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The 2005 World Championship Chicago White Sox got the rap of
being a “hustle-ball” or “anti-Moneyball” team.

False. One of the pillars of their success was the ability to
deliver on an innovation that’s best known as the failed child of
Bill James and Theo Epstein: The “Closer by Committee.”
How Chisox General Manager Ken Williams and Manager Ozzie Guillen
delivered value from the discredited concept is enlightening,
and, because of the team’s championship, it’s something that’s
likely (though not certain) to be imitated. As with most
competitive tools, it wasn’t invented from scratch, but diffused–in this case, from the other side of Chicago.

CLOSER BY SAVE MEETS CLOSER BY COMMITTEE

The save rule (1969, with modifications in ’73 and ’75),
created a gravitational field where, to achieve comfort,
managers, pitchers and fans hydroplaned from merely following the
stat to Birkenstocking their behavior, perceptions
and desires to conform to the stat. A line of work built up
around the stat. In the eyes of many sabermetric analysts the
reason for inventing the stat (measuring the value of key relief
performances) disappeared. Players pitched for saves, agents
negotiated to optimize save opportunities, managers managed to
deliver saves, fans rooted for savers, and what seemed to get
silted over in an alluvial flow of events was the underlying
purpose and design of stopping runs, winning games, effective
relief. The “save” moved from being a representation of
accomplishment to a goal that drove in-game tactics, roster
construction, career development. Closers didn’t so much earn

saves; they became defined by them…the rules weren’t
reflecting best practices, they were shaping standard…a classic
path for underperformance in any field.

In 2003, the Boston Red Sox and their fresh,
determined-to-overcome-comfort front office team started the
season with the idea of implementing a bullpen scheme built on
the underlying scheme of stopping runs. I can’t find who first
labeled it “Closer by Committee.” But it was named to
echo Whitey Herzog’s 1985 St. Louis Cardinal bullpen scheme,
“Bullpen by Committee” where, having lost Bruce Sutter to free agency, Whitey managed a
team to a pennant applying four different pitchers who earned
four or more saves while none harvested more than 19.

The Bosox’ scheme was doomed to underperform because the front
office violated not merely everyone’s comfort and the status
quo
, they violated everything known and tested in the field of change management–how to prepare
people for organizational change that will inevitably make the steakholders
uncomfortable. There’s a solid ethnologic reason there’s a
laugh-track on TV sitcoms, and it’s the same reason movie
trailers insist on exposing the plot twists of thrillers; many
American people want to know when to laugh so they can fit in and
not be ridiculed, and most people don’t like surprises.

Management did not work to get buy-in. Inevitably, the manager
found it uncomfortable (forced consideration of a few dozen extra
decisions every game), the relievers found it uncomfortable
(their job descriptions became loosely coupled to their
expectations of when they had to bear down, get ready, come on,
come out of games), the fans were confused (who’s the star?
who do I look for as the assigned hero? whose Fleer Ultra is
worth the most?). So when the media saw the
opportunity to attack the front office’s experiment, they knew
they already had the support of managers, players and some fans,
and the concerted attack was successful.

The Red Sox started searching for a traditional closer and in
mid-July acquired Byung-Hyun Kim for the role. When he failed
to live up to expectations, they signed Keith “Just Plain” Foulke that offseason. Experiment, at least temporarily, over.

A SECOND TRY IN THE SECOND CITY

Very soon into the 2005 season, the Chicago Cubs’ plans
started unraveling, the most visible cause being
LaTroy Hawkins‘ inability to close out wins. On April 24, the day
after a 19-pitch blown-save/loss to the Pirates accompanied by an
unusual quantity of fan booing, Cub manager Dusty Baker decided
to take some of the focus off Hawkins by announcing a

“Bullpen by Situation.” It was a clever ruse he didn’t
fully put into effect. Dusty, knowing the press needs to write
stories, made this new scheme, not yet defined & therefore
something newsworthy centre-stage, and making Hawkins’ recent
shortfalls merely a side story. He didn’t ride into the trap of
the “Closer by Committee,” he invented a way of talking
about the scheme, something I wrote about in detail here. Between Baker’s April 24 announcement
and the arrival of Ryan Dempster as the traditional closer on May
8, there were four classic save opportunities and Hawkins was
entrusted with three of them.

But while Baker’s “Bullpen by Situation” didn’t play
out as he described for the Second City’s Second Team, Ozzie
Guillen and Ken Williams quickly adapted Baker’s words into
innovative deeds, rendering the words flesh, or perhaps, flash.

