The Power of Metrics and Expectations

This is my first and probably last baseball post - read this blog if you want more baseball.

I am fascinated with the psychology of the closer position.  Some background:  The best baseball pitchers start games, and on average get through about 6 innings of 9.  The baseball manager's job is to stitch together a number of less talented pitchers to cover the 7th, 8th and 9th innings.  One would expect that the manager would flexibly match pitcher skills against the lineup he is facing.  For example, if the most dangerous batters for the opposing team are scheduled up in the 8th inning, he might send in his best relief pitcher in that inning.  One would not expect to see any particular emphasis on one inning or another:  after all, a game lost in the 7th counts the same as a game lost in the 9th.

This, however, is not how most managers operate.  Most managers have one very highly paid and more talented relief pitcher they call the "closer" that they pitch solely in the 9th inning.  Why?  Why is the 9th more important and deserving of a valuable player than the 8th?

The answer is part baseball conventional wisdom, which is as strong as in any old-line industry.  However, the other part of the explanation must lie in metrics.  If a manager loses a game in the 7th, it is just a loss.  If a manager loses a game in the 9th, the game was "blown".  Newspapers and talk shows keep and publish stats on games blown in the 9th, but not games lost in the 7th and 8th.  Games lost in the 9th are in a sense portrayed as more of a management failure than games lost in the 7th, and this is made worse by the fact that a game lost in the 9th is somehow more psychologically devastating for fans and media.  Managers are not dumb - recognizing that they get dinged on their performance rating more for a game lost in the 9th than the 8th, they have invented the closer role.  General managers take a disproportionately large part of their salary budget for relief pitching and dedicate it to this closer role.

A guy named Theo Epstein a couple of years ago, as a general manager, challenged this conventional wisdom.  He observed that more games were lost in the 7th and the 8th than the 9th, so hypothesized that relief pitching emphasis and salary dollars should be spread more evenly across the three innings.  One of his consultants was the famous Bill James, who has challenged baseball conventional wisdom with facts for years.  Epstein was roundly criticized by media and local fans alike for his "Closer by Committee" approach.  Eventually he was forgiven, when in the following year he brought his town its first world championship in 86 years.

For more on this and similar baseball topics, the book Moneyball is fabulous, and tells this story of the clash of fact-based analysis and baseball conventional wisdom, in a way that might be familiar to change agents in any number of Fortune 500 companies.

  • Scott

    You're going to have to scratch this whole post, Warren. Theo Epstein gave up on the Closer by Committee approach in June of 2003, signed closer Keith Foulke before the 2004 season, then won the World Series with Foulke as his closer.

    There are plenty of valid arguments against the single closer approach, but don't credit Epstein for not using a closer. He gave up on that within 3 months of his reign in Boston.