Next Tiger manager could bring new ideas on use of the bullpen, or maybe not

Drew Smyly was the most effective pitcher out of the Detroit bullpen in terms of allowing the fewest baserunners in 2013..

Drew Smyly was the most effective pitcher out of the Detroit bullpen in terms of allowing the fewest baserunners in 2013..

Who will be the Detroit Tigers’ new manager? Speculation is rampant, and no one can say at this point who is really in the running. Had the Tigers not been so loyal to Jim Leyland, Detroit could have hired Terry Francona after he left the Boston Red Sox. Since his father, Tito, played part of his career for the Tigers, and the younger Francona coached in Detroit in the 1990s, there is a Detroit connection to draw on. But Cleveland grabbed him.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda: a favorite pastime for the hot stove. What if Babe Ruth hadn’t been on vacation and incommunicado in Hawaii when Frank Navin offered him the manager’s job after the 1933 season? Without Mickey Cochrane, the Tigers might have missed a couple pennants, but at least the ladies-of-the-evening at the spas in Mount Clemens that the Babe liked to frequent would have made some extra cash.

And do you ever wonder what would have happened had skipper Jimmy Dykes not been traded for skipper Joe Gordon? Answer: absolutely nothing different.

Speaking of rewriting history, my fantasy is that Dave Dombrowski will hire a manager with the courage and mental agility to buck the current fad in the superstition-based use of relief pitchers.

A major league pitching staff now consists of five starters who hurl somewhere between 140 to 210 innings a season, and six or seven relievers who pitch maybe 40 to 75 innings. Everyone in the bullpen must have a set role. This is the fashion, and it’s patently ridiculous.

The idea is that if you have a lot of power arms in the pen, as teams increasingly do, you can overmatch the hitters in the late innings. Since the inflation of pitching staffs has left fewer roster spots for reserves and pinch-hitters, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The offensive manager is handicapped in late-inning match-ups, because he has so few options on the bench.

The new practice of fresh arms and specialists pouring out of the pen has completely replaced the old “hot hand” theory of managing pitchers (stay with a pitcher until he shows he’s tiring). As far as I can tell, the only theoretical underpinning to the current strategy is numerology: finding the ideal men to pitch in the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. The mere number of the frame dictates who can pitch. It’s as if you were playing poker and decided whether to draw or fold by the numbers on the clock at the time. This push-button approach, technocratic in the worst sense, has replaced thinking managers who respond to the unique situations that present themselves in unique games.

I’m not going to argue pitch counts. A fan, even a traditionalist, simply has to accept that nowadays starters are going to leave the game soon after they reach the magic 100-pitch mark, if not before. It’s no use decrying how Jack Morris or Mickey Lolich would never have gone to the manager and told him “I’m gassed” after seven innings, Even Justin Verlander, who passes for a bulldog these days, takes his seat on the pine willingly and watches in helpless agony as relievers try to ruin his masterwork. The glory days of complete games are gone. The clubs have too much at stake in babying those arms to keep their big investments healthy.

But that doesn’t mean a maverick manager couldn’t break out of the current rigid mind-set and recognize other ways to use a bullpen than the inning-by-inning parade of specialists. Such an innovator would combine the old-school wisdom of recognizing that all pitchers have off days when they don’t have their stuff — and that therefore you are rolling the dice every time you call in a new arm — with the new analytics that show it’s best to use your bullpen’s best arms to work out of a jam (rather than save them for the closer situation that may never arrive or give somebody an easy save for getting three outs before allowing three runs).

Yes, it’s my pet peeve about today’s game. I wish the Tigers had a manager who would pitch Drew Smyly 100-130 innings in relief, because Smyly had the fourth-lowest WHIP of any AL pitcher this year who pitched at least 70 innings in relief, behind only Koji Uehara, Luke Hochevar, and Tommy Hunter. (Interestingly enough, Hochevar and Hunter are guys who failed repeated tests as starters.)

The next leap in baseball strategy could be to find the lost answer to the question of how much rest a reliever would need if he threw three innings or fifty pitches in a game. How often could a Smyly type do that? By doing something like this you could save two or three roster spots for pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, and defensive replacements. And those are roster spots the Tigers definitely could use to protect any lead achieved by their lineup of slow-footed, range-challenged bashers.

Is there such a managerial candidate out there? It’s highly doubtful, and my phone is not ringing. But this is the time of year to dream.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.