The White Sox started the season with their previous season’s leading relief talent,

Shingo Takatsu, as the reputed
“closer.” The challenge seems to have been that
pitching coach Don Cooper, and perhaps the front office, too,
never really trusted Takatsu to be a consistent dominator. In
Takatsu’s first spring training, Cooper and Guillen kept the
35-year old rookie out of games against A.L. teams. They talked
about it openly, but with a positive coating on it (some details here). In reality, it seems they didn’t trust
that Takatsu’s torque-y trickery wouldn’t turn to trash when
hitters got used to it.

And rarely has a reputed closer with a previous season of
outstanding success (59 games, 63 innings, 3.75 WXL facing
opposition that otherwise had a .743 composite OPS) been tossed
aside so quickly. Kind of like a Fiat Spider bought at an auto
auction for a low price, it’s almost as though Williams and
Guillen were just waiting for the first glitch to drive it off
the Navy Pier to collect on the insurance. And that led through a
couple of approaches, eventually to a Closer By Situation scheme
that helped propel the team to their first World Series
appearance since The Turk and Jungle Jim roamed the South Side.

Ken Williams carefully called it “Closer by
Situation,” avoiding the controversy of either the Red Sox’
or the Cubs’ designs. He told me the words “by
Committee,” to him anyway, meant weakness, incompleteness,
that no single reliever was good enough. He contrasted “by
Situation” as meaning putting the right talent in at the
right time, a more positive angle on pretty much the same method.
He also misguided the media a little, because while Guillen’s
application of bullpen talent up until the end game was well
within “normal” standards, it was in the handling of
the end game, the “closer” role, that Guillen and
Williams succeeded in establishing the sabermetric dream of the
star-free multiple closer slot where other recent innovators
didn’t succeed.

CLOSER BY SITUATION–CONTRASTING STANDARD BEHAVIOR

I’m going to use the term “Clean
9th
” to describe the classically-perceived
situation into which a closer is brought: to face the first
batter in the 9th inning of a game that the team views as
winnable. Nobody out, nobody on.

I use this as a measure that indicates with some accuracy who
the manager views as the team’s closer. Before I show you exactly
how Guillen and Williams used their scheme, let me establish a
few contrasts. I’ll compare how Tony LaRussa’s Cardinals and Mike
Hargrove’s Mariners distributed Clean 9ths. I’ve chosen LaRussa’s
application of Jason Isringhausen because LaRussa has been
(imprecisely) assigned the invention of the recent closer role
as a guy who only pitches in Clean 9ths when there’s a save
opportunity. I chose Hargrove’s application of Eddie Guardado because Hargrove’s a
non-radical adherent of “the book,” neither rigidly
conformist nor wildly experimental, who I use as a surrogate for
“average” behavior for a manager with a reliever
generally regarded as a safe choice to close.

The table shows Guardado pitched in 58 games, and in 69% of
those games started with a Clean 9th, while he had what I
call
a save situation in 86% of his appearances. I’m
defining that as appearing in the 7th inning or later with the
conditions being as defined in the most recent delineation of the
save rule.


Percentage of Total Appearances

                                 Potential
               G     Clean 9th   Save Sit'n*
Guardado       58      69%         86%
Isringhausen   63      62%         79%
Hermanson      57      44%         77%
Takatsu        31      26%         35%
Marte          66       9%         56%
Jenks          32       9%         34%

* - Enter game in 7th or later with a lead as defined by the most recent Save rule wording.

Were the White Sox being honest about their “by
Situation” appelation? Yes, although it was strenuously
applied only in one of four phases to their championship run,
phases I’ll describe in better detail later.

The four relievers Guillen used as “closer” during
the season contrast strongly with both Isringhausen and Guardado,
most noticeably in the Clean 9th scenario. The White Sox were
more likely to change relievers in mid-8th and 9th inning and
used more different arms in “save situations.” Dustin Hermanson had a handful fewer saves
than Guardado or Izzy, but did it with far fewer Clean 9th
entries. Guillen was just not wedded to applying his closer as a
Clean 9th entry dude.

CLOSER BY SITUATION–THE DETAILS

The White Sox bullpen went through four approaches during the
season, with Guillen and Williams showing a strong ability to
experiment and change their changes as the circumstances evolved.
The four approaches appear in the following table. When I say
“Clean 9th or last,” I’m indicating a situation that
could be either a Clean 9th or a different inning/base-out
situation where the reliever was intended to close out the game
in a save situation. And as you’ll see, Ozzie wasn’t making the
pandemic corporate management frell-up of thrashing around
re-orging every time someone didn’t work out perfectly. His moves
were calculated, and made with great sensitivity to the rules of
change management, changing in ways that preserved runs and
morale both.



