Last night, the Braves dropped an 11-inning decision to the Diamondbacks in Arizona. Closer Craig Kimbrel, freshly in the game to protect a 4-3 lead, gave up four straight singles, including a deflected grounder, to cough up the lead. Ironically, Kimbrel was in the game in the 11th because with a 3-2 lead going to the bottom of the seventh inning, manager Fredi Gonzalez had opted to eschew his normal set-up team in favor of old Joe Torre whipping boy Scott Proctor, who gave up the tying run on a walk, bunt, and two-base wild pitch.

 From David O’Brien’s story:

 Asked why reliever Eric O’Flaherty didn’t start the seventh, Gonzalez said, “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.”

In saying “you can’t,” Gonzalez is obviously referring to the Old Testament, where it says in Numbers 32:23 that—wait a second, hang on—I just re-read the entire Bible, the Quran, the Talmud, the assembled wisdom of the ancient Greeks, and the collected sayings of Confucius. This is really strange, but… I can’t find where it says that you can’t use your closer in a tie game on the road! If you hang on a sec, I’ll just page through some books on John McGraw, Connie Mack, Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver… Funny, it’s not here either. Did I miss a class?

I’m not a general manager and will never be one, and there are good reasons for that, in part that I would probably fire a manager for making a statement like that, because he had just revealed himself to be a spectacularly limited thinker. Only someone missing half a lobe of their brain would fail to understand this very basic idea: saving your closer to protect a lead that might never come is like not taking a life-saving medicine because some day you might be sicker—if you don’t die.

I can give you one great manager on this subject. Leo Durocher said, “Never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it might rain.” We can paraphrase this to “Never save a pitcher for later—later the game might already be over.” In a tie on the road, the visiting team should have one goal and one goal only when on defense from the bottom of the ninth onward: keep the game alive so you get to bat again. If the home team scores, the game is over and you don’t get to try to win it. Saving your best relievers for some hypothetical save situation that you might never get to is idiotic.

Look, I’m not big on using negative, condemnatory words like “stupid” here at Baseball Prospectus or anywhere else. I give the nation’s baseball men a great deal of credit and in any case, I want to run a high-tone operation. Yet, it’s hard to think of an occasion that demands such language more than the manager of a major-league contending team with the illustrious recent history of the Braves repeating this kind of illogical nonsense.

Mr. Gonzalez: if you had just gone with your normal order of operations in a game in which you had the lead you might never have had to worry about using your closer in extra innings. Further—and this is just for future reference—if you should end up in a tie game on the road, go with your best option and deal with protecting a lead when you come to it. You never know—if the game goes on long enough, you might finally take the lead, and not a one-run lead, but a ten-run lead. Then it won’t matter if the bloody bat boy pitches the bottom of whatever-inning-it-is. Thing is, if you keep Scott Proctorizing yourself, you’re never going to get the opportunity to find out—and someday you will be remembered as the disappointing successor to a Hall of Fame manager, a footnote.

(H/T to J.C. Bradbury.)

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
He's a moron.
It all comes down to the fact that the idea of using your best reliever ONLY in the 9th inning is an incredibly stupid idea and should be banished.

Charlie manuel did the same thing in the ninth against the cards keeping baez in a tie game over Madson.
Brilliant article. Unacceptable managing
I really hope we can get to the footnote part very quickly. Like, maybe by August? Ok, ok, after the season, at the latest? He's just so spectacularly bad at in-game decisionmaking, and it saps some of the enjoyment out of watching the Braves play.
It is more egregious given the fact he has arguably the best 1-2 punch in baseball. Saving closers for leads in the 9th is a great way to save them for working at all in October.
Well, hey, they're both really young. You don't want to give them too much in terms of workload. It's a genius plan.
Good to save words like "really really dumb" for situations like this. Don't feel bad about using them in this situation.
Your analysis assumes the closer is always the best relief option. That's not necessarily true. It's quite possible Gonzalez meant that, since the closer shouldn't be the best relief option (an opinion voiced many times here at BP), you shouldn't use him in such a high-leverage situation as the 9th of a tie game on the road.

