While the Blue Jays bullpen has not been horrible this year—certainly not like last season—it's definitely been the "sexy" talking point of the last few weeks for all the wrong reasons. Despite being filled with a multitude of capable relievers, the bullpen has lost close games for the Blue Jays a few too many times in the second half of the season. What this boils down to more often than not is the usage of these capable relievers by manager John Gibbons.
Sure, the easy thing for fans to do when it comes to a poor bullpen is blame the manager. Nationals fans certainly chose this course of action after all of Matt Williams' baffling decisions and now he's basically been run out of town (rightfully so). While Gibbons certainly doesn't deserve that type of rage over his bullpen management, he hasn't exactly earned a free pass either. The number of times people have raised their eyebrows at a pitching change is starting to be a bit too high for a division-leading team. It doesn't take a 50-foot dive into the numbers to expose the shortcomings of Gibbons' mismanagement, it's more of a gentle plunge into the most basic of statistics.
The first thing that's clearly apparent—and is now the talking point of all Toronto media—is Aaron Sanchez wrongly being used in the eighth inning of every close game regardless of opposing hitters. Since the lanky righty was put into the bullpen after he was unable to retain his rotation spot, he's been deployed in the eighth inning in almost every appearance he's made.
It wasn't until September 8 that Sanchez actually entered the game in an inning that wasn't the eighth. What made him so perfect for that role isn't exactly apparent, especially when you consider his platoon splits. There's been a building murmur that Liam Hendriks and Ryan Tepera (okay, maybe this one is just me) are deserving of higher-leverage situations, but they've never been given that opportunity. Instead, Sanchez toed along solidly in his eighth inning, avoiding too much damage by hitters from either side of the plate. But recently he started allowing some hits to righties, which he clearly couldn't afford considering he already struggles against lefties. Before you know it, the pitcher from California has been thrust out of his role and demoted to lower-leverage situations for the time being.
Was this all a case of the league catching on to Sanchez and throwing more lefties at him, or had he just not been as sharp as earlier in the season? Well, it's certainly at least a little bit of the former when you consider the type of hitters he's been facing recently:
Now this graph features some illusions, since Sanchez only faced 13 batters in July but the point is still valid. Despite all the ravings of how the sinkerballer could be a dominant reliever and possibly one day a closer in the Blue Jays bullpen, his platoon splits have never wavered to support that claim. Sanchez has always profiled as a ROOGY, it was just never as obvious as it is now.
Since he's been shifted to the 'pen this season, he's thrown only 19 curveballs to left-handed hitters and nearly the rest of his offerings have been sinkers. Considering that pitch often has a massive platoon split, Sanchez has done himself no favours in maximizing his effectiveness against lefties. The curveballs haven't worked either mind you, as opposite-handed batters have had no problem hitting them this year.
Behind the plate, Russell Martin's hands are tied. Nothing in Aaron Sanchez's arsenal is effective against left-handed hitters, yet the pitcher isn't exactly shielded from them by John Gibbons. The splits back up this "narrative" as well, with lefties hitting Sanchez to the tune of a .384 wOBA this year while righties have managed just a .217 wOBA clip. Small sample size, sure, but he's been even better against righties over the course of his two-year career, while he's never fared well against lefties. This problem isn't exactly a secret to most statistically-inclined Blue Jays fans, but the solution goes against the notion of "defined" bullpen roles that traditionalists (and baseball managers) love.
It's unfortunate there isn't some other guy on the Blue Jays who could do the opposite of Aaron Sanchez in high-leverage situations and be effective against left-handed batters. WAIT! Yes, there is!
There once was a time when good ole' Brett Cecil also struggled in relief due to him being forced to face opposite-handed hitters. Mind you, with the devlopment of his curveball he's now effective against hitters on both sides of the plate, although surely John Gibbons would prefer to use him mainly against same-handed hitters. That creates about the most obvious solution of all time. A two-headed monster in the eighth inning! Throwing defined roles out the window, Cecil and Sanchez could easily be utilized based on the opposing batters handedness giving the Blue Jays the best chance to get to the ninth inning in a favourable position. At the very least it would allow these relievers to face opposite-handed pinch hitters of lesser quality.
The obvious plan suggested above looks to have already been put into action if last night's game is any indication. In the eighth inning with three left-handed hitters due up for the Yankees, Gibbons went to Cecil and not Sanchez to get the job done. A sign that perhaps the Jays have caught on, and will begin to use their assets more effectively.
With the number of quality relievers on the team, saving a couple extra bullets in the gun for flexibility later in the game is hardly fatal. Liam Hendriks has dominated same-handed hitters this season even more so than Sanchez, making him another perfect option to face a righty-heavy chunk of a lineup if need be. Coupled with Mark Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins, and even Ryan Tepera or Drew Hutchison, the Blue Jays have the potential for one of the best bullpens in the playoffs. If used incorrectly though, opposing managers will take advantage of Gibbons' defined roles and diminish the quality of the relievers that the Jays actually have.
With two weeks to go until the postseason, this is a weakness the team would be wise to correct considering so many of these autumn games come down to the last few innings. John Gibbons has rightly thrown Aaron Sanchez out of the defined setup role, but wrongly thrown him out of high-leverage roles altogether. It's time to stop shoving square pegs in round holes with defined roles and let the pitchers pitch to their strengths.