The Giants were escorted out of the 2016 postseason by the Cubs on Tuesday night, suffering a heartbreaking 6-5 loss after bringing a 5-2 lead into the top of the ninth inning. The bullpen would allow four runs, three of which scored before an out was recorded. That was one night after the Giants’ bullpen nearly cost them Game 3, as Sergio Romo allowed two ninth-inning runs to erase a 5-3 lead. The Giants would eventually walk off 6-5 winners in the bottom of the 13th inning.
The start of the postseason brought us the Buck Showalter fiasco in the AL Wild Card game against the Blue Jays. Showalter never used Zach Britton, the best reliever in baseball this year, and the Orioles suffered a 5-2 walk-off loss in the 11th inning. In the NL Wild Card game, Mets closer Jeurys Familia gave up a three-run home run to Conor Gillaspie to break a 0-0 tie in the top of the ninth inning.
Indians manager Terry Francona brought in Andrew Miller — one of the top-three relievers in baseball — in the fifth inning of ALDS Game 1 against the Red Sox. I wasn’t a fan of the move at the time, but ultimately it turned out to be the right call. Miller came in the sixth inning of Game 3 as well, and the Indians moved onto the ALCS.
During the regular season, the Giants’ bullpen blew 30 save chances, the most in baseball and the most by a playoff team since saves became an official statistic in 1969. Manager Bruce Bochy did not have a Britton or Miller to whom to turn. Don’t let this be confused, though, with a totally incompetent bullpen. As a unit, the ‘pen had a 3.65 ERA, 15th best of 30 MLB teams. So, average. Probably better, as the ‘pen allowed hitters to make “hard” contact at a 27.8 clip according to FanGraphs, the second-best mark in the majors behind the Orioles at 27.3 percent.
Bochy managed the top of the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game like he was scared out of his baseball pants. Derek Law started the inning and was immediately replaced when he gave up a single to Kris Bryant. Javier Lopez came in and was immediately replaced after he walked Kris Bryant. Sergio Romo came in and was immediately replaced after he gave up a double to Ben Zobrist. Will Smith came in and faced two hitters, yielding a two-run go-ahead single to Willson Contreras and a bunt/error to Jason Heyward. Hunter Strickland came in and faced two batters, giving up a go-ahead single to Javier Baez and inducing an inning-ending double play from David Ross. If you’re counting, five pitchers saw a total of seven batters.
People cater to the expectations you set for them and that’s true whether it’s in an office, a classroom, or on the baseball field. If you treat your players like they’re incompetent, they’ll begin to believe that and eventually perform that way like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bochy treated the Giants’ bullpen like it was incompetent. Prior to Game 4, he was asked about his plan for the ninth inning if the Giants were to have a lead. “I’ll let you know in the ninth,” Bochy said, as CSN Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic reported.
It’s not enough just to have big-name closers like an Aroldis Chapman. The manager needs to utilize his relievers well and adeptly deal with various personality types and expectations. Showalter and Bochy mismanaged their bullpens in different ways and their teams will watch the rest of the postseason from home or the clubhouse of a golf course. Francona managed his bullpen correctly and will try to do it again in the ALCS against the Blue Jays.