Frankly, I doubt Gonzalez meant that at all; but I also doubt he worships at the altar of "No Closer in the 9th of a Tie Game on the Road." I thnk he's just giving the media a soundbite to cover for his players.
I don't mean to be overly critical, but I've read this article before. A lot. You know what would be more interesting? An exploration of why such a purportedly fundamentally flawed practice remains commonplace in baseball. The answer isn't that managers are dumb - it's not that simple, and rather than sound smart by suggesting it is, I think it actually just sounds ignorant and condescending, which is never an attractive combination. And to top it off, it's a topic that's been beaten to death. This isn't directed solely at Steven or the above commenters, by the way.

I think it's important to keep in mind that the ambition of most managers isn't to win games but to stay manager, and while the best way to do that is to win games, other things matter as well, including the way in which games are won and lost, player morale, etc. I believe that in cases where we routinely observe sub-optimal in-game decision-making it is driven by the manager's incentives diverging from maximization of single-game win probability. In this particular case, I would postulate that loss aversion has as much to do with closer usage patterns as the save statistic, and a lot more to do with it than manager IQ.

But I'd love to see BP explore these kind of issues in more depth. I think it would bring a really unique angle to the site and help bridge the gap with the traditionalists.
It's really simple:

If a manager does something out of the ordinary and it does not work, he gets criticized heavily.

If a manager does the expected and it does not work, people criticize the player, not the manager.

If something works, no one makes note of it.
I'd say this is pretty clearly the number one reason, and it is also one that has been mentioned many times.

It's a nice though that loss aversion has more to do with closer usage than yeh save stat, but that conflicts with the fact that closets are pretty much always used in a 3-run lead situation, which does trigger the save stat but shouldn't trigger loss aversion.
The old saying used to be "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM."
Excellent comment. I think Steven is correct that the saw "don't use etc." is ridiculous, we have no way of knowing if Gonzalez actually meant what he said, or if he said it only to the MSM. For that reason almost solely, I pretty much ignore all press conference sound bites, and MSM interviews with managerial types. I've never learned anything from them and found them far more often to be generally misleading as to the in-and-outs of a given situation.
Someone should also tell Fredi to STOP BUNTING. Thanks. Signed, Braves Fans Everywhere.
Well this doesn't beat Dusty Baker's philosophy of not liking walks because, "they just clog up the bases" Now that is the dumbest thing ever.
Mr. Goldman, I'll have you know that people that have had a lobe of their brain removed surgically, frequently because of epilepsy, are still often capable of cognition equal to your average person, and would not suffer from such a disability as refusing to use their closer on the road in ninth of a tie game.
Ever notice that when managers say really dumb things, the media is present? Could there be a connection?

Historically, I'd love to see this question asked to ex-players: "Was (insert manager name here) really as dumb as he sounded when he said (fill in soundbite)?"

Let's go pound some Budweiser!
The thing is, this was only the third or forth dumbest thing Fredi did in that game.
Yes, we have seen this article before with Joe Sheehan being one of the foremost proponents. The problem is we don't in a perfect world. A manager is more likely to get fired because of what the fans think of him and the media says about him than anything else.

If Fredi doesn't follow the current book of not using your closer on the road in a tie game the second guessers have a field day. If it fails he gets criticized for being a boob. If it works he was "lucky". And when this happens you had best be winning a lot of ballgames (see Torre, Joe).

And the 2% of us who know he did the right thing don't count. The talking heads on ESPN and MLBTV have vastly more influence than we do.
The point isn't that he didn't use the closer in the 9th on the road in a tie.

The point is that he didn't use his 7th inning guy in the 7TH INNING of a game in which the Braves HAD THE LEAD because he was worried that if the DBacks eventually tied it, he would THEN need to use his closer in the 9th inning of a tie game.

So naturally the guy he brought in instead of the "real" 7th inning guy blew the lead. But at least he got to save his closer!
I actually find it more offensive that he simply said "you can't do X, period". There may be a situation where it makes sense to save your closer for extra innings and instead pitch someone else in a tie game in the 9th - favorable matchups - perhaps the 3 batters due-up are all lefties and you have a LOOGY who is really tough on them.

