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The Data-Driven Demise of the Closer?

April 17th, 2017 · No Comments · Baseball

It always is perilous to pick an argument with statistics wonks.

They have the “truth” of numbers in their tool kit and failing to acknowledge their intellectual superiority … well, just admit up front you are a Luddite.

But sometimes I wonder …

The latest trend in baseball is the notion of “leveraging” your best relief pitchers by using them at critical moments in a game — and not saving that ace reliever for the ninth.

The notion of a “closer” throwing the final inning, only, has been around for a couple of decades, but increasingly that tactic is considered hoary and is under attack.

Buck Showalter was practically fitted for a dunce cap when he failed to use closer Zach Britton in an 11-inning, wild-card game last October in Toronto, one his Orioles lost as Britton went unused.

Showalter has never fully explained himself, but the assumption is that he was waiting for his team to get a lead before he sent out Britton to pitch the bottom of an inning and, presumably, end the game.

This year, the entire concept of “closer” seems under attack. Several traditionalists (hello, Mike Scioscia) are using whichever reliever seems best-suited to the moment from the seventh inning on.

The “save” has been around only since 1969 (after lobbying from sports writers looking to bring more attention to relievers), and the rules were tweaked in 1975, but it has been the same since then, and roles became more specialized over time. To the point that managers, yes, were perhaps too locked-in to a frame of mind and saves were perhaps fetish-ized.

But …

Doesn’t it seem like regularly committing your best reliever to any variety of the seventh, eighth, ninth or subsequent innings might have a down side?

I’m thinking of one in particular.

Let’s say a manager uses his best reliever in the seventh. Or eighth. And his team carries a lead to the ninth inning.

Unless a manager is ready to go back to having ace relievers regularly pitch multiple innings (see: Mike Marshall), some lesser pitcher will throw the ninth.

The ninth inning is not forgiving. A meltdown there, and the game is over (if you are on the road) or reduced to three outs (if you are at home).

Think of all those downcast fielders trudging off the field after the ignominy of a “walk off” defeat.

Meanwhile, a meltdown by a lesser guy in the seventh at leaves gives a team to hit its way back into the lead. At least three outs’ worth, and maybe six or even nine.

And then button up things with your closer.

Psychology and emotion cannot be quantified and, thus, are dismissed by sabermetricians, but what sticks with a team (and with fans) longer: A lost lead in the seventh? Or a lost lead in the final inning?

Just saying. This “best pitcher for the situation” thing is more nuanced and subtle than first meets the eye, in my non-data-driven opinion.

Teams tend to remember those walk-off defeats, and wallow in them, and feel angry at … someone … longer than they do when the team sees a lead get away in the sixth or seventh or eighth. Maybe because the rest of the team has a chance to come back and make it right and responsibility is spread over many players.

It will be interesting to see how this works out. If Zach Britton (currently out with an injury) comes back and works two scoreless innings, then turns it over to some lesser pitcher in the ninth, the humans who play the game have to wonder if maybe managers had it right a few years ago, saving their best to shut things down.

Sure, spend the money to get good set-up guys. Make the final three innings hell for the opposing hitters. But inmost cases? Save the final act for your star.


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