Closers and superficial baseball analysis

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

Former AL Manager of the Year Buck Showalter. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

In the aftermath of the two Wild Card games, the popular dissection (including on ESPN immediately after Mets-Giants) involves a juxtaposition of game outcomes based on closer appearance (or non-appearance): “One team loses without its closer pitching, another loses when its closer blows the game.”

These are true statements, in terms of both history and in the sense that closers do not manufacture guaranteed outs.  We know this because we’ve all seen blown saves.  And so it’s curious that the closer has been elevated to something of a mythical stature, no doubt due to the fact that some of baseball’s most legendary pitchers (e.g., Mariano Rivera, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage) have earned their Hall of Fame credentials in that role.

But let’s not forget that guys like Fernando Rodney (nearly top-30 all time in saves and rocking a career 3.69 ERA) are also closers.  As anyone who has played fantasy baseball for any length of time can tell you, the closer role is one of the most volatile in baseball.  Being a team’s “closer” is a double-edged sword:  it sets the player up for a nice payday later on, but the odds are against any individual pitcher succeeding in that role for very long.  More often than not, the closer is just a guy with perhaps a slightly better skill set than the rest of the bullpen, but who is never really placed in the best opportunity to succeed thanks to always taking the ball in the 9th inning.

Zach Britton, the Orioles closer, was not just a guy this season, and had yet to pitch in the Wild Card game as the bottom of the 11th inning approached in the tie affair.  Clearly Baltimore’s best pitcher (0.54 regular-season ERA, which is the only ERA Britton would have this year), everyone expected the lefty Britton to get a shot against the heart of the Blue Jays order, consisting of right-handed hitters Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion.  He did not get that opportunity; instead, Buck Showalter sent in the homer-prone, generally terrible Ubaldo Jimenez.  The results were predictable: single, single, home run.

Showalter’s decision was indefensible, certainly not justified by Britton’s platoon splits (he is also very good against right-handers).  Showalter’s narrow-mindedness cost the Orioles in two ways:  first, Showalter was saving his closer for a time when his team had the lead, which of course was never guaranteed to happen; and second, because the Orioles’ closer was also the team’s best pitcher, he never made it into a tied, winner-take-all playoff game.  The reality is that Britton, label or not, was simply in a better position to get those three outs than Jimenez.

Terry Collins made a different decision in a similar situation in Wednesday’s Mets-Giants game.  With a tie in the top of the 9th inning, Collins brought in his closer against the bottom half of the Giants order.  This was at least a defensible decision, if not the correct one.  Familia is one of the Mets’ best relievers, has a good strikeout rate and the best groundball rate on the team.  It was reasonable to expect him to slice and dice his way through Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan, and Joe Panik.

That illusion quickly fell away.  Familia was wild, missing badly with two pitches to Crawford and sending two more right down main street.  Crawford deposited pitch #4 into left field.  If the signs of trouble were not manifest then, they certainly were even as Familia struck out Pagan on six pitches, at least two of which Pagan should have clobbered but fouled off.  Panik’s at-bat ended with a seven-pitch walk; five pitches missed the strike zone by a mile.  One would expect Collins, by this point, to have had Josh Edgin or Jerry Blevins warming to face the left-handed Connor Gillespie, but instead Collins left his right-handed closer in.  The game would effectively end with Familia’s third pitch to Gillespie, who went yard on a sinker up in the zone.  Familia threw nearly 30 pitches in the inning; one wonders whether any other reliever would have had a similarly long leash.

One team loses without its closer.  Another loses with him.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  The better point here, lost in baseball writers’ attempts at irony, is that there is nothing magical about a closer.  It’s just a label thrown on a guy who traditionally pitches in what is typically the last inning of a game, and oftentimes prevents that pitcher from being used in the most optimal situations.  Yet, in true Halloween fashion, the “closer” continues to haunt playoff teams.

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