MLB: Boston Red Sox at San Francisco Giants

Managing the bullpen is likely a baseball manager’s most important and yet most difficult task. It is the day-to-day responsibility which leaves itself open to the most second-guessing and involves the most guesswork.

There are so many moving pieces in a working bullpen, it is dizzying to think of the various permutations and scenarios a manager must play out in his head before making the final decision to go with Pitcher X over Pitcher Y.

Last night, Red Sox manager John Farrell opened himself to all sorts of critisim when his bullpen handed a win to the lowly San Francisco Giants. Farrell’s most reliable reliever Junichi Tazawa coughed up the lead in the 8th inning and then one of his least reliable hurlers, Franklin Morales all but cost his team in the game in the bottom of the ninth as the Red Sox eventually lost on a walkoff walk to the defending World Series champs.

It wasn’t actually Franklin Morales who delivered the shrimp shot, as newly acquired reliever Brayan Villarreal was called upon to extracate himself from Morales’ bases loaded, two out mess in the home half of the ninth. And, one could argue, that the ball four call was bad, as the pitch appeared to be well within the strike zone.

But we aren’t looking for nuance or excuses here. This is about stringing up John Farrell.

The choice to call on Franklin Morales was a curious one indeed, as Sox closer Koji Uehara was sitting in the bullpen just waiting for his chance to get into the game. Uehara had not pitched since Saturday, when he threw a mere 13 pitches. Uehara, in fact, has only pitched once over the last week.

But Farrell knows things that those watching at home do not. Perhaps there is a reason for Uehara’s sparing usage?

After the game, John Farrell stated he kept Koji back “because if we push across a run, he’s going to close the game out.” While it sounds like managing to the save stat, only Brandon Workman (who pitched on consecutive days) and Drake Britton remained in the Sox pen after Villarreal got the call. On the road, Farrell is forced to choose between managing for the future (if we get a lead) and blowing the game before that reality comes to pass.

There are so many outcomes and so many things to consider when pulling the strings in the bullpen. Life was not supposed to be so complicated for the new Red Sox bench boss. Replace Villarreal and Morales and Drake Britton with Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, and Andrew Miller and the situation isn’t quite as complicated. Better players make for better managers as the margin for error increases greatly.

Without those options in his ‘pen, Farrell does the best he can, even if it looks foolish with the benefit of hindsight and without the responsibility of managing today’s game. And tomorrow’s game. And the day after that, too.

There is more to keeping your bullpen house in order than just playing matchups and finessing the leverage of your more mediocre relievers. It is less science than art, less skill than fortune. A manager is only as good as the options available to him. Last night, John Farrell chose wrong when he went to Morales and then Villarreal. He can only hope he lost this minor skirmish but will eventually win the war – provided he gets another chance.

And the rest

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