Does Gonzalez trust his starting pitchers?

Bill Shanks looks at how Fredi Gonzalez may be overusing his bullpen.


In April we wrote about a few incidents that truly expose a horrible trend in baseball - the overprotection of starting pitchers and the paranoia by managers regarding pitch counts.

Well, we're back again for round two.

As we stated in the first column, second-guessing managers is part of the game. We could probably have a 60-minute talk show after every game to debate decisions made by managers for every game.

But this is also a much bigger picture discussion. Are we seeing some things that dictate what kind of manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to be for the Braves?

Saturday night's game in New York provided yet another scenario for discussion. Jair Jurrjens, arguably the best pitcher in baseball so far this season, was pulled with the bases loaded in the seventh inning and one out.

Jurrjens was sailing along through 6.1 innings. He got the first out in the seventh inning on a ground ball. Then Alex Gonzalez booted a playable ball off the bat of Jason Bay. Josh Thole then had a double to put runners on second and third. Jurrjens then brushed the jersey of Ruben Tejada to load the bases.

Jason Pridie then singled to right field to score Bay for the first run of the game. Jurrjens was at 90 pitches, and it was not like he looked horrible in the inning. An error, hit batsman, and two soft hits produced the first run of the game.

Fredi Gonzalez pulled Jurrjens in favor of reliever Scott Proctor. It might be one of those situations where injured reliever Peter Moylan would have been a perfect fit to get a ground ball to get out of the inning. But he's hurt, so Gonzalez instead went with Proctor.

Jose Reyes then tripled in all three runs to give New York a commanding 4-0 lead. Reyes then scored on a sac fly to make it 5-0. And an inning that started smoothly turned into a nightmare.

Now, the question is should Gonzalez have just allowed Jurrjens to clean up the mess? It's not like he was awful in the seventh inning; it was just one of those innings. Jurrjens has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, so wouldn't he have had a better shot at getting out of it than a journeyman reliever?

Starting pitchers are often criticized for the lower pitch counts, but I believe most prefer to stay in the game and get out of the jam. OK, if they are at or over 100 pitches, or might have had a struggle earlier in the game, then you treat that differently. But Jurrjens had been cruising for the entire game until Gonzalez made the error.

If Proctor had gotten a ground ball for an inning-ending double play, this might not be a topic. But you do wonder if Jurrjens himself was second-guessing Gonzalez and saying (to himself, of course), "Heck, I would have had a better shot at getting out of that."

Earlier this week we saw a different situation that also hits the heart of this issue. Tommy Hanson pitched six innings against the Padres. The Braves were up 3-2. In the top of the sixth, Hanson had walked Jason Bartlett to start the inning. Then Chase Headley popped out, Ryan Ludwick struck out swinging and then Brad Hawpe struck out looking.

But in the bottom of the sixth inning, with Hanson due up first for the Braves, Brooks Conrad pinch hit for him. Hanson was out of the game after 96 pitches.

After the game Gonzalez told reporters why he took Hanson out.

"(Pitching coach) Roger (McDowell) and I were both in agreement, that last at-bat took a lot out of him. I think it was a seven, eight-pitch battle, pretty high-intensity."

Now, it was hot that night in Atlanta - probably in the mid-upper 90s. Hanson even admitted he went through three jerseys and three hats, due to all the sweat. But he's pitched in Atlanta for three seasons now. He's used to the heat. It‘s not like Hanson thought he was pitching in North Dakota.

Martin Prado gave the Braves a two-run lead in the bottom of the sixth inning with a solo home run to make it 4-2. If Hanson had not been lifted, he would have gone back out in the seventh inning with a two-run advantage.

Instead, Eric O'Flaherty came in and gave up a run in the seventh inning to reduce the lead to one run. The Braves did hold on for the victory, but after O'Flaherty they used Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.

Here's my point: why couldn't Hanson have come back out to at least start the seventh inning? OK, so it was hot and his pitch count was closing in on 100. But if he had given up a hit or a walk, then you could have turned to your bullpen. Instead, by pulling Hanson after the sixth, it almost guaranteed the Braves were going to use three relievers that game.

And here's the problem with that - O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel are all in the top 10 in the major leagues in games pitched. They are all on pace to pitch in more than 81 games. So with that in mind, how are they going to be doing in September if they are used that frequently before the All-Star Break?

It would have been one thing if Hanson had struggled in the game, or had a rough sixth inning. Gonzalez felt he had a rough battle against Hawpe, but the fact is Hanson struck out the final two batters of the inning after allowing a walk to lead off the frame. That's not exactly a struggle.

The Braves won, so everything turned out OK. But again, this is a big picture discussion about Gonzalez's use of his starting pitchers. He does not seem to have as much confidence in them as they may deserve. He's been quick with the hook on all the starters, even Tim Hudson, this season.

Atlanta has the best team ERA in baseball (3.01) through Saturday's games. The rotation has the fourth best ERA (3.28) in the game, while the bullpen is second-best (2.54) behind San Diego. There's no doubt Gonzalez has confidence in his pen, as he should with its success. But again, you have to worry if they are still going to be strong late in the season if he continues to use them this much.

This Atlanta rotation deserves his confidence. It is a very talented group. Gonzalez is new, so maybe it's going to take time. But he really needs to show more faith in the starters as the season goes along.

Starting pitchers want to finish what they started, and they prefer to try and get out of their own mess. Sure, if a pitcher is in a jam, you do have to judge whether they are losing it, or if circumstances (such as Saturday night) have simply caused a pressured situation.

Jurrjens probably still felt strong in his game at Citi Field Saturday. He had thrown only 90 pitches up to the point when he was lifted, and you wonder if his adrenaline would have been better to have out on the mound instead of a ‘fresh' pitcher.

The Braves have played 59 games through Saturday, and in the 21 games the Braves' starters have had 100 pitches or more in a start, their record is 12-2 and the team record is 17-4. Obviously, a higher pitch count is going to show the starter is likely having a solid outing, and therefore the team has a higher chance of winning.

What happens in April, May and June still has an impact on what goes on in the final months of the season. And that's why Gonzalez must be careful and not overuse his bullpen. Trusting his starting pitchers more and letting them go longer in the games might help give the Braves a better chance later in the season.


Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA and WCOH Fox Sports 1400 in Newnan, GA. Shanks is a columnist for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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