Here's the thing that sucks about teams that need everything to go right: When almost all parts are cooperating, it makes you really resent the ones that can't.
In this case, it's the White Sox bullpen, which is fresh off a painful blown save against the New York Yankees on Saturday. Few looked at Matt Lindstrom as a structural necessity on this roster, but his ankle injury pretty much destroys the preseason concept of the reliever hierarchy.
Entering the season, Lindstrom and Nate Jones were the most capable relievers Robin Ventura had, and they stood at the top of the preseason bullpen's leverage ladder. If you were to arrange them in tiers, you can see that he's now left with a melange in the middle:
Matt Lindstrom Nate Jones
- Scott Downs
- Daniel Webb
- Ronald Belisario
Mitchell Boggs Donnie Veal
It doesn't matter so much when the instability is at the bottom of this list. Most teams go through a lot of low-leverage relievers in a season, trying a Veal or a Maikel Cleto and waiting for a guy like Zach Putnam to prove himself worthy.
At the top, it gets far trickier. The Sox could theoretically get by without Lindstrom or Jones. It's not easy, but maybe a young reliever like Webb leaps up and fills that gap, and there's a corresponding improvement below him.
But with Lindstrom and Jones out, they've lost both their longest track record, and their best strikeout guy. That leaves the Sox with a bunch of BABIP-susceptible groundballers in their bullpen, which is like trying to eat a cake that's mostly shortening.
We've seen the lineup without Adam Eaton at the top. We've seen the rotation without Chris Sale. Now the bullpen's head has been cut off, and it's not coming back nearly as quickly.
That means that Ventura can't really play the hot hand, because you'll see exactly what you see here. By the time a guy like Belisario presents himself a viable candidate, regression's about to kick him back down. Every reliever has put together a nice stretch:
- Belisario: Zero earned runs over 12 games (17⅓ innings)
- Putnam: One earned run over 11 games (16 innings)
- Downs: 10 consecutive scoreless outings (8 innings)
- Petricka: One earned run over 12 games (15⅓ innings)
But the low-pressure system has moved in on Belisario, Downs and Petricka. Putnam's still in pretty good shape, but if you write him off after allowing the game-winning homer, Webb is probably the closest thing to the hot hand now, having allowed just two runs over his last 11 appearances. But you have to put an asterisk next to it, because he's walked 12 batters over these 13⅓ innings.
The concurrent struggles reduce Ventura to guessing in the ninth inning right now. He has three choices, and none of them are particularly savory:
Improvise: Rely on the instincts of Don Cooper and Bobby Thigpen to figure out who has the best shot at getting it done that day.
Commit to the best strike-thrower: Since most of the relievers on hand don't miss many bats, they really can't compound issues by allowing free baserunners. Unless you really believe in Putnam's splitter, Belisario is still that guy, by and large. Maybe Belisario doesn't Have What It Takes To Close. Or maybe this is just a nasty bout of regression after a really good run, and the Sox can wait for an upswing to carry them for a few weeks.
Try Webb: He's the only guy with a true closer arsenal, but his fastball-slider combo works better in theory than in practice at the moment. Maybe the Sox should try betting on his upside and allow him to learn from mistakes. If nothing else, letting him start the inning might mitigate his control issues.
In all cases, Ventura is at the mercy of the mean, which means he could look stupid no matter what he does. Use multiple relievers in the ninth on a routine basis, and you're flailing. Leave a guy out there to wear it, and you risk scapegoating a player who's trying to pitch above his pay grade. I'd opt for fewer relievers than more, but it's a tough balance to strike.
The vacuum in high-leverage has revisionist historians bringing the Addison Reed-Matt Davidson trade into question. Sure, Reed isn't pitching all that well in Arizona, and Arizona's showing how little difference a proven closer makes on a foundering team. That's what the Sox were last year, and they weren't expected to be that much better, so Rick Hahn decided to use Reed to work on his vision for 2015 -- the year Reed would start getting expensive, and thus lose his value. The Sox figured they wouldn't have to go to Plan C for closing three weeks into May, but here they are.
I do think Reed's absence provides a lesson, but it's not that the Sox should've kept him. When Hahn builds a relief corps for a team he believes can contend all season, it might make sense to cut his groundballing bullpen with at least one strikeout guy, even if his flyball rate isn't the best fit for U.S. Cellular Field. Maybe Webb and Jones turn out to be the best of both worlds, but if they both take their time getting back, the front office may have to take a shortcut.
The Sox had to reallocate resources and break new guys in, though, so Hahn built an incubator of a bullpen to match. The hope was that Lindstrom and Jones could do the heavy lifting at the end of games while the field staff evaluated the rest to find good fits going forward. Now, the trainees have to do the work of full-timers, and customer satisfaction could take a hit. Then again, the customers ordered a rebuilding season, and this kind of frustration comes free.