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Breaking Down A Bullpen Decision

The Astros loss on Wednesday night against the Royals wasn’t without a bullpen controversy.

Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Last night in Kansas City, the Astros found themselves with a 2-1 lead in the bottom half of the seventh inning against the Royals. Already faced with the prospect of a four-game losing streak looming with the A’s continuing to nip at their heels in the AL West race, Zack Greinke was pulled following 85 pitches in six innings.

With the middle to bottom portion of the Royals’ batting order due up next — Andrew Benintendi, Hunter Dozier, and Ryan O’Hearn — manager Dusty Baker decided to utilize the bullpen to get the final nine outs of the game. There was nothing wrong with this approach as the multiple members of the relief corps were well-rested, including Kendall Graveman and Ryan Pressly. In my mind at the time, the question was whether Baker would turn to a lefty to face Benintendi and O’Hearn, who are both left-handed hitters, or resort to Graveman considering the slim margin of the lead at the time.

As you already know, Baker chose Taylor to start the seventh inning, and things unraveled rather quickly as Benintendi doubled followed a Dozier two-run home run to put Kansas City back in the lead. Entering the bottom half of the seventh inning, the Astros had a 62.5 percent chance of winning this game per FanGraphs. By the end of the inning, when Graveman finished it with a Jarrod Dyson groundout, that win expectancy dropped to 26.3 percent.

The natural overreaction following the game was Baker’s decision to use Taylor in that crucial seventh inning. Heck, I am guilty of this to some extent based on my Twitter feed last night. As always, it remains easy to second-guess a manager’s bullpen management, especially after the fact when the result is already known. But the result is not always a sound place to start analyzing a decision as poor choices can sometimes lead to positive outcomes and vice versa.

So, the question now is whether the process behind the decision was sound? On the surface, the decision to utilize a lefty out of the bullpen — Taylor or Brooks Raley — would make some degree of sense as the Royals had two left-handed bats due up to start the seventh inning. Plus, Hunter Dozier, for his career, has a reverse split against left-handed pitchers — .231/.327/.394, 94 wRC+ — compared to right-handed pitchers — .245/.307/.448, 99 wRC+. The more I thought about it; I’ve honestly come to believe that Dozier’s splits against left-handed pitchers may have cemented this decision to turn to Taylor at this juncture of the game. Although Taylor’s .394 wOBA against right-handed batters does create pause for concern, Dozier’s abysmal numbers against left-handed pitchers likely alleviated some of those thoughts. Throw in Benintendi’s and O’Hearn’s career splits against left-handed pitchers; it was the most probable course of action for Baker and Brent Strom to start the bottom half of the inning with the three-batter minimum rule involved.

At the same time, the context surrounding this game matters, and this is where my main complaint draws from. Graveman, for example, was well-rested as he hasn’t pitched since Friday. In addition, the Astros needed a spark considering the three-game losing streak and the overall downward trend in performance in recent weeks. Since his acquisition, Graveman has provided that spark out of the bullpen. There is something to say for slamming the door on the opposition, especially with a slim lead as the postseason race becomes even more cluttered at the top of the standings. But following a night to think about it, the process was more sound than I thought. I still would’ve made a different choice considering Graveman has only allowed four earned runs to left-handers all season long, but I get it. On to the next game.