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July 19, 2011

The BP Broadside

Joe Girardi's Comfort Thing

by Steven Goldman

Today’s sermon was inspired by a discussion about politics, but it is not about politics but managers. In this blog post, noted scholar-of-virtually-everything Garry Wills relates the current ideological inflexibility of one of our political parties to a practice in Britain known as “instruction,” in which candidates for office ran for office having sworn to maintain certain positions. As Wills points out, this was problematic:

The obvious objection to this is that it makes office holders impervious to changed conditions, new evidence, the learning experience of exchanges with his fellows, personal growth, or crises of one sort or another. It would render parliamentary discussion otiose and ineffectual.

Love that word, “otiose.” Wills goes on to quote the great UK statesman Edmund Burke on why the idea of such pledges are misguided: “What sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion[?]” The answer immediately came to me: the sort of reason that guides Joe Girardi’s reliever usage.

On April 5, in the Yankees’ fifth game of the season, the hometown New Yorkers carried a 4-0 lead over the Twins into the top of the eighth inning. At that point, Girardi yanked his starter, CC Sabathia, who had allowed just two hits and a walk in throwing 104 pitches, and went to his expensive new reliever, Rafael Soriano. In the first sign that Soriano would not be quick to live up to his contract, the pitcher allowed a run on a single and three walks before being pulled; subsequent reliever David Robertson allowed a double to chase home the three baserunners he had inherited. The Yankees would go on to lose the game in extra innings, a turn of events I wrote about here.

After the game, Girardi was asked why he had made the move he did—Sabathia cruising, a defrocked closer who wasn’t thrilled about setting up being used in a non-save situation—and he said, and this is only a slight paraphrase, “Well, it was the eighth inning and Soriano is my eighth-inning guy.” That is to say that a predetermined system, not circumstance, dictates Girardi’s thinking. My BP colleague Marc Carig wrote at the time:

He likes to slot pitchers in by role. It's a comfort thing for both him and often times the player. In Girardi's eyes, using Soriano was the surest path to the ultimate goal as far as bullpen management, which is winning the game without having to use your closer.

“Soriano's our eighth-inning guy,” Girardi said. “And by no means is four runs a game in the bag, as we just saw.”

Which is a nice thought except that a manager can’t go through life worrying about protecting four-run leads; in 2010 and 2011, when the home team carried a four-run lead into the top of the eighth, it won roughly 98 percent of the time. Girardi also argued that he had to use Soriano there because he would have been second-guessed if he hadn’t. “If a guy gets on or a couple guys get on, and I have to get Soriano up, then I'm asked the question, 'Why didn't you just have him to start the inning?'” This seems to suggest that only your eighth-inning guy can pitch the eighth inning, all 162 of them, because the consequences of using a non-eighth-inning guy in the eighth-inning spot are too frightening to contemplate. Someone might yell at you. Fans. Owners. Mom.

Similarly, Girardi had to use his eighth-inning guy because had he not, he might have had to use his closer: “If we get through the eighth without giving up a run, then I don't have to get up my 41-year-old closer who, I think, is quite important to us in the course of the year.” Again, by this reasoning, no lead is so safe that you don’t have to take all possible precautions to ensure that your closer does not ever have to pitch.

Yet, even had the Yankees given up a run in that eighth inning, the game wouldn’t truly have been in jeopardy, it just would have been in jeopardy according to the saves rule, which is a different matter. The manager of the Yankees does not dictate when to use Mariano Rivera, but the arbitrarily defined “save situation” does. He is powerless before it. Even had he deemed it wiser to skip Rivera that day so that the might be available for some future clash with the Red Sox, he would have had to use him, because what Carig called the “comfort thing” dictated it. He is helpless to resist its power.

In this, I was reminded of this exchange between Anthony Hopkins’ Richard Nixon and Joanna Going’s student in Oliver Stone’s Nixon:

Young Student: You can't stop it, can you? Even if you wanted to. Because it's not you, it's the system. The system won't let you stop it.

Richard M. Nixon: There's... there's more at stake here than what you want, or what I want.

Young Student: Then what's the point? What's the point of being President? You're powerless!

Richard M. Nixon: No. No, I'm not powerless. Because, because I understand the system, I believe I can, uh, I can control it. Maybe not control it totally, but tame it enough to make it do some good.

Young Student: Sounds like you're talking about a wild animal.

Richard M. Nixon: Yeah, maybe I am.

