Gardenhire's First Real Bullpen Gaffe A Window Into Old-School Mentality

"He’s the eighth inning guy, understand that," Gardenhire said.

Will Burchfield
June 13, 2018 - 4:44 am

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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Ron Gardenhire's begrudging acceptance of analytics can be amusing, but it cost the Tigers on Tuesday night. The manager stuck to his old-school principles by declining to call on his best reliever, Joe Jimenez, earlier than usual and instead watched Warwick Saupold give up a two-out grand slam in the seventh that turned a 2-1 lead over the Twins into an eventual 6-4 loss.

Gardenhire, to be fair, also said he was trying to protect Jimenez's arm, but he later made it sound like he was ready to call for him in the eighth had the Tigers been in the lead. Either way, he never considered letting the 23-year-old get four outs to pass the baton to closer Shane Greene. 

"How many games do you want Jimenez to pitch in, how many innings do you want him to pitch in? He’s the eighth inning guy, understand that," Gardenhire said. "I’m not gonna kill this kid.

"I know what you’re saying, I could let him get four outs, I could have brought him in and let him get one out and then pitch somebody else in the eighth, but it would have been the same guys. You can have this argument all you want, and we’ve tried that a couple times. ... But how many appearances does he already have where he’s gonna go multiple innings? You can’t do that to this young man." 

Jimenez is tied for second in the AL with 34 appearances this season, which puts him on track for a career-high 81 -- or an appearance in every other game. (His career high to date is 55, set in 2016 over three minor-league levels.) For reference, no big-league pitcher reached 80 appearances last season, so it behooves the Tigers to scale back Jimenez's work load. 

Then again, he's pitched more than one inning on just two occasions this season, and he entered Tuesday night's game on three days of rest. His last appearance was a clean 13-pitch outing versus the Indians on June 8. 

"It doesn’t matter," Gardenhire said. "He’s out there, he warmed up, we had him warmed up if we got back in the lead. There’s so much more to it. That’s my decision, so if you don’t like what I did, I’m sorry."

If Gardenhire was willing to pitch Jimenez in the eighth, it makes little sense that he wouldn't use him in the seventh with two outs, the bases loaded and the Tigers protecting a one-run lead. That was the game's pivotal moment. Gardenhire should have had his best pitcher on the mound, even if that meant going with Saupold -- or someone else -- to start the eighth. Forget the inning. No outs and the bases empty doesn't have nearly the same consequence as two outs and the bases full. 

The proof came in the form of Ehire Adrianza's grand slam to right field that flipped the game on its axis. 

On top of signaling a stubborn attachment to traditional roles, Gardenhire's decision to call on Saupold over Jimenez ignored their most relevant splits. 

Saupold entered Tuesday's game allowing a .333 batting average and a .942 OPS in high-leverage situations this season, per baseballreference.com. He was good in a big spot on Saturday, yes, but almost all of his strong performances this year have come with little on the line. Jimenez, on the other hand, has held hitters to a .122 average and a .318 OPS in high-leverage situations. (Yes, you read those numbers correctly.) His best work has come when the game is most up for grabs. 

Asked if he therefore thought Gardenhire might summon him in the seventh, Jimenez said, "I don’t know, man, it’s his call. I don’t control that. I have to be ready whenever he wants me to throw. It’s not my call." He added his arm feels "perfectly fine" despite his workload over the first two and half months of the season. 

To Gardenhire's credit, he didn't run from blame Tuesday night. His first move in the seventh was to lift Blaine Hardy for Louis Coleman with none out and a runner on first, a decision that also backfired when Coleman walked the bases loaded before giving way to Saupold. 

"We put a guy in there that was supposed to get through that inning and he walked a couple guys, so it’s on me. I made the moves and I didn’t bring in Jimenez in that situation, so I’ll take the loss," Gardenhire said. "If that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll take the loss, I don’t care. But I’m not gonna kill that young man, it’s just not gonna happen. It’s my watch, and I’m gonna take care of him. I think he’s a big part of our future." 

Gardenhire has done his best to embrace analytics in his first season as Tigers manager, in many cases leaning on the info to make lineup decisions. But it's clear he harbors a mistrust of the advice that comes from "those people up there," as he likes to tease. It's funny and even endearing when he mocks his computer or puts analytics on a pedestal when the Tigers are winning, much less so when they're losing thanks to that same old-school -- and outdated -- approach to the game. 

Jimenez's arm should absolutely be taken care of. And he absolutely should have pitched in the seventh inning Tuesday night if Gardenhire was indeed ready to let him protect a lead in the eighth. Bullpen decisions should be made in regard to the situation of a game, not predetermined roles. There was one out the Tigers really needed to get on Tuesday, and it went to a reliever who's had trouble securing such outs all season long. 

"I trust everybody in the bullpen, just like the manager does," Jimenez said. "Whoever got in that situation, he was the best choice at the time. It doesn’t matter now." 

In reality, the best choice was Jimenez, but he was left waiting for an opportunity that never arrived.