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Closer Madness

2011 June 23
by Brian Goff

Too little, too much.  That’s what happens when a manager narrowly and artificially constrains his decision options.  A couple of weeks ago, I discussed how the slavish adherence to “closer” roles led to a silly underutilization of players like Mariano Rivera.  Last night, the Texas-Houston game illustrates the other side of this silliness — the overuse of a player because “he’s the closer.”

Texas led 4-1 going into the top of the 9th inning.  Ron Washington (the Texas manager) selected Neftali Feliz to pitch the 9th, in spite of the fact that Feliz had pitched a season-high 35 pitches the night before.  Feliz yielded 4 hits including a home run along with 4 runs.  Washington’s response after the game,

“He’s the closer. He was in the game. Just didn’t get it done.”

“He’s the closer,” that’s the extent of managerial decision making at the MLB level?  It’s as if Tony LaRussa practice of using Dennis Eckersley as “the” 9th-inning guy now defines managerial practice for everyone in every game 25 years later.  Even with 2 relievers needing rest, there is no one else in the bullpen that can be entrusted with a 3-run lead because the pressure of the 9th inning is just too much?

In economics, we sometimes simply assume that managers push the right buttons.  They maximize wins, revenues, or something of value to the team.  Sure uncertainty exists, creating errors, but, on average, the decisions are correct.  Zooming in on managerial decisions, however, quickly suggests that just like everything else, there is a distribution of managerial skill.  They are not a monolithic group.  Moreover, these skill differences also emerge with innovative practices and the imitation of the practices of others.  The best managers are “getting it right” much of the time, integrating new ideas, imitating useful ideas from others, but not merely aping ideas that don’t fit.

4 Responses
  1. michael c permalink
    June 23, 2011

    If you look at the number of pitches thrown in the pen and the warmup before facing a batter, 35 pitches vs a more typical 15-20 in an inning does not constitute a significant increase in total arm wear. If the day before was a rest day, this is a much harder decision to question. Additionally, the last three outs of a three-run game are very high leverage situations and the marginal value of using your best RP vs sub-average middle reliever is large. I would love to see some stat work applied to this, but I would not be surprised if closers did pretty much as expected the day after a 30+ pitch outing vs sub-20 pitch outing given they had rest the previous day.

  2. Greg Pinelli permalink
    June 23, 2011

    Look michael c..you need to understand Baseball! I grew up in an era when pitchers were used as the manager saw fit. The idea of microscopic analyzing of pitching “niches” is beyond stupid.

    Pitchers should be used and replaced on a rational standard. Pitch count is really a useless escape hatch for Managers who don’t know “arms.” I can’t even begin to recount the numbers of starters who were relieved too early when they had command of their game.

    Nuts!!!

  3. Dan permalink
    June 24, 2011

    Teams should send the manager home after 8 innings since all they do is bring in the closer. The bat boy can make that decision at a much lower salary and a team will still win the same number of games.

    If Washington had brought in another relief pitcher who was ineffective he still could have brought in Perez to save the game. But oh no! Can’t have your closer come into an inning with men on base. That’s goes against the book. Can’t do anything that will open the manager up to criticism.

    Few managers have the stature to not care about criticism (La Russa does but acts like he can’t take it). So they make moves that enable to say things after the game like ‘we went with our best’ or ‘that move will win us a lot more games than we lose’. Important to keep those writers and talk radio jocks from making the manager seem like a crazy kook.

  4. July 4, 2011

    Gregg Easterbrook on ESPN has often times pointed out that football coaches tend to make decisions that allow them to blame the players — punting on 4th down when they should go for it, for example. A coach who makes an unpopular decision (going for it on 4th, putting in a middle reliever in the 9th) gets blamed for a loss. A coach who goes by the conventional wisdom puts that blame on the players, as this guy did. Fans don’t blame coaches for doing “what’s supposed to be done.”

    Similarly, a study found that the most effective place for a soccer penalty kick is straight down the middle, right at where the goalie stands, because the goalie leaps right or left 99% of the time, clearing that area. But nobody kicks it straight down the middle, for fear that the 1% of the time the goalie DIDN’T leap, they’d look foolish; soccer players opt for a less optimal result in the game in order to maximize a more optimal result in their reputations.

    That’s all this guy was doing. Once you understand that, you’ll be able to see why so many coaches do this.

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