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June 7, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Great Closer Debate

by Daniel Rathman

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The Thursday Takeaway
A little more than two years ago, our editor-in-chief emeritus was struck by a quote from Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez in the wake of an extra-inning loss. The skipper told Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer David O’Brien, “When you’re on the road, you’ve got to push guys back a little bit, because you can’t use your closer on the road in the ninth inning of a tie ballgame.”

Last night, we learned that Rangers manager Ron Washington graduated from the same school of bullpen management as his contemporary in Atlanta. The scenarios were different—Gonzalez eschewed his usual set-up men to go with a mop-up man in the bottom of the seventh inning; Washington forewent his closer to go with a scuffling middle reliever in the bottom of the ninth—but the results and the thought processes that led up to them were the same.

The Rangers and Red Sox were tied, 3-3, heading into the home half of the ninth, in a game in which Texas starter Derek Holland needed 115 pitches to complete six innings. Holland’s inefficiency forced Washington to use his set-up men early, and, to Washington’s credit, he obliged. Robbie Ross and Jason Frasor combined to blow a one-run lead in the seventh inning, but at least the Rangers had their most trustworthy pitchers on the mound in their bid to bridge the gap between Holland and closer Joe Nathan. Washington did his job; Ross and Frasor did not do theirs.

But after Tanner Scheppers worked a clean eighth and former Ranger Koji Uehara matched his goose egg in the top of the ninth, Washington encountered a conundrum in which the old-school philosophy on closer usage proved fatal. He revealed to Fort Worth Star-Telegram beat writer Jeff Wilson that left-hander Neal Cotts was unavailable, a consideration that left Washington with three choices: Michael Kirkman, Ross Wolf, or Nathan.

Either through his own understanding of Washington’s approach to bullpen management or by way of an unquoted statement from the manager, Wilson wrote in his blog post, “road teams typically don't use their closers in tie games.” The note was made in passing, as a lead-in to a quote from Washington explaining his decision between Kirkman and Wolf, but it ought to have been the post’s lede.

The Red Sox had the two, three, and four hitters in their order due to begin the last of the ninth, spots occupied by Jonny Gomes, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz. Gomes already had three hits on the day, and his career platoon split (.336 TAv versus lefties, .259 versus righties) should have set off the “bring in a right-hander” alarm in Washington’s mind. The presence of Pedroia, whose split (.313/.281) is not as wide, but who nonetheless prefers to face left-handed opponents, ought to have reinforced that alarm. And with a red-hot Ortiz following the two righties, the importance of retiring the first two batters in the inning, and of having the best-available reliever on the mound to face the third, could not have been overstated.

Nonetheless, Washington’s reasoning, perhaps owing to the still-early stage of the season, was different.

“Kirkman was the most rested. He was the guy."

Washington’s aversion to keeping Scheppers in the game was understandable: The second-year righty had thrown 18 pitches on Wednesday and 16 more in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game, so fatigue could have become a factor. His unwillingness to use Wolf, a right-hander who coughed up two runs in the Red Sox’ 17-5 series-opening rout, was defensible—albeit not by the logic that Washington provided, because Wolf’s appearance on Tuesday marked his first trip to the mound in more than a week.

At any rate, all of that might have been well and good if Washington had been open to the idea of sending Nathan to the hill in a non-save situation on the road. With the state of his arms weighing on his mind, Washington had two options: use Nathan, or use Kirkman, who had permitted at least one run in 11 of his 24 games, who had been scored upon in each of his last two appearances, whose 6.95 ERA was the worst among all qualifying American League relievers, and who would be at a severe platoon disadvantage against each of the first two hitters preparing to dig in against him.

Despite all of those drawbacks, all of those warnings that the game might end before his offense could have another crack at creating a save opportunity for Nathan, all of those reasons to buck the bullpen-management guide to which he generally subscribes, Washington made the call for Kirkman.

The beating that ensued could not have been more striking.

Gomes drilled the first pitch he saw from Kirkman past center fielder Leonys Martin for a leadoff double. With an open base, the lefty-swinging Ortiz on deck, and the winning run on second, Kirkman intentionally walked Pedroia. Then, Ortiz smacked Kirkman’s second “real” pitch of the outing into the visitors’ bullpen for a three-run homer, his first walk-off hit since July 31, 2010.

Kirkman, whose ERA ballooned to 8.18, told reporters that he threw the pitch he wanted to Ortiz. He admitted that his confidence was wavering with each failed assignment. And his pitching coach, Mike Maddux, acknowledged that Kirkman would need to “fight through” the rut, something best done in lower-leverage situations than the one into which he was thrown on Thursday night.

