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Updated: August 3rd, 2014 8:49pm
Mackey: Could Twins win more games by using Glen Perkins differently?

Mackey: Could Twins win more games by using Glen Perkins differently?

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

I have an opinion about bullpen usage -- specifically closer usage -- that appears to be different than what most managers and coaches around Major League Baseball believe, and I'm trying to figure out if I'm simply wrong or if I'm in a minority crowd that will continue to grow.

The "save" label was created decades ago around an arbitrary set of parameters, which wouldn't be an issue if most managers didn't often operate as if saves are more important than actually implementing the best strategy to win games.

One example of managers managing directly to the save is when they pull the plug on a closer's warm-up routine if a lead grows from three runs to four (thus negating the potential for a save). Managers also frequently refuse to use their closers on the road unless they hold a lead, oftentimes watching opposing teams win in walk-off fashion while the best reliever sits in the bullpen waiting... for a save situation that never comes.

The latter is a huge pet peeve of mine, because managers who abide by this philosophy on the road are constantly letting inferior pitchers get beat in "sudden death" situations from the bottom of the ninth inning on.

Let's say the "save" label didn't exist. And let's say your team is facing the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park, with Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tied game. This isn't a "save" situation, but it is a sudden death situation. If the Tigers score a run, the game is over. No exceptions.

Isn't this the type of situation you'd want your best reliever pitching in?

Logic says yes. Logic says managers, when faced with these sudden death situations, should start with their best relievers in order to give their teams the best chance to extend the game.

Still, the overriding opinion among baseball managers and coaches is to hold onto the closer until a save situation arises.

Here's the problem: By letting an inferior reliever face Kinsler, Cabrera and Martinez, it's pretty likely there won't be a save situation. The game will be over before a save situation arises.

On April 17, 2010, New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel held onto his closer, Francisco Rodriguez, until the 19th inning in a game at St. Louis. Manuel used six different relief pitchers before finally bringing K-Rod in. With this strategy, he let Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have multiple cracks at ending the game against inferior relievers. (As it turned out, K-Rod wound up blowing his save opportunity in the 19th, which probably only served to validate groupthink.)

"But if you burn your best relief pitcher and take the lead later on, who closes out the game?"

Well, anybody. Really. Literally anybody. If the choice is between A.) Letting my best reliever collect dust on the bench while an inferior reliever blows the game or B.) Getting my best reliever in to make sure the game continues and worrying about the rest later, I'll take the latter and then take my chances that a secondary reliever can record the last three outs.

I'd rather have the inferior reliever pitching with a one-run lead than pitching in a sudden-death, tied-game situation.

Of course, teams with two or three lights-out relievers have much more leeway in these situations. 

Personally, I would even take this "forget about saves" philosophy as far as inserting my "ace" reliever into key situations in the seventh and eighth innings. Down by a run at home in the bottom of the seventh inning with runners on first and second and Jose Bautista coming up? Bring in your fire extinguisher - your closer - before the game gets broken open. Worry about the rest of the game later.

Would teams potentially blow saves later on once the ace reliever has already been used? Possibly. But certainly no more often than they already let games slip away when the ace reliever is sitting on the bench. 

Since I've been hammering this bullpen usage theory for years on the radio, I figured I'd run it by various people in the Twins organization - including pitchers, coaches and manager Ron Gardenhire. Some in the Twins front office are open to the idea of deviating from the rigid "closer in the ninth inning" philosophy.

The general philosophy of the field staff is this: Always keep your closer in your back pocket until you take a lead, unless you're at home and a save is no longer possible. This is for two main reasons: 1.) Keeping relievers on a routine and having them know exactly when they're going to pitch is important, and 2.) You don't want inferior relievers attempting to convert saves, because the pressure of the moment is too much for some guys to handle. 

The Twins have pretty much stuck to that philosophy this season with Glen Perkins.

A breakdown of Perkins' usage:

• 45 of his 46 appearances have come in the 9th inning or later
• 45 of his 46 appearances have lasted exactly one inning, with the exception of entering one game with two outs in the eighth inning.

Run differential when Perkins enters games:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Per the above breakdown, 26% of Perkins' appearances have come with the Twins either ahead or behind by 3+ runs, which leads to this question: Would the Twins win more games if they swapped out that 26% chunk of the pie and (in addition to pitching when the Twins are ahead by a slim margin) instead had Perkins pitch strictly in the highest-leverage situations -- late in tied games or games in which the Twins trailed by one?

Having talked to Perkins enough on our Monday radio hits, I can tell you he - and most closers - like knowing exactly when they will enter a game. Being "on call" anytime from the seventh inning on isn't ideal for a pitcher, and I get that. There is a human aspect in that regard that's tough to quantify. Perkins has also told me in the past that he cares much more about winning, by any means necessary strategically, than accumulating saves.

Teams only get a certain amount of bullets to fire with their best relief pitchers. Regardless of groupthink and the "save" statistic, managers should be looking to use those ace relievers in the highest-leverage situations possible.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Ron Gardenhire, Glen Perkins
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