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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

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