But there are also times when it makes sense to use your closer in a tie game in the 9th.

The bigger problem, to me, is that Gonzalez is saying "I will always, always, blindly follow a set guideline for how to manage my baseball team, without any regard for context or match-ups". That is the problem - that a manager think that an ironclad, "this is the way it should always be done" principle for managing is correct.
It does seem like the Braves are paying X dollars a year for a computer program at this point.
If I didn't know any better, I would think Trey Hillman was managing the Braves.

It's no exaggeration that Hillman cost the Royals about 8-10 wins back in 2009 by not bringing in Soria with a tie game in the 8th or 9th.
Found a recent quote from Terry Francona about the same thing, albeit with the word "normally," not "can't."

"Over his team’s last three games, Red Sox manager Terry Francona has become no stranger to dramatic finishes in Fenway Park, and he believes a lot of it is tied to the pros of playing at home in baseball. Had Thursday’s game been played under similar circumstances on the road, perhaps Crawford’s RBI doesn’t prove to be a game-winner because the Tigers would still have another chance to bat in the bottom of the inning. What’s more, Jonathan Papelbon wouldn’t have preserved the tie in the half inning before the winning rally because Francona would need to save his closer for a potential save in either the bottom of the inning or extra frames.

“I think I’m glad we’re playing at home,” Francona said. “You know how we feel on the road sometimes. You get into games like this [at home], and if there’s a mistake or something, you go home. That’s the luxury of playing home. And you can use your closer where you can’t normally on the road.”"
Leyland basically did the same thing to the Tigers on Thursday night. Tie game in the bottom of the 9th and he brings in Alburquerque instead of bringing in Valverde. I don't even think he recorded an out before Carl Crawford ended the game. I don't get it.
I agree that when managers do these sorts of things, sometimes it is not stupidity but an effort to avoid doing anything out of the ordinary that they can then be criticized/fired for. But isn't that sort of stupid too? Am I wrong in thinking that the best path to keeping your job as a manager is still winning more baseball games?
Ideally, yes, but not all teams are built to win games. If you're a manager on a subpar team (which, granted, the Braves are not) and you do something unorthodox, you're very likely to get fired. If you manage by the book, you stand a somewhat better (though still not great) chance of keeping your job. On the flip side, managers on winning teams are likely to keep their jobs whether they do unorthodox things or not, so again, the incentive just isn't there.

Really, the best time I can think of for a manager to try unorthodox strategies is when a fringe contender is battling for a playoff spot down the stretch. If your strategies are successful, you're a hero. If not, well, you'd probably be fired anyway.
The pro-analysis crowd: forget about this magical closer pixie dust nonsense, and use your best relievers at the moment of highest leverage.

The anti-analysis crowd: manage your bullpen corps so as to maximize the amount of saves recorded by the designated "closer".

And yet, somehow, it is the pro-analysis crowd who allows their view of the game to be distorted by statistics...
Fredi could have been thinking of testing a different reliever in that situation to see if he could 'handle' it. Sometimes you need to learn about what you have, and of course it's a SSS, but managers seem to like putting, say, unexpected players into high leverage situations to see what they do.

The usual suspects may not be around for the whole season, so managers apparently feel the need to test guys under fire (at the risk of losing a game) in order to see if they have viable Plan Bs.

Fredi's quote had nothing to do with that, but that notwithstanding, there may have been some logic to his in game behavior anyway.
This may be a clue as to why managers don't like to do it:

"Brian Fuentes ripped A's manager Bob Geren after the club's Monday evening loss to the Angels.
Fuentes, who has been acting as the A's closer through the first two months of the regular season, was thrown into a tie game Monday night and allowed Anaheim's go-ahead run. "There’s just no communication," he told reporters afterward. "Two games, on the road, bring the closer in a tied game, with no previous discussions of doing so. I don’t think anybody really knows which direction he’s headed.""