The English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds said that there is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking. When he said “a man,” he really meant “a manager.” The system, the Comfort Thing, is designed to relieve the beleaguered skipper from having to make a decision with the game on the line.

My purpose here is not to exhume a particularly bad moment in the career of Joe Girardi, now several months gone, but to lament the way the very idea of relief roles has caused both managers and pitchers to create inflexible hierarchies in their mind all in the name of “the comfort thing,” regardless of whether those labels make any sense, or their application in actual games.

Consider the case of the now-deposed closers Carlos Marmol of the Cubs and Matt Capps of the Twins. These anointed closers exited their jobs (which they may yet reassume—closers are like horror-movie bad guys; you can’t assume they’re dead until the credits roll) with save conversion rates of 73 percent and 68 percent respectively. Keep in mind, a pitcher’s save rate is a blunt tool and one that is forgiving to the pitcher; it includes not just the occasional high-leverage save, but also all of those soft three-run saves that are almost unfailingly converted. (In fairness to the closers, it also does not count their occasional hold opportunities.) Going back to 2000, there have been 218 pitcher-seasons in which a pitcher was given 30 or more save opportunities. The aggregate conversion rate was 86 percent. If you expand the list of candidates to pitchers with 20 save opportunities, in the process presumably capturing some hurlers who were relieved before they piled up too many chances, the rate drops… all the way to 85 percent. With holds included, the percentage rises to 86.  

Only 78 pitchers of 333 with 20 or more opportunities, or 23 percent, had a conversion rate below 75 percent. There were 88 seasons with conversion percentages in the 90s and up, including campaigns by such immortal closers as Bob Wickman, Armando Benitez, Joe Borowski, and Jose Mesa. Wickman and Benitez each did it twice. By this measure, the worst closer to attempt the role in recent years was either Ricky Botallico of the 2000 Royals (14 saves, one hold, eight blown saves) or all-around great guy Ambiorix Burgos of the 2006 Royals (oh, how they miss you, Dan Quisenberry), who had 18 saves, 5 holds, and 12 blown saves.

All of this suggests that instead of treating most closers as exalted and irreplaceable beings—we pause here to insert a Mariano Rivera exception, because he is an exalted and irreplaceable being—most of them should be about as secure as the average NFL placekicker—you shank a couple, you’re out of a job. If managers could just bring themselves to believe this, they could avoid establishing roles and thereby programming themselves into Girardi’s Comfort Thing idiocies of the kind that Edmund Burke didn’t know he was railing against back in 1774.

Back then, in a line that would someday be used as the climax to the founding fathers musical 1776, Burke wrapped up his campaign against conscience-castrating constituents by saying, “[H]is his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living… They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

If only the old Whig had been talking about baseball, or even rounders, he might have amended the foregoing to warn managers not to sacrifice his judgment to received ideas about what a dangerous game situation is (that is to say, the saves rule), second-guessing by fans and the media, or his own urge to avoid having to think on his feet. Girardi’s Comfort Thing is undoubtedly seductive, but it leads one to mischief by negating precisely the quality for which managers are hired, their apprehension of game situations and what to do about them. Schematic baseball thinking leads to boring games, self-defeating moves, and the deification of a pitcher class that for the most part does not deserve the worship it receives (see “Mariano Rivera Exception,” above). If politicians should bring their brains to Congress, then managers should bring theirs to the ballpark.

 Then again, look at who we’re talking about… Maybe it would be better if they didn’t. 

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

30 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

jlister

You had me at "Gary Wills."

Jul 19, 2011 05:32 AM
rating: 1
 
Shaun P.
(676)

Its a fascinating parallel you've drawn, Steven. Well done.

In Sunday's game, the Yanks had a 4-run lead going into the bottom of the 8th. Girardi, of course, went to his new "8th inning guy", Robertson. The Yanks then scored one run in the top of the 9th, making it a 5 run lead, and so no Rivera for the 9th. (Somewhat confoundingly, Girardi brought in his "get lefties out guy" for the 9th. I think it was because of lack of other options.)

Did any of the beat writers ask Girardi if he would have gone to Rivera had the lead stayed at four runs? I wonder how often Girardi has gone to the "8th inning guy" with a lead of exactly 4 runs this year?

Jul 19, 2011 07:56 AM
rating: 2
 
Richie

Research about a year ago from Bill James strongly indicated that regular and predictable roles really helped player performance. He never published any followup on that, my guess is that he now owes his research soul to the Red Sox company store.

