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June 13, 2013

Baseball Therapy

The Truth About Closers and Extra-Inning Games

by Russell A. Carleton


Over the past week, baseball fans have been treated to some epic extended baseball games. This past Saturday, the Rangers and Blue Jays played 18 innings before they could decide the matter, and that wasn’t the longest game that day. The Mets and Marlins played 20 innings in their game. It made last Wednesday's White Sox-Mariners 16-inning game look like a quickie.

That flurry of bonus baseball reignited a conversation about bullpen management within extra-inning games, specifically for the visiting team. In the Dallas Morning News, columnist Evan Grant talked about the issue in relation to the Rangers-Blue Jays game, which was played in whatever they're calling the SkyDome now (I know, the Rogers Centre). In that game, Rangers manager Ron Washington found himself a little short in the bullpen with two relievers (Tanner Scheppers and Michael Kirkman) not available to pitch. Going into the bottom of the 12th inning, with the game still tied, he was down to closer Joe Nathan and long reliever Ross Wolf. He sent Wolf out to face the Blue Jays and let Wolf throw 82 pitches over 6 2/3 innings before the Blue Jays finally pushed across the winning run. Nathan, arguably the best reliever Washington had, and certainly better than Wolf, never left the bullpen. Should he have?

There is a strange unwritten rule in baseball that a visiting manager should not use his closer in an extra-inning game until his team gets a lead. After all, it's not a save situation. I've always found this to be a silly practice. After all, in the bottom of the ninth inning (or an extra inning) of a tie game, if the home team scores, the game is over. There is no margin for error. In a save situation, the team has the lead. If the pitcher concedes a run, you live to fight another inning. Why have the inferior pitcher throw when there's no safety net and the superior pitcher throw when there is one?

I also find it perplexing that when I bring up this particular strategic blind spot, even when people understand why it's a blunder, they still ask that annoying question, "But who will get the save?"

Part of it is that we've reached the point in human history where the word "closer" has come to mean "he who accumulates saves." It's unthinkable that anyone other than the anointed one would have the letter "S" after his name in a box score. But there's another real human weakness behind why people would rather commit a strategic blunder and save the saver for the save situation. It's called loss aversion.

People (often irrationally) overvalue what they have and react more negatively when they lose something rather than simply not gaining it in the first place. There's an emotional reaction to blowing a save that isn't the same as just having the other team break the tie. Managers (and fans) seem to want their best reliever on the mound when the emotional stakes are the highest rather than when it would strategically make the most sense.

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Related Content:  Closers,  Bullpen Management

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Premium Article On the Beat: Not a Gia... (06/13)
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