Of all his managerial foibles, Joe Maddon’s bullpen usage is probably the most analyzed and criticized. For instance, he has frequently used relievers to face only one batter. And if you’ve ever thought while watching the Cubs that they seem to do this more than most teams, you were right.
Maddon called on relievers to face just one batter 60 times in 2018 more than any other NL team and less than only the Indians for tops in all of MLB. Rivals such as the Cardinals and Brewers — whose vaunted bullpen was largely responsible for their division title — finished 10th and 14th, respectively.
This data, illustrated below, was generated by Jim Albert of Exploring Baseball Data with R. His blog is an invaluable resource for those looking to really dig into baseball stats. You should check it out for a more complete breakdown of Albert’s analysis on pitcher usage.
It’s not as if using relievers to face just one batter is bad in and of itself. It makes sense to take the ball from a pitcher if, for example, your opponent pinch hits. That’s a big part of the reason the top tertile of the graph consists primarily of National League teams. The pitcher’s spot in the batting order is going to necessitate more changes between hitters and pitchers alike.
But I can also understand why fans might not be pleased with Maddon’s “one-and-done” approach. It can be hard on pitchers to warm up only to face one batter, particularly if they’re doing so frequently. Such a tack also depletes the bullpen and can have consequences not just later in that game, but also subsequent games.
I’m curious whether Maddon will continue this practice in 2019 after the ‘pen faced injuries and exhaustion at the tail end of the 2018 season.