But have setup men as a group pitched significantly better ever since they became 'eighth inning guys'? If so, then managers are doing it right.

Jul 19, 2011 08:12 AM
rating: 2
 
ScottyB

I vividly remember the Yankees game you reference here. In the first week of the season, was it really unwise to push your ace (who is signed for 5 more seasons) well beyond 104 pitches? Was it realy wise to not use 41- year old Rivera if you could avoid it?

I enjoyed the article, agree with your overall point, and love your use of Burke, but the specific case doesn't quite illustrate it as well as you maintain.

Jul 19, 2011 09:26 AM
rating: 2
 
CRP13

One of the priests at my church sometimes uses politics to make a point in his homilies, and it always drives me crazy. I eventually realized that he doesn't believe that his particular slant, even if inferred from context clues, colors the opinions of his congregation about what he's trying to say, even when the overall point is valid. Especially when it's valid. Sometimes it makes the listeners want to examine all of his words under a finer microscope than they probably should, just because of a fundamental difference of opinion on a totally unrelated subject.

That's my way of saying this is a really good article that draws conclusions I agree with, but my life would be much happier if my baseball were not colored by politics.

Jul 19, 2011 09:58 AM
rating: 3
 
adecker31

Wonderful article with some provocative thoughts - but I wonder what Richie wondered above about how knowing where one fits in might help one's performance. Having said that, in regards to relief pitchers, perhaps that idea is given credence to the point of absurdity. If the relievers' psyche en masse precludes the manager from acting intelligently to the game in front of him then their usefulness is not as great as it could be. So maybe relievers need to be coached to approach their roles differently as well? Regardless, this also applies to watching Mike Quadde bunt with a hot hitter in the 8th and nothing but Tony Campanis coming up behind him. That the move ended up not hurting the Cubs in that particular game wasn't the point, it was painful to watch a man hew the line so unthinkingly. Bad managing is to be universally lamented and suffered through, because we miss then, the best that the best can bring to bear.

Jul 19, 2011 10:06 AM
rating: 0
 
jhardman

I'm in CRP13's camp, so I'll abstain (courteously) from any more references to Burke, 1776, or any later political ilk. I definitely like to keep my politics and baseball separate. You know, like that thing about separation of church and state. :-)

Jul 19, 2011 11:22 AM
rating: 1
 
djardine

The discussion of politics in this article is more theoretical than ideological, and doesn't require one to lean left or right to appreciate the analogy, so I'll offer up a dissenting opinion, endorsing its inclusion here.

Good job, as always, Steven.

Jul 19, 2011 11:53 AM
rating: 6
 
CRP13

If you read the article that is linked in the first paragraph, it actually does.

I'm not trying to raise a stink. I just don't think alienating half your readership is necessary.

Jul 19, 2011 16:07 PM
rating: 0
 
cfinberg

Disagree. The link may lead to an article which espouses a certain political slant, but as djardine says, it's the theory behind the politics and not the politics themselves which are being discussed here. My proof? The simple fact that I didn't read the link and yet have managed to comprehend what Mr. Goldman is discussing even so.

The problem isn't that sport and politics are occasionally intermingled. Rather, it's that we treat our politics as though it were sport. Almost by definition, fans have to choose between Cards and Cubbies or Sox and Yanks as though the choices were absolutely opposed. Which is cool, because in baseball they actually are. The problem arises when we apply the same "logic" to the countless spectra which make up the U.S. political landscape.

If you think that a given political party will stand up for everything you hold to be important then you are buying into a comfort thing (awesome catchphrase, btw!). And if you are alienated by this article simply because its author has the temerity to see that a political argument has parallels in our fun little nerd world, then you should try applying the theme of said article to your life instead of the other way around.

Steven is simply encouraging us to think for ourselves. Maybe it's just MY comfort thing, but I can't imagine how anyone could find that idea offensive if they actually take the time to consider it.

Jul 19, 2011 19:45 PM
rating: 6
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

Thank you so much for this reply. Exactly what I would have said.

Jul 19, 2011 21:27 PM
 
CRP13

Then you should'a! My perspective is different, but that's part of the fun.

Jul 20, 2011 07:53 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

Absolutely. Vive la difference, as Pepe Le Pew might have said.

Jul 20, 2011 08:12 AM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Apparently, managers aren't the only ones trying to avoid the real labor of thinking.

