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Defending Rocco’s bullpen decisions

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He hasn’t really made a bad move, just moves that haven’t worked.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

There has been a lot of second-guessing, hindsight-visioneering, and armchair coaching around the way Rocco Baldelli has handled his bullpen during the first two games of the ALDS. However, his decisions have been entirely reasonable in context, and perfectly understandable. I’m going to go through each of them one-at-a-time and explain why they made sense.

Zack Littell, fifth inning of game one.

A lot of the sentiment about this decision is based on Littell’s lack of experience, but roughly half of the Twins bullpen has less experience in the big leagues than he does. He’s also been solid in relief for the Twins. Littell’s 2019 ERA is 2.68, and his FIP is a still respectable 3.62 across 37 innings. In the second half, he was an absolutely lights out pitcher. In 23.2 innings, he registered a 1.14 ERA. In August, his best month, opponents hit .167/.200/.208 and in September they hit .238/.273/.357 against the young Twin. All this to say, Littell is a pitcher you would expect see pitching in the fifth inning of a 3-2 game. The idea being he could keep the game close for a couple innings, your team scores, and you still have guys like Taylor Rogers and Sergio Romo in reserve to pitch the eighth and ninth inning with a narrow lead. Obviously that isn’t how it played out, but the theory was sound.

Tyler Duffey, fifth inning of game one

I don’t really need to defend this one. Duffey came in and more-or-less put out Littell’s fire, although two of the inherited runner scored, Duffey also struck out three Yankees in this outing, and we’ll talk about him a bit more later.

Cody Stashak, sixth inning of game one

With the score at 5-3, it would have been an odd time to bring in your shut down guy. Stashak has done well in limited outings this season. His ERA is 3.24 and his WHIP is 3.01, so he’s been a little unlucky. He’s also holding a WHIP of 1.200 and a K/9 of 9.00. In other words, he’s been a perfectly reasonable mid-innings reliever for a good team, if he puts up those numbers over a full season. In fact, if he had been a “qualified” pitcher his ERA would have been top-10 and his WHIP would have been top-25. Small sample size is a clear problem here, but the point is he was a fairly hot hand. With the Twins down 5-3, this is the kind of reliever anyone would expect to see enter the game.

Kyle Gibson, seventh inning of game one

I make no effort to hide the fact I’m a big fan of Gibson, and until he entered the game, I still held a slight bit of hope he’d be the game four starter. He has, however pitched out of the pen primarily for the last month. As a reliever, his stuff played up well and he saw good results. In a fireman role, his ERA was 3.38, and his K/9 jumped from 8.8 as a starter to 13.5 as a reliever. With the team down four runs before he came into the game, it’s hard to fault the decision. With limited relievers on the roster, all you’re asking in this situation is for a guy to hold the opponent, and Gibson should be capable of doing it. If Gibson holds, and the Twins score, then you use your best guys in next two innings. If not, you have them fresh for game two. Hard to fault this line of thinking.

Brusdar Graterol, eighth inning of game one

By this point, the game was pretty much over. You just need someone on the mound, and it might as well be Graterol, I guess.

Tyler Duffey, third inning of game two

Twins down by one run, no one out, and bases loaded? In other words, the exact same situation Duffey acquitted himself well the day before. Not an unreasonable call, especially in the third inning. Duffey is a fairly high-leverage asset for the Twins, especially over the last couple months. He gave up exactly zero earned runs in 10.2 August innings, and followed it up with exactly two in 11.2 innings in September. Duffey’s strikeout numbers were also incredible, 14.3 per nine in August and 17 per nine in September. The only strike against using him here is that he pitched the day before—but it was the third inning, you should probably expect to use most of your relievers before the end of the night. Nothing wrong with calling Duffey’s number here, and even if he gives up three runs instead of seven, you’d still want those high-leverage guys later in the game.

Devin Smeltzer, third inning of game two

Smeltzer is apparently the secret Yankee Killer in the Twins’ pen. He stepped in after a short start in the regular season, and held the Yanks to one run through five innings. Apparently that wasn’t good enough for Smeltzer, as he would pitch 3.1 scoreless innings in game two. With the lead as large as it was, saving the bullpen should have been the goal here, and Baldelli chose the right pitcher. If only the Twins offense could have gotten on track.

Cody Stashak, seventh inning of game two

Sure, why not? We already went over why Stashak is a decent pitcher, and a comeback was looking unlikely. The rookie did his job anyway, and didn’t allow a run. Can’t complain about the bullpen move here.

Trevor May, seventh inning of game two

Two out, men at first-and-third, and Aaron Judge at the plate? It’s time to break out one of your big guns. In order to keep the deficit from growing any larger, this was a huge out to get, and May took care of business. He hadn’t pitched for a few days, so might as well let him get some throws in. No complaints here either.

Sergio Romo, eighth inning of game two

If there is a complaint to be made, its that May could have gone for four outs. Romo needed a chance to throw as well, so may as well let him. He got two outs, and walked a man.

Zack Littell, eighth inning of game two

Littell got the last out of the game, on the first batter he faced. Maybe his game one issues were nerves, or maybe he just had a bad day. Either way it was nice to see Baldelli turn back Littell, and to see the pitcher come out and get the job done.

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