ALDS Takeaways, Part 3: Rocco Baldelli and His Security Blankets
Image courtesy of © David Berding-USA TODAY SportsThree games should hardly form the basis of a team’s offseason mentality, but this five-part series will explore five takeaways from the ALDS series that seem both clearer and more important now than they did a week ago. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.
This is one area in which experience is an irreplaceable and inimitable asset. Every new guy is going to have some tough learning moments as he figures out how to keep all the plates spinning and not to count on an illusion of control he creates by closing off certain options. Aaron Boone had them in the playoffs last season. This year, he’s clearly made huge strides, and it was his counterpart’s turn to take his lumps.
Much has been made of Baldelli’s failure to call upon Taylor Rogers soon enough in either of the first two games of the series. That’s a fair criticism, as long as it’s not taken too far, but the fact is that even in this day and age, it’s rare for a team to call upon its relief ace in a game of indeterminate status, with fewer than five innings in the books and no lead to protect. More importantly, Baldelli erred in both Yankee Stadium games by leaning on heuristics he needed to have left in the regular season. When he needed length in the middle innings of a close game, down the stretch, Baldelli went to Zack Littell, so that’s who he called for to start the fifth inning in Game 1.
However, he either never fully considered his own thought processes or overlooked them when a familiar situation arose. Littell wasn’t that guy in September because he was actually the best pitcher for those situations, but because Baldelli needed to keep his true relief aces fresh and couldn’t afford to extend one by throwing him into a game that might or might not prove winnable, with 15 outs still left to get.
In October, those reservations needed to be dispensed with, and if Baldelli had done so, he would have called upon Sergio Romo or Trevor May for that fifth inning work. It was impossible to foresee that Littell (and then Tyler Duffey) would struggle so badly, but it should have been possible to discern that the game situation differed meaningfully from the same inning and score against the Tigers in mid-September. Next time, Baldelli will get that right.
The other security blanket he needs to throw away, however, can be a harder one for managers to let go. In each game, Baldelli called upon Duffey when innings began to go sideways. That’s not necessarily a bad decision, in a vacuum. Duffey was great this season. However, Baldelli did it for the wrong reasons.
As even more seasoned managers often do, he had come to rely on Duffey as his “up-and-in” guy—a quick-ready fireman who could warm up fast and enter a game before an inning got out of hand. That’s a real trait, although a hard one to quantify or measure. (Thus, it is also subject to considerable error in evaluation, especially anecdotal biases.)
Managers do well to be aware of how each of their relievers responds to such things. This includes not only the length of time they’re given to prepare, but the possibility of being asked to warm up multiple times without actually entering the game, or the mental challenge of entering with runners on base. On the other hand, managers get in trouble (especially in October) when they let that kind of consideration govern them, instead of being more proactive and getting the best possible pitcher for a given moment or match-up warm before that situation can even materialize.
In the fifth inning of Game 1, Duffey either should have started the frame, or he should have been left to put out a fire later. In Game 2, especially given that Duffey had a 7.45 ERA and allowed an .811 OPS on zero days’ rest in 2019, Baldelli should have called upon May to relieve Randy Dobnak. In the first two frames, Dobnak had showed plenty of the chinks in the armor that rapidly pushed him out of the fray in the third. Seeing them, Baldelli should have had May warming during the top of the third, if he needs more time to prepare than does Duffey. Those are the things even Boone isn’t good at yet, and at which Baldelli can certainly improve and for which he can be more ready next fall.
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