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Pitch Til You Lose

2012 October 17
by Brian Goff

Game 1 of the ALCS between the Tigers and Yankees  once again spotlighted the flaws in the use of MLB “closers.”  I’ve written about the topic in How Much v. How Well and Closer Madness.  By and large, managers are optimizers.  That model works well in analyzing many decisions; but managers are also imitators, which often makes sense when thinking about copying useful “technologies,” but not when these technologies are player or situation-specific.

There are some aspects of how the “closer” and other reliever roles have developed that make sense:

  • People value certainty;  bringing players into games in consistent situations increases certainty for them and likely aids physical and mental preparation as well as gaining practice both physically and mentally in the same situation over and over;
  • Some players  are much better suited to pitching a smaller number of innings due to limited variety of pitches or mechanics.

Nevertheless, a couple of items don’t compute:

  • Why use the best reliever consistently in the 9th inning rather than in the most threatening late inning situation (as they were used prior to the late 1980s)?  The term “fireman” emerged to describe someone who, well, put out fires.  The “closer” role could often be better described as janitor — sweeping up after most of the action is over.
  • Why do managers use “closers” until they’ve blown it?  This is what really popped out from Game 1.  No other pitcher on the staff, not even Justin Verlander receives that treatment. Of course, sometimes, in a one run game, a homer changes things instantly.  In Game 1 of the ALCS, however, Jose Valverde entered with a 4 run lead.  As most managers practice, Jim Leyland went with the “pitch til the closer blows it” approach.   Valverde gave up a 2-run homer, then a walk, and looked very fragile.  Nonetheless, he faced one more hitter even though the bullpen has several capable arms.

To Leyland’s credit and implicitly indicting the nearly universal use of closers, the Tigers opted for other pitchers to finish Game 2 (which Leyland announced he would) and Game 3, which came as a surprise.  Of course, the media was all a buzz over such deviance from standard operating procedure, but the Tigers won both games and without surrendering the lead, even with much smaller leads than Game 1.

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