The Baseball Closer Role is Nuts

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.

  • Desaray

    Well...

    It is one thing to be an armchair analyst with 20/20 hindsight and suggest that you have the right formula to prevent a disappointing loss. If such people were good at making those decisions on a consistent basis to the extent that they can, say, get a MLB team to the world Series, they would be a Manager rather than the armchair analyst they are.

    The Astros Manager (a manager whose present-day decision-making skills are matched by the quality of his on-the-field-play in the late 70's) and his staff subscribe to the starter, mid-relief, closer formula to manufacture wins on the pitching side of the game. This is pretty typical in Baseball today though not every manager subscribes to this strategy. This formula requires specific training and conditioning to get the players (pitchers) in the proper form to perform their duties at their optimal level. This means that the starter gives you 6 innings--maybe 7; the mid-reliever will give his team enough to get to the 9th inning, and the Closer will issue the 1-2-3 punch to end and win the game. A starter has a lot of room to move: because of the length of time he pitches, he can give up some bases, hits, and even runs but still keep his team in the game. That is his basic job. He is conditioned to give the team 6-7 innings and around 100 or so pitches. He typically won't go any longer even if he is having a great game---especially in the world series because the typical 5 days of rest goes down to 3 in most cases. To have him pitch over his limit will hurt you if he has to pitch again in 3 days. The reliever has one job: get people out and keep the game close. Usually you will see fastballs and some nasty breaking pitches from these guys---not overpowering--they have to pitch a couple of innings---but still good, fast pitching. Then we have the closer. While this position was foolishly described as a player who is of lesser ability and value than a starter, this guy may in fact be the best player in the league---if not the most overlooked.

    The closer, unlike the starter, has no room for error. He cannot allow a hit. His job is to get three people out every time he pitches. he must always be on his game, he must always face the toughest hitters, and he must be able to pitch without rest, sometimes for many nights in a row. His pitches are fast and they are "out" pitches. If not, he will not have his job long.

    Let's look at the other night's late inning pitching decision.
    The starter was finished. He did his job giving his team 6 full innings of work. Now it is time for the mid-reliever to do his job. he has been conditioned for this role on the team. It is his job to handle the as many outs necessary to get his team to the 9th inning for their closer. Now, this broke down sunday. But the real question is: Was it the right decision? First, we have to look at the factors going into the selection of the relief pitcher selection. Remember, Clemens went out the previous night in the 2nd inning forcing the relief crew to handle 4-5 more innings of work than they normally have to handle in any one game. This means that options were limited. You cannot pitch a reliever on 0 days rest if he worked a long night and expect him to A. be effective and B. remain injury free. So, the decision was made by formula (do what we have been doing all year long to get to this point) and bound by limitation (limited bodies left who could pitch). Now, let's say we DID put in the closer in the 7th. OK, you get the expected inning out of him, but then what? he is only used to working 3 out innings at backbreaking pitch speeds. he is only good for three outs at optimal performance. If you leave him in, you risk injuring him and not being able to use him the next game at all. AND...there is no guarantee that you will get a win in this game (add to that the decreased odds of winning the future game w/o your closer being able to pitch).

    Bottom line: It was the right decision.
    Reality: the ChiSox made a lot of Right decisions as well that night.
    My .02
    (go Astros!)

  • Matt

    Desaray wrote: "If such people were good at making those decisions on a consistent basis to the extent that they can, say, get a MLB team to the world Series, they would be a Manager rather than the armchair analyst they are."

    Mr Meyer didnt claim analytical superiority on a "consistent basis". He questioned one particular strategy. By your logic, any manager's strategy is apparently beyond criticism by virtue of his title, or if the medication prescribed by your physician makes you feel sick, you ought not be taken seriously until another physician validates your nausea. What nonsense.

    Mr Meyer didn't 'foolishly describe' closers as pitchers of lesser ability than starters. He wrote: "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...". The best closers add more value than the worst (and perhaps mediocre) starters, but ascribing relative starter/closer value beyond that is tenuous business.

    "The closer, unlike the starter, has no room for error."
    False. Entering most games with a one,two or three run lead typically needing just three outs is a luxury not bestowed upon starters.

    "He cannot allow a hit."
    Untrue. With rare exceptions, the closer can almost always allow a hit and perform his job admirably.

    "His job is to get three people out every time he pitches."
    No. His job is to finish games while consistently protecting leads of one, two or three runs.

    "he must always be on his game,"
    Not really. Many saves are registered when closers perform at less than their best.

    "he must always face the toughest hitters..."
    While standard strategy dictates that closers will face more than their share of pinch hitting specialists, there's no evidence to suggest that they are more likley than any other pitchers to face the 'heart of the order' aka "the toughest hitters".

    "he must be able to pitch without rest, sometimes for many nights in a row."
    By "many" nights, I assume you mean more than two. Save opportunities dont occur often on more than two consecutive nights, and when they do, closers are rarely expected to pitch three or more days in a row.