The mismanagement of closers

Getty Images/Brian Garfinkel - Why do managers insist on running their closers just one inning?
Getty Images/Brian Garfinkel – Why do managers insist on running their closers just one inning?

By Edward Overend

As we all know, an MLB roster is made up of 25 players at any time yet all of our attention is focused on the everyday players and the starting pitching. Sure, the accumulator of that most arbitrary of statistics, the save, is known to most fans too but what about the other 6 or 7 arms that sit away from the dugout, only called upon on the whim of a manager? The bullpen.

Over the years, this has possibly been the last thing sorted when assembling a squad, almost an afterthought. Throw a few guys together with live arms , perhaps a limited arsenal, a couple of LOOGIES and ‘voila’ there you have it, a major league bullpen.

However, ask what the biggest strength of the American League Champion Kansas City Royals was last season and a lot of informed people will tell you it was their 1,2,3 punch at the back end of games. Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera were practically unhittable, especially down the stretch, and propelled the Royals to their most successful season in more than 20 years.

The stats back this up. Kansas City’s pen contributed a WAR in 2014 of 5.9 games, best in MLB. World Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants, ranked 5th in team bullpen ERA in the majors.

However, there is an argument that managers misuse their relievers by saving their ‘closer’ until the team has a lead and finds itself within spitting distance of the end of a game.

Statistically, the ninth inning is more likely to feature a closer facing lineup spots 6-9, while the eighth inning guys, the ‘set up’ men handle the 2-5 spots.

It’s just the way things are done in baseball. Closers, usually regarded as the best relievers are for the ninth inning. Set up men are for the eighth inning, with seemingly very little wiggle room. Everyone else be on your toes no matter the time or score. The thinking is archaic and no data seems to be able to shift how bullpens are used.

Why are teams so reluctant to change this? It may be as simple as a fear of failure, of being different, of being the subject of ridicule. Baseball is full of so many ‘truisms’ that are true only because they have been drummed into us for so long that they must be so.

Remember when a run producer was the clean up guy who drove in runs, who provided RBI, guys like Ryan Howard? Ryan Howard had 95 RBIs last year, good for 4th in the National League. Great, yes? Not so much. Howard’s WAR, admittedly taking into account his fielding and base running, in 2014 was -1.1. He cost the Phillies a game compared to if they had just had a league average player at 1B, a total nobody.

In football, the stats men would argue in a lot of cases, that when faced with a fourth down, the most prudent thing to do is go for it. However, more often than not, teams opt to punt. What if we don’t make it? Then what? Then the media and Twitter will call into question the coach’s very sanity. Why risk it when one can hide behind years and years of ‘proof’ that that is the thing to do?

To understand why saving a closer for only the final three outs isn’t always a wise strategy, you must first understand game leverage theory.

The basic premise: The first pitch of the game has low leverage because there still is an entire game to be played, and just about any situation in a blowout game is low leverage. But when a game is close (a deficit/advantage of three runs or fewer) in the seventh, eighth, ninth and any extra innings, the leverage situations go way up because one play can drastically effect each team’s win probability.

In a one run game with nobody out and runners on first and second in the seventh inning, the pitcher from the team leading the game is facing a high leverage situation. A hit or an out then changes the chance of a team winning hugely

Save situations – ninth inning leading by three runs or fewer – are high leverage in their own right with nobody out. By definition ‘save situation’ means the game is close and it won’t take much to alter the win probability. However, nobody on and nobody out in a three run game in the ninth inning carries a lower leverage than a one run game in the eighth with two runners on and fewer than two outs.

It’s a little common sense, a lot of maths and a great deal of ‘new school’ thinking.

The ‘ace’ of a rotation is its best pitcher, and ‘true aces’ are the best starters in the sport. But managers can’t use these guys at will because starters need rest.

But if a manager has a ‘relief ace’ he can use that pitcher in just about any situation in which the game is in the balance. And he can use him three or four days in a row if the situations call for that.

Past, current and probably future baseball thinking stifles this idea, though. Baseball is built on routine because there are games just about daily for six months. Managers like to have order. Players like to have defined roles. Otherwise, for some reason, chaos happens. This is the belief of certain baseball people and players, at least. Shouldn’t the best pitcher be in when the game is most on the line? Shouldn’t the best pitcher come in for the highest leverage situations?  He is the team’s best guy, regardless of situation. He is the guy who keeps the game where it is and helps improve win probability by getting outs, especially when they are needed against the opposition’s best hitters.

Otherwise, there is the risk of coughing up a game before the ninth inning with a lesser arm on the mound. In that scenario, the bullpen’s best option isn’t used because he is being saved for a situation that never materialises – a save situation.

There are times when the ‘relief ace’ wouldn’t be needed until the start of the ninth, as a traditional closer is currently used. But there are times when he would be needed sooner and with the outcome in the balance.

As mentioned earlier, there is data saying that a team’s 3-4-5 hitters are more likely to hit in the eighth inning rather than the ninth. Teams and relievers could actually prepare for such times. Around the sixth inning, a closer could look at the score and the place in the other team’s lineup and calculate his chances of being needed before the ninth to face the opponent’s best hitters.

There is an advantage in players knowing their roles, especially out of the bullpen. However, one thing missing in today’s game is the use of a closer for more than one inning, something that would negate the closer-by-committee approach. Just because a pitcher throws throws in the eighth inning shouldn’t prevent him from throwing in the ninth.

Managers shouldn’t be afraid to use closers for more than just the last three outs. That kind of narrow thinking can hurt clubs. Health certainly factors into how the best relievers are used, and some managers believe overusing a guy will result in a drop in production. However, results suggest the opposite. That begs the question, why can’t dominant closers pitch more than one inning in a high leverage situation?

The answer is there is no good reason.

These days, it seems there is a relief specialist for every situation. Or at least that what we are led to believe. If you need a ground ball, there is a guy for that. If you need someone to get out a left handed hitter, there is a guy for that. If you need a strikeout, there is a guy for that. If you need someone to give you more than one inning, there is a guy for that – as long as he isn’t the closer.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to handcuff your best pitcher. Teams wouldn’t limit a rotation ace to 85 pitchers a game. If you have a reliever who can dominate in short bursts, whether it be two innings or one time through a lineup, take advantage. It’s understandable if availability issues creep up and a manager can’t use a guy for more than three outs on a certain day, but team’s don’t win every day. If the ‘set up’ man is reliable, he can step into the ‘closer’ role every 7-10 days to help this strategy.

Every relief pitcher, pitching coach and manager interviewed for this story said something about the ninth inning being the toughest in baseball. However, that might be more baseball cliché than anything else. The numbers say those tough outs often come before the ninth inning. Maybe there is something to be said about the pressure of a ninth-inning save situation. Players tend to work deeper into counts in the ninth in an attempt to somehow reach base and extend the game. The crowd might be standing, it might be loud. Mentally pitchers might think differently about the ninth inning.

Still, if you can be trusted to get high-leverage outs in the seventh and eighth, you can get them anytime. That would make some of those bullpen parts interchangeable enough that your best arm can be used when needed.

The ‘save’ stat is now used for awards and in contract negotiations. It’s an incentive, and managers, many of whom are former players, understand how valuable those numbers can be. That has altered how managers use their bullpens and underuse their closers.

This might never change, but neither will the meaning of wins and how they are achieved. Some players understand that and that and don’t pigeonhole themselves to a certain role or speciality.

Just give them the damn ball.

You can follow Ed on twitter @EdwardOverend or join in the conversation @CTBPod

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