Thursday, August 22, 2013
In praise of Dusty Baker (sort of)
By David Schoenfield
On Wednesday night, Dusty Baker used Aroldis Chapman for two innings to close out the Cincinnati Reds' 10-7 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was only the second time all season he'd brought in Chapman before the ninth inning (the other coming in a mop-up role) and the first time he'd used Chapman for more than four outs since May 27 of 2012.
The six-out save was born more of necessity than by design. Jonathan Broxton got hurt after serving up a leadoff home run and walk to start the inning (he'll be lost for the season), and the bullpen had thrown 5 1/3 innings the day before. Manny Parra and J.J. Hoover had been used in the seventh and Alfredo Simon and Sam LeCure both had thrown more than 30 pitches the night before, so rather than use a lesser reliever with an 8-6 lead, Baker turned to Chapman.
Is Dusty Baker's willingness to stretch out closer Aroldis Chapman a positive sign?
Considering the Diamondbacks are the team closest to the Reds for the second wild-card spot, it was a pretty big game, all things considered, so give Baker at least a little credit for doing something he hadn't done all season. To be fair, Baker's use of Chapman isn't any different from the way other managers handle their closers, although (A) Chapman is a big, strong guy who trained as a starter in Cuba and the minors and as Bill James once wrote of a reliever named Bryan Harvey, "He's awfully strong to be throwing so few innings"; and (B) he's supposed to be better than most closers.
One way to show you're "better" is to show you can, you know, get four or five outs in big games.
Anyway, that's wishful thinking in this day and age. Closers pitch the ninth, not part of the eighth and then the ninth. Still, it means Baker has either fallen into the trap of robot managing, or believes Chapman wouldn't pitch as well with a heavier workload.
That takes us to Thursday with the Reds leading the Diamondbacks 2-1 entering the ninth after eight strong innings by Mat Latos. Baker could have left Latos in since he'd thrown only 102 pitches, but the Reds rarely let Latos go to 110 pitches (only three times all season, never more than 111). He could have used Chapman, who threw 35 pitches on Wednesday. Baker said he was unavailable. Instead, he went to option No. 3, LeCure. He gave up two hits, including an infield single, but escaped the jam and got the save.
You can read the scenario in two ways or both ways: That Baker will continue to be very cautious with Chapman and will revert back to three-out saves, and/or that he had confidence in LeCure to close it out.
Either way, with Broxton out, it will be interesting to see if Baker changes his usage patterns with Chapman the rest of the regular season -- and into the postseason, if the Reds win the division or advance past the wild-card game.