Dan Hartleb has earned the benefit of the doubt.
As the head coach of Illinois Baseball, Hartleb has overseen and attributed to a once moribund program flourishing in recent years. That has been directly tied to finding talent and molding them into Big Ten stars and potential pros.
Such was the case with Tyler Jay in 2015. Jay, a Lemont, Illinois, native, had all the makings of a superstar pitcher and potential ace for the Fighting Illini. However, rather than utilize arguably the best pitcher on the staff in a starter’s role, Hartleb stuck Jay at the end of his bullpen.
This usage is understandable in hindsight, as the rotation was filled out with some solid options, such as Kevin Duchene and Cody Sedlock. There seemed to be a more pressing need in the closer's spot. No one had seemed to really step up, and a great bullpen can shorten the workload for the starters.
The over-usage of starting pitchers has always been somewhat of a pet peeve for ESPN baseball analyst Keith Law. He has derided many a collegiate manager for leaving a starter too late into a game.
And Thompson is one of several Kentucky pitchers who’ve missed time with flexor strains ♂️ https://t.co/xPBefO7Stq— keithlaw (@keithlaw) May 22, 2018
it’s that time of year again, when amateur coaches overwork pitchers and tell us “he just wanted the ball” or “he trained for this” https://t.co/Ojp1i3glbD— keithlaw (@keithlaw) May 12, 2018
If you follow Law on Twitter, you'll notice these sort of tweets spread out throughout the amateur baseball season. It's a valid point to make. Baseball managers often wring their pitchers out, letting them throw 200 pitches or more on three days rest. They then justify it by claiming that the pitcher "called for the ball", or "he really wanted it tonight", or some other obtuse jargon. This is how pitchers end up hurting themselves and end up labeled "risky" or "injury-prone". It's irresponsible.
Which is what made his arguments against Hartleb's usage of Tyler Jay a bit baffling.
Now, I'll preface this by going over Jay's numbers in 2015 before we dive into this philosophical debate: in 66 2⁄3 innings, Jay boasted a 5-2 record with a 1.08 ERA (No. 3 in the nation), 0.71 WHIP (No. 2 in the nation), with 14 saves in 30 appearances (27 scoreless). He also had one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios (10.86), walks allowed per nine innings (0.95), and hits allowed per nine (5.40). Needless to say his numbers were elite, and he was arguably the best reliever in the NCAAs. That season propelled him to MLB Draft, where he was drafted sixth overall by the Minnesota Twins.
Now here lies the real question: was it right for his future to use him in such a limited role, knowing he has starter stuff? His pro career hasn't been as smooth as his time at Illinois. He's dealt with injury and ineffectiveness as he's been stretched out as a starter in the Twins organization.
To Keith Law's point. He was very critical of Hartleb's use of Jay in the bullpen, as he argued Jay's value was greater in a starter's capacity. He berated the Illini coach, falling just short of calling him an imbecile in so many words.
Now, I understand his argument. For his future, it would be better to stretch Jay out now so he's used to the innings load as a pro and therefore less prone to injury as he's stretched out.
However, you can't have it both ways. Tyler Jay was crucial to Illinois' success that season, winning their first Regional ever before bowing out to a loaded Vanderbilt squad. If your argument is that managers in college are imbecilic because they overuse their starters, you can't then be upset when a manager protects one of his most valuable assets by limiting his innings as a dominant reliever and racking up wins in an historic season.
It's Hartleb's job to win games, and he did that to the best of his ability in 2015. It comes off as being a bit disingenuous to call out a manager for (in this case) doing his job and going out of his way to protect his players.
In the end, it was a win/win as Illinois won and Tyler Jay became a top-ten MLB draft pick. We'll just have to see if he can get his career back on track and become what everyone saw in him, including Law: a superstar pitcher.