Once upon a time it was believed that a great deal of the Angels' success came from the staunch bullpen and Mike Scioscia's deft handling of those relievers. Whether that was actually true or us all manufacturing a narrative to fit around the fact that the early bullpens of Scioscia's managerial career were jam-packed with talent is up for debate. Whatever the case, that rich pool of talent and the expertise that Scioscia once wielded look to be long gone.
As any Angel fans knows all too well, the bullpen has a been a Groundhog Day-esque nightmare for the last few seasons. Every year the Angels say they realize how poor the relief work was and that they will address it in the off-season. They then attempt to do so only to come back the next year and the bullpen is somehow worse. It goes on and on. However, this year the bullpen's struggles seem to be exacerbated by the way Mike Scioscia has employed it.
One of the keys to utilizing reliever is putting them in a position to succeed. Scioscia has said so much himself. Alas, it turns out to be a classic case of "do as I say not as I do." In fact, Scioscia is arguably doing the worst job in baseball of putting his relievers in position to succeed. The prime example of this is Scioscia's bizarre willingness to thrust middle relievers into high leverage situations. Take a look at this table:
The first thing you will note is that the Angels are tied for the league lead in bringing in relievers with runners on base. Gosh, that sure seems like a bad idea when your relievers aren't, what's the phrase? Oh, right, good at baseball. You are asking for trouble by letting shaky relievers inherit a mess when they have a hard enough time not making a mess of their own. As you can see, it doesn't work out well either. Angel relievers have inherited the most runners in the league and, you're not going to believe this, they have one of the worst rates of allowing those inherited runners to score.
What the table doesn't show is where those runners are coming from. It turns out that 210 of the 229 come from the starting pitchers. We all know that the starting pitchers have had their own issues, but a lot of that is on Scioscia. From an anecdotal standpoint, think about all the times we've seen Scioscia send a pitcher nearing the limit of his pitch count get sent back out for one more inning only to allow a baserunner or two before getting an out. This is what I like to call the Joe Blanton Special. And while I don't have an exact number of times Scioscia let that scenario play out, the aggregate data supports that it happens a lot as the Halos have the highest average leverage index (1.22) when their starters leave the game. Those are a messes that Scioscia let happen. He could have easily sent out one his lousy relievers to start the inning clean and with less pressure. Instead, those instances blow up in his face and he is forced to bring in that same lousy reliever, only now he has no margin for error.
That isn't the only problem plaguing Scioscia though. How he uses his relievers is one thing, how often he uses them is quite another. As the previous table shows, the Halos are third in the AL in relief appearances. They also are tied for the fewest outs recorded and pitches thrown per relief appearance. In other words, Scioscia has been rolling his relievers out in short bursts and showing no reluctance to use several relievers in a given game. What he seems to be trying to do is cover up the deficiencies of his relievers by having them work in shorter outings that are hopefully more tailored to their strengths. This is why the Angels are near the bottom of the league in relief appearances of more than three outs and have far and away the most appearances of less than three outs. You could explain away the rest of the heavy use by blaming the problems in the rotation, but the Angel starters actually have an average start length that is right in line with the league average, so that only explains so much.
The short and sweet strategy is one that makes a lot of sense on a game-by-game basis. The problem is that it falls apart over the long haul. In order to use so many relievers per game it requires that the relievers work more frequently. Thus the Angels having the second-most relief appearances made on zero days rest. If there is one way to make sure your already crappy reliever pitches even crappier, it is to have him work whilst fatigued.
It is really kind of amazing that the overworking could even happen given how much turnover there has been in the bullpen, yet it has been the case all season. That's the big reason the Halos have felt the need to carry eight relievers a majority of the season. I've joked all season long about Scioscia trying to use Dane De La Rosa until his arm falls off, but we've seen more recent examples with Scioscia having J.C. Gutierrez pitch five games in six days. Having any reliever work that often is highly questionable, but why Scioscia would ever feel compelled to use a replacement level reliever like Gutierrez that often is beyond me.
Honestly, it all feels like that Portlandia "put a bird on it" sketch to me. Starter let's runners get into scoring position? Put a new reliever in. Reliever walks the first guy he faces? Put a new reliever in! Need a groundball double play? Put a new reliever in! Need a strikeout to avoid a sac fly? Put a new reliever in!
This issue reached a comical apex over the weekend when Scioscia said he was going to have to start monitoring the workload of certain relievers that he felt had been overworked. But he said in such a detached manner that it came off as if he was completely unaware that as the manager, he was the person responsible for overworking those pitchers in the first place. You can't use four relievers every single night and expect those relievers to stay fresh and effective all year long. Perhaps that is why the bullpen actually performed well for several weeks in the middle of the season only to have it all come crashing down in the last month. The fatigued bullpen just hit the collective wall and all of the guys who had looked so good back in June (like Kohn, Frieri and De La Rosa) fell apart at the same time.
One could also nitpick Scioscia's slavish devotion to trying to exploit same-handed matchups. There have certainly been times, like this last Houston series, where he has passed up the opportunity to pitch to an inferior hitter in favor of a platoon-friendly matchup. There aren't really any stats that can support this claim one way or the other, but even if Scioscia has been overly concerned with platoon matchups, it is hardly seems like a major offense as he is just looking for ways to give his relievers an edge.
The one unspoken mitigating factor in all of this is that Scioscia is just doing the best he can with a bullpen that is largely devoid of talent. There probably isn't a manager out there that could turn this crop of relievers into a consistent and effective group over 162 games, but what Scioscia has done is tantamount to a scene from a cheesy 80's sitcom where there is a tiny rag on fire in the kitchen but the character, through a series of bad decisions and clumsy accidents, ends up fanning the flames and burning the entire house to the ground. He has smartly gotten away from his old bad habit of utilizing his bullpen according to the inning, but it is clear that he is now managing outside of his comfort zone which has forced him to employ tactics that he either doesn't fully understand or believe in. The end result is the disaster that we see on a nightly basis and it probably won't change until both the bullpen personnel and manager change.