Alas, Kirkman was the guy.

And if Washington’s post-game comments are any indication, no lesson was learned. If the exact same scenario—in terms of available pitchers, the inning and score, the batters due up, and all other considerations—were to arise in the future, Kirkman would be the guy again.

Matchup of the Day
In his eighth big-league game, back on June 1, 2007, Ryan Braun went 3-for-3 with his second career home run, a solo shot off of then-Marlins left-hander Scott Olsen. It was his first-ever big fly off of a southpaw—and the first of many, as we would soon learn. Since then, Braun has become one of the league’s best hitters against left-handed pitching. The right-handed slugger owns a .346/.416/.657 triple-slash line, compiled over 1,011 plate appearances versus pitchers of the opposite handedness, and the skill has never wavered. His OPS off of lefties through 75 trips to the plate this season stands at 1.088.

Braun’s ownage of left-handed pitchers stretches far beyond the Scott Olsens of the world; he has punished many a long-term rotation fixture, too. Against Wandy Rodriguez, he is 18-for-47 with 12 extra-base hits. Against Madison Bumgarner, he is 6-for-17 with four of them. Even Johan Santana, one of the best southpaws in the league at containing right-handed sluggers thanks to his world-class changeup, has met Braun’s wrath to the tune of seven hits in 16 at-bats.

As you might expect from that résumé, there aren’t many holes in Braun’s swing that left-handers can reliably exploit.

Outside, inside, high, low—Braun has all of them covered, and his success extends beyond the boundaries of the strike zone in most directions. Braun, compared to many of his fellow right-handed sluggers—such as Miguel Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez—shows a well-trained eye on soft stuff below the knees, an element that contributes to his dominance, both by upping his walk rate and by increasing the likelihood that the pitcher will be forced to throw something that Braun is more apt to punish.

Cliff Lee, who gets the ball for the Phillies in game two of four at Miller Park, is among the many lefties that have incurred damage from Braun’s bat. The 29-year-old Braun is 9-for-19 lifetime against Lee, with a double and three home runs. He has struck out thrice in the 19 plate appearances and never walked, though the latter is unsurprising given Lee’s penchant for attacking the zone.

The three homers, all of which came last year, were hit on a first-pitch, get-me-over slider, a backed-up, knee-high changeup, and a hands-high, inside-corner cutter, epitomizing the broad reach of Braun’s swing. Lee has had some success in getting Braun to chase hard stuff above the zone—recording strikeouts with this cutter in their first-ever meeting and this sinker in an at-bat immediately following Braun’s second long ball on August 16 of last year—so he may attempt to climb the ladder again if he is able to reach a two-strike count.

The Phillies have emerged victorious in each of Lee’s last six assignments, enabling the 34-year-old to collect five wins since May 6, one fewer than he notched during all of last year. Lee’s velocity, a source of modest concern early in the season when it decreased to 90 mph from last year’s range of 91-92, is now back to its typical range, adding a bit of oomph to his already excellent command and control. His 11-strikeout effort versus the Brewers on June 2 provided ample evidence that Cliff Lee is still Cliff Lee, and he’ll try to deliver a worthy encore to that performance tonight (8:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • After a clunker in Detroit, first-year Pirates lefty Francisco Liriano returned to his dominant form against the Reds on June 1, fanning 11 over just six innings of work. The 29-year-old now has a 39-to-9 K:BB over 29 major-league innings this season, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio jumps to 62-to-10 if you include his 23-to-1 showing for Triple-A Indianapolis. Liriano will try to keep his hot start going in the Friday matinee at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs will counter with Travis Wood (2:20 p.m. ET).
  • Matt Carpenter just keeps on hitting, hitting, and hitting. The Cardinals’ leadoff man is 29-for-65 (.446) with eight extra-base hits, six walks, and only five strikeouts in 74 plate appearances since May 21, and he has worked his way into a rock-solid everyday role at second base. Carpenter carries a robust .355/.438/.510 triple-slash line versus right-handed pitchers into this weekend’s series against the Reds, who are set to start three of them. Dusty Baker’s team prevailed in seven consecutive games behind Mat Latos from April 24 through May 28, but the Pirates snapped that streak in the 25-year-old’s most recent assignment, so he’ll look to start a new one. Rookie left-hander Tyler Lyons gets the ball for the visiting Redbirds in the middle match (Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET).
  • The Indians have lost four in a row, but only 2 ½ games separate them from the Tigers in the American League Central, a margin that the Tribe could theoretically bridge in this weekend’s three-game series. To do it, though, Cleveland will need to get past Justin Verlander in the opener and Anibal Sanchez, who has been no less dominant, in the finale. Sanchez has struck out at least eight batters in seven of his last eight starts, and his 1.78 FIP leads the American League. Scott Kazmir, whose armor was chinked by the Yankees in a six-inning, four-run defeat on June 4, will try to bounce back while dueling Sanchez. He has allowed only one home run—a three-run blast by Mark Teixeira—in his last four trips to the mound (Sunday, 4:08 p.m. ET).

