Perhaps the hardest part of any manager's job is managing his bullpen. Some relievers need to pitch regularly to stay sharp. Others need proper rest to avoid fatigue and injury. And there's often a very fine line between one and the other. But in a pen such as the Yankees' that has a clear hierarchy of talent, there is one overriding principle. There are high-leverage relievers (Rivera, Farnsworth, Myers against lefties) and low-leverage relievers (Sturtze, Proctor, Villone, Small). The high-leverage guys need to pitch in high-leverage situations (leads of three runs or less, tie games at home or on the road, and, depending on the relative strengths of your offense and the opposing pitching staff, trailing by one or two). The low-leverage guys, meanwhile, are there to eat low-leverage innings, allowing the manager to save the high-leverage guys for when they're most needed.
Of course, it's impossible to stick to this formula exactly. Going deep into extra innings will require the use of a low-leverage pitcher in a high-leverage situation, as might playing many tight games in a row. Conversely, participating in a number of blowouts in a row might force a manager to use one of his high-leverage guys in a low-leverage situation just to keep him fresh. Last night was not one of those situations.
Mike Mussina entered the eighth inning with an 8-1 lead having held the Rangers to a run on three hits over seven innings, striking out five, walking none, and needing just 85 pitches, 72 percent of which were strikes, to do it. After Kevin Mench lined Moose's first pitch of the eight into center for a lead-off single, Joe Torre popped out of the dugout and signaled for Aaron Small.
Fair enough. Sure, Mussina was cruising and a first-pitch single with a seven-run lead hardly amounted to a sign of struggle, but Small had pitched just once since coming off the disabled list on Monday and here was an extreme low-leverage situation in which to get him a couple of innings of work, both for his own good, and so Torre and his staff could have a better idea what Small has to offer now that his surprising 10-0 run is a thing of the past.
Brad Wilkerson hit a sharp grounder through the second base hole into center on Small's second pitch to put runners on the corners. Rod Barajas then a punched a 1-1 pitch past Derek Jeter to score Mench and push Wilkerson to third. Mark DeRosa followed by grounding into a fielder's choice to score Wilkerson, and Gary Matthews followed that by singling under the dive of a drawn-in Alex Rodriguez to put runners on first and second for the Rangers who still trailed by five runs.
That brought Torre back out to the mound, but he didn't call for Sturtze, Villone or Proctor. No, he went straight to Kyle Farnsworth. The very same Kyle Farnsworth who sat and watched as the Yankees lost a tie game on the road in Oakland in the season's second game. The same Kyle Farnsworth who didn't get into the next night's game until after Jaret Wright had allowed the A's to break another tie in the eighth inning. The very same Kyle Farnsworth who got the night off in Boston on Monday while Small and Tanyon Sturtze allowed the arch rival Red Sox to break another eighth-inning tie. True, Farnsworth was rested, having not pitched on Thursday, but he was not in need of work, having gone an inning and a third in a high-leverage win on Wednesday.
What happened next was not Joe Torre's fault, but it exacerbated the damage done by going to his high-leverage pitchers in a low-leverage situation.
Michael Young greeted Farnsworth with a hard single into left, a harder-hit ball than any of the three singles Aaron Small surrendered, loading the bases. Farnsworth then struck out Mark Teixeira on six pitches for the second out only to walk Phil Nevin on five, forcing in a run to make it 8-4 and leave the bases loaded.
With the tying run at the plate in the form of lefty masher Hank Blalock, Torre suddenly found himself in a high-leverage situation, and called on his ace closer Mariano Rivera to shut the door.
On Rivera's first pitch, Blalock hit a perfectly placed bouncing-ball single between first and second to plate Matthews and Young, shrinking the Yankee lead to two runs. Kevin Mench, whose single had "driven" Mike Mussina from the game to start the inning, followed with a line-drive single between Rodriguez and Jeter to plate Nevin and make it 8-7 Yankees. Rivera then hit the left-handed Wilkerson with an 0-2 cutter that cut in too far, again loading the bases, but Rod Barajas hit a looping line drive over the mound that Robinson Cano was able to glove and turn into a force out at second to end the inning.
Rivera pitched around a Matthews single in the ninth to nail down the win, but by then the damage had been done. Rivera threw 26 pitches in a game that should have been a blowout. Farnsworth only threw half as many, but still put a dent in the number of pitches he'll be able to throw over the remainder of the series.
More significantly, last night was a classic example of how Joe Torre undermines the effectiveness of his bullpen by inverting the roles of his high and low-leverage relievers. Certainly Villone, Proctor or Sturtze couldn't have done much worse than Farnsworth, and allowing them to do so would have at the very least either left one of Torre's big men unused, or cut into the number of pitches Rivera was forced to throw. Not that Torre could have known that, but with a five run lead and men on first and second, there was still room to let one of those low-leverage guys try to get the final two outs before having to break the glass on the high-leverage guys.
More to the point, as I mentioned above, there have been a trio of games already in this young season in which Farnsworth was not used in a high-leverage situation when he should have been. Because Farnsworth was not used properly in those two tie games in Oakland, Torre wound up using him in the finale of the following series, a 10-1 win in Anaheim, just to get him some work. The same is true of Rivera, who made his season debut in that extreme low-leverage game having not participated at all in the two high-leverage loses in Oakland.
Managing a bullpen is a manager's most difficult on-field task, but it's easy to see where Torre has gone wrong in this young season. Should the Yankees lose either of the next two games because Torre is reluctant to overwork Farnsworth or Rivera, you can pin that loss on his mismanagement last night.
Beyond that, last night was symptomatic of the disease that has long plagued Joe Torre's bullpen, it's the missing link between Jeff Weaver Syndrome and Steve Karsay Syndrome. The question being, if Torre regularly refuses to use his best relievers in high leverage situations on the road, how is it that he's still able to overwork them? The answer is by jumping the gun in low-leverage situations. In the past one could blame the awful performance of Torre's low-leverage relievers for this tendency, but with Proctor and Villone both sporting ERAs below 2.00, there was no excuse for it last night.