Jul 20, 2011 09:03 AM
 
CRP13

ouch

Jul 20, 2011 10:56 AM
rating: 1
 
Pete

My question to you is who started all of this mess with 1 inning closers, 8th inning guys, lefty specialists, etc.?

Jul 19, 2011 12:19 PM
rating: 0
 
orlandoca7

La Russa with Eck?

Jul 19, 2011 12:31 PM
rating: 0
 
orlandoca7

Thumbs up! Excellent piece.

Jul 19, 2011 12:30 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Kory

Wonderful writing as always, Steven. Thanks.

Jul 19, 2011 14:53 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

According to my YES colleague Jack Curry:

Girardi on Soriano's role when he returns. "He has been our 8th inning guy." He added, "We'll see what happens. We have to get him back 1st."

Some people never learn.
http://twitter.com/#!/JackCurryYES/status/93431638956056576

Jul 19, 2011 15:07 PM
 
BurrRutledge

Rules are a substitute for thinking.

Sometimes mindlessly obeying the rules is good. Like traffic laws, for instance. After a few years of repitition of the same learned behavior, we will naturally stay on the right side of the road while we're driving sober and alert, without any conscious thought. You "wake up" a few minutes later and find yourself pulling into your driveway. Nobody got hurt, and you're now home.

Sometimes this is bad. Insert your parallel of choice.

I'll invoke Maslow's hammer. "If the only tool you think you have is a hammer, then you'll view every problem as a nail."

Jul 19, 2011 16:10 PM
rating: 3
 
cfinberg

Just wanted to thank you for introducing me to Abe Maslow. It's a wonderful idea, and fun wordplay besides, so I figure it pretty much has to be true.

Jul 19, 2011 19:56 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

You just taught me something. I had never heard that expression. It's very apt.

Jul 19, 2011 21:28 PM
 
WaldoInSC

Earlier this week, Davey Johnson inserted rookie Ryan Mattheus in the bottom of the ninth inning of an 8-8 affair, icing closer Drew Storen for later to convert a possible save. It never came, of course, because Atlanta scratched out the winning run.

Game on the line, best pitcher on the bench. What sense does that make? Who knew Davey Johnson's a conventional thinker?

Jul 19, 2011 19:11 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

This is one of the most frequent errors managers make, saving a pitcher to protect a lead that they might never get. I've written about it extensively in the past, probably at the Pinstriped Bible. I have a favorite expression from Leo Durocher: "Never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it might rain." The same thought applies here. The only goal should be to prolong the game long enough to score. Maybe if you force another inning you score five runs, not one, and the quality of the pitcher who finishes won't be important. If you don't keep the game alive. you'll never find out.

Jul 19, 2011 21:31 PM
 
SaberTJ

A great article Steve, keep them coming!

Jul 21, 2011 11:16 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Cito Gaston had a similar comfort thing with the Jays over the last few years, in that he'd create a lineup and stick with it, hell, highwater, or sub-.600 OPS. Of course Vernon Wells bats 4th. He's my cleanup hitter!

Jul 21, 2011 12:06 PM
rating: 0
 
evo34

Forgive me if I glossed over the three-quarters of the article devoted to dated politics, but it seems your sole point is that managers should pull closers as soon as they blow a few saves.

It's hard to think of a policy that would fly more in the face of modern statistical analysis. What you are suggesting is that managers make personnel decisions based largely upon whether four or five save opportunities were converted or not. That's not just recency bias; it's also using arguably the game's most flawed statistic (save pct.) to gauge that recent performance. It's a binary stat that has incredible variance independent of player skill. If a manager were to follow your advice, he'd be endlessly chasing the "hot hand" rather than playing the players who gave him the best chance of winning.

If a guy's peripheral stats are awful for a couple months, obviously he should lose playing time. But you are not saying that. You're saying managers should kick guys out of high-leverage roles as soon as they blow a few saves: "most of them should be about as secure as the average NFL placekicker—you shank a couple, you’re out of a job." Bizarre to see that on this site.

Jul 22, 2011 22:30 PM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

You should know better than to comment on articles you haven't read. The half blurb that was rooted in politics was tangential to the point, which you missed anyway.

Jul 23, 2011 13:39 PM
rating: 0
 
evo34

You should know better than to comment on things of which you have no knowledge. I read the entire article, incl. the 75% of it devoted to strained historical references. I elucidated the point the article made quite clearly and refuted it. If you have something to add, go fot it. If not, you're better served lurking.

Jul 25, 2012 01:19 AM
rating: 0
 
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