory, Farrell then calls for Ichiro! to be intentionally walked, bringing up the switch hitting Luis Rodriguez.

It’s a bad call by Farrell that increases the Mariners probability of winning by .034. When Ichiro! quickly takes second base with the Blue Jays not wanting to risk a throw because of Saunders at third, it increases a further .047. What makes the call even worse is that Farrell doesn’t go to the bullpen one last time with Ichiro! on base. By deciding to walk Ichiro! the Blue Jays manager is essentially betting everything on getting Rodriguez out. Would it not make sense to use the best pitcher available in that situation, once you set up the all or nothing scenario? Considering that over the last three seasons, Jon Rauch has had better numbers than Camp against left handed hitters, it should have been a no-brainer.

Instead, Camp is left in and after an epic ten pitch at bat, Rodriguez smacks a line drive into that gap that scores the walk off winning runs for the Mariners and leaves Camp as the third reliever of the night to post an official meltdown with his -.620 WPA.

As much as it’s in our nature to want to fling blame at an individual, last night’s failure to hold a seven run lead was the result of a perfect storm of disaster that occurred because of all the elements I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Fingers can be pointed at each of John Farrell, David Purcey, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, Shawn Camp and even J.P. Arencibia depending on whether pitches outside the strike zone were the result of plan (which the number of first pitch strikes followed by balls on the corner lead me to believe) or a lack of command.

It was an awful night to be a Blue Jays fan, but the good news is that despite last night’s results, the Blue Jays do have a good bullpen, a good manager and probably a good catcher of the future in Arencibia. There’s a learning curve here, and as fans, it’s likely better seeing mistakes get punished in a year like this and in early April rather than when more chips are on the table. In fact, if lessons are indeed learned here, it might just end up making the entire team a little bit sharper.