Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bullpens, Bochy, Black

In his first 162-game season managing the Padres, a haggard Bruce Bochy walked the streets of north Chicago one night in 1996, chewing on yet another defeat and questioning whether he was long for the job. Bochy knew he had a team that should've been playing better than it was. He also knew that his boss, Larry Lucchino, the club's CEO, wasn't sold on him. Lucchino had inherited Bochy after coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in December 1994. Bochy sensed Lucchino wanted someone more theatrical, an Earl Weaver personality who would color up disputes with umpires and quotes with the press. Bochy didn't like his chances of surviving a mediocre season. As it turned out, Bochy had a powerful if anonymous ally: a bullpen that was the National League's best. Not every bullpen makes or breaks a manager, but a lot of them do and San Diego's bullpen helped to make Bochy. Without such ballast, a good managerial career to come may have been derailed. Padres relievers in '96 led by young closer Trevor Hoffman ended up first in the NL in ERA and win probability added -- a cool stat that accounts for relief situations -- and the Padres won their first NL West title since 1984, Hoffman closing out the final three victories at Dodger Stadium. Bochy, for his part, showed a knack for managing a bullpen. As Hoffman went on to become an All-Star perennial and the all-time save leader, he often said it was Bochy's handling of him that eased his journey. "He doesn't get greedy," Hoffman said. By that he meant that Bochy managed with an eye toward the pennant stretch and didn't burn out his closer and other key pitchers. Whatever the cause and effect, a bookend trend had begun. Two years later, the Padres again would win the NL West with a bullpen that led the NL in win probability added (WPA); in 2005-06, the last two of Bochy's Padres teams won the NL West and had bullpens that ranked second in league WPA.

Bochy's replacement in San Diego, Bud Black shares not only the same initials but a reputation for knowing how to run a bullpen and an awareness that if the bullpen stinks, the manager looks like a dummy. As the Angels' pitching coach from 2000-06, Black enjoyed a smooth ride thanks largely to  bullpens that ranked second overall in WPA in that span (source: With the Padres, Black presided over the transition from Hoffman to Heath Bell, which couldn't have gone better for both Bell and Black. A strong bullpen led by Hoffman, Bell and Doug Brocail nearly carried Black to a playoff berth in his first season of managing, but in the 163rd game Hoffman had nothing on his fastball and the Rockies went rat-a-tat-tat to grab the wild-card berth. Hoffman, then on the verge of his 40th birthday, had bone chips and spurs removed from his elbow once the team returned to San Diego. 

Black and his pitching coaches, including the veteran bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds, nurtured an even stronger bullpen in 2010, one whose WPA (8.42) led the majors. This time the Padres were eliminated in the 162nd game at San Francisco. Their opponent: Bochy's Giants, who had pitched historically well down the stretch and would pitch their way to a World Series championship, closer Brian Wilson getting the final out with a high-speed fastball in Arlington, Texas.

West Coast Bias covered all of Bochy's Padres teams and saw Bochy in the clubhouse as the Giants passed around the World Series trophy. Bochy had sailed past cloud nine well before his third or fourth champagne bath.

As the Padres and Giants finish a series in San Francisco today, once again each team's bullpen is adding IQ points to the two managers. WCB doubted this Giants bullpen would be as good as last year's; so far, it's been better. The Giants lead the majors in bullpen WPA (5.11). Led by a bullpen that seemed bottomless, Bochy's club outlasted the Padres in 14 innings Wednesday. The Padres can hold serve behind a bullpen that ranks sixth (3.22).

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