I am not really a huge baseball fan, but we generally watch the World Series, and the Astros pitching decisions in the seventh inning had me yelling at my TV again.
In a previous post, I talked about my pet peeve of the closer position. For non-baseball fans, here is the background: Typically, starting pitchers make it about 6 innings on average, leaving a need for other pitchers to cover the last three innings. Most relief pitchers who cover these later innings are not as good as the starting pitchers, or else they would be starting pitchers. The exception is that most teams have a "closer", typically their best relief pitcher who is reserved for pitching the last inning (thus the name "closer"). I asked before why the closer always pitched the 9th, rather than whichever inning of the last three that the toughest batters were expected. The answer I came up with was this:
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.
You can even see this effect today, as everyone talks about Brad Lidge giving up a 1-run homer in the 9th, rather than talking about the grand slam the bull pen gave up in the 7th.
So here is what specifically drove me nuts last night: Bottom of the 7th, the White Sox trailing 4-2, the Sox had managed to load the bases with two outs and had Paul Konerko, one of their best sluggers, up to bat. The Astros were clearly going to switch pitchers, since the current guy had just walked two batters in a row. The question was, who to bring in? One announcer suggested they bring in Brad Lidge, their closer and the best guy available (short of bringing in a starting pitcher). The other announcer said, no, you can't do that, he will never make it all the way to the 9th. You can't, he said, bring your closer in this early.
Well why the hell not? Are you really going to face a more dangerous situation than bases loaded with Paul Konerko up to bat later in the game? Lidge, if he is their best guy, should have been in then, and pitched the 8th, and then they could have patched guys together for the 9th. Instead, they sent in some other guy and boom, grand slam.
Now, I will admit that Lidge's giving up the game-winning home run in the 9th taints my argument a tad, if only to make the point that Lidge may have not been as hands down superior to the rest of the bullpen as we may have thought a few innings earlier. But that does not change the facts of the 7th inning: The Astros were facing the most dangerous possible situation, in the heart of the Sox order, one worse than anything they were likely to face in later innings, but they chose not to put the person they thought of as their best available pitcher out of homage to this weird baseball conventional wisdom called the closer.