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

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

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Jim ONeill

Dan, there is also the reality that either Kirkman or Wolf (or both) were going to have to pitch if the Rangers were to win. It is likely that Nathan would only be used for one inning (his usage pattern) and since the Rangers were visitors in a tie game, they would have to fill at least two innings of work in order to have a chance at winning. Hence, Kirkman or Wolf were going to pitch and Washington chose Kirkman to go first. Maybe a bad choice given who he was to face (although Gomes has not mashed lefties as in the past) but the decision was not entirely a product of the "closers don't pitch in tie games on the road" philosophy.

Jun 07, 2013 05:55 AM
rating: 1
 
carlbrownson

But if you have to use Kirkman or Wolf, and you have to use Nathan as well, wouldn't you rather have Nathan face Gomes-Pedroia-Ortiz, and let the other guys face the bottom of the lineup?

Jun 07, 2013 07:11 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Daniel Rathman
BP staff

Yep, that's essentially the point. Choosing Kirkman to go first seems to be a product of the idea that you might eventually need Nathan for a save situation, so you can't use him in a tie game with the other team's top hitters coming up.

Jun 07, 2013 07:31 AM
 
hitmannls
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manager's are optimizing results over 162 games, not a single game. thus, you don't want to use your best reliver in a probable loss, and potentially have him unavailable for a high leverage situation in a probable win. If you need to have the other guy pitch anyway, you should have the other guy go first to save bullets for winnable games.

Jun 07, 2013 09:23 AM
rating: -4
 
flyingdutchman

Huh? Optimizing results over 162 games is an argument for using your best reliever in a tie game, not against it.

Jun 07, 2013 10:12 AM
rating: 4
 
hitmannls

not on the road. what are your odds to win in a tie game on the road in the late innings? 40/60? Not a place you want to use your closer and potentially have him unavailable or at reduced effectiveness to protect a lead the next day.

Jun 07, 2013 18:10 PM
rating: -1
 
BurrRutledge

It could rain tomorrow.

Jun 07, 2013 18:29 PM
rating: 1
 
stevemillburg

Or tomorrow your starter might pitch a complete game, or you might have your second- or third-best pitcher available for a save situation in the ninth (instead of your worst pitcher) if your closer can't pitch. A 162-game strategy might call for using your worst pitcher if you're trailing by a few runs in the late innings. But does it really make sense to essentially give up on a game if you're tied in the ninth?

Jun 09, 2013 11:50 AM
rating: 1
 
hitmannls

to win the game the other guy will need to pitch either way. the question here is the order of usage. not punting the game.

Jun 10, 2013 08:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

Maybe, or maybe not. Maybe he pitches a 6 pitch inning and can pitch the 10th. Maybe you put up a 4 run 10th and it doesn't matter.

Also, it's easily demonstrable that using better pitchers in tied games is better than using them, say, to pitch the 9th with a three run lead, which may well be what happens the next day.

Jun 11, 2013 00:32 AM
rating: 1
 
flyingdutchman

Games has not mashed lefties in the past? He has a career .279/.380/.506 line against lefties.

Jun 07, 2013 10:11 AM
rating: 0
 
gtgator

Just curious, but why is it only written about when a manager does the opposite of what someone believes the "proper" strategy should be.

For example, on Tuesday, Clint Hurdle did use his closer in the 9th inning of a tie game on the road to face the 2-3-4 hitters. He also used his top set-up man and alternative closer in the 10th. Shouldn't this be noted and applauded as well for doing it the proper way?

Jun 07, 2013 07:02 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Daniel Rathman
BP staff

It should—and looking back at the play-by-play of that game, I think Hurdle handled it correctly, even though it didn't work out.

Jun 07, 2013 07:28 AM
 
penski
(286)

Also of note is that Bud Black used his current closer, Luke Gregerson, to pitch the tops of the 10th and the 11th innings last night. The decision was probably made easier by the fact that Gregerson had only thrown twelve pitches in the 10th.

Jun 07, 2013 12:46 PM
rating: 0
 
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