From         To           "Closer"        Clean 9th or last    Other      Clean 9th or last
Opening day  May 5th      Takatsu             10               Hermanson      4
May 11th     August 24th  Hermanson           30               Marte          6
August 25th  October 1st  Jenks & Hermanson    8               Marte          4
October 4th  October 26th Jenks                5               Buehrle        1

# 9 Clean or last means the pitcher was brought in either with a save-level lead in the 9th with no outs and none on, or was brought in to replace the pitcher who was brought into a clean 9th but who left runners on base still holding a lead.

In Phase I, Takatsu was “the” closer, though as you
can see, it didn’t prevent Guillen from using Hermanson in Clean
9ths or intended last reliever appearances. And when it came time
to institute a change of approach, the manager found a cool
middle ground. He didn’t ride his chosen closer into the ground
like Jim Fregosi in the ’93 World Series, waiting for him to
spontaneously combust; he didn’t cast him from Eden with
vituperation after a lousy performance that cost the team a game.
Guillen threw away Phase I tactics after May 5th’s Chisox victory
during which Takatsu got the save, using an endless-seeming 28
pitches to walk a pair, strike out one looking and yield a couple
of authoritatively-rapped fly ball outs.

In Phase II, the plan was different, more like the recent
tradition of closer, though not fully there. Hermanson got the
primary close-out-the-game function with left-handed Damaso Marte closing out some wins–not
frequently, but more often than other teams would go to a set-up
man for such work. Phase II would end the way Phase I had, not on
a terrible note, but from the reverberations of lower
effectiveness, perhaps stemming from Hermanson’s bad back. After
five consecutive effective apperarances from August 4th through
10th during which Hermanson closed out five games while allowing
a single baserunner, The Springfield Rifle got five days off
& struggled on the 16th. Eight days later he got his next
appearance and closed out a game Guillen had tried to close with
Cliff Politte and Marte, both of whom left runners on base. The
next day, Hermanson came on with one out in the 9th and the tying
runner on, let the run in but got the win from a 10th inning
rally. No loss, but no longer Phase II.

Phase III was a true “Closer by Situation.” From
August 25 through about September 13, it was an almost purely
balanced end game approach based on Hermanson, Marte and Bobby Jenks. Jenks had moved up from lower
pressure situations. After the 13th, it was mostly Jenks closing
out games. Guillen managed to use the strengths of all three
while nursing the weaknesses of each (Hermanson’s fragile back,
Marte’s late season inability to smoke lefties, Jenks’ relative
lack of experirence under pressure), and when Jenks seemed to
emerge without a weakness, Guillen decisively gave the youngster
a couple of weeks to hone his approach before the playoffs.

Having already changed their approach twice during the regular
season, it shouldn’t have been a surprise Williams and Guillen
shook up their pitching application design again for the playoffs
and Series. While advance scouting might have prepared opponents
for the Closer By Situation, Guillen closed games with Jenks the
way he had for the last couple weeks of the season. Besides the Double Wide Trailer of Infinite Doom, only Mark Buehrle got a relief appearance designed
to finish off a game, and that only once.

The White Sox application of Clean 9ths is a little differnt from the other
two teams I used in the core sample. You can see this in the following
tables. They show the number of appearances pitchers who started Clean 9ths
got in several situations: in games the team was well behind (represented as <= -3), games that were winnable but not save situations (-2, -1, 0), basic save situations (+1, +2, +3) & finally, big leads (>= +4).


Clean 9ths - Cardinals

              DERA     WXL    OOPS   <= -3    -2, -1, 0   +1, +2, +3   >= +4
Isringhausen  2.53    2.50    .581     1        4           39 (93%)     7
King          4.15   -1.52    .813     3        3            1           3
Tavarez       4.14    1.37    .754     2        5            2           4
Al. Reyes     2.52    2.27    .546              1                        4
Flores        4.96     .55    .695              1                        3
Eldred        2.60     .64    .700     2        2                        3
Thompson      3.93    1.26    .634                                       1

Clean 9ths - Mariners

              DERA     WXL    OOPS   <= -3    -2, -1, 0   +1, +2, +3    >= +4
Guardado      3.71    1.39    .669     1        2           40 (95%)      9
Putz          4.05     .06    .706     3        3            1            2
Nelson        4.17    -.64    .690     2        1                         2
Villone       3.20    -.68    .658     2        2                         1
Sherrill      5.56     .81    .631              2            1
Mateo         3.33     .68    .694
Hasegawa      4.18    -.31    .658     2                                  2
Thornton      5.13    -.70    .794     6        1                         1

Clean 9ths -Chisox

              DERA     WXL    OOPS   <= -3    -2, -1, 0   +1, +2, +3    >= +4
Hermanson     2.86    2.61    .634              4           25 (57%)      2
Marte         4.14     .50    .789     1        5            6            2
Jenks         3.48     .90    .649              1            3            5
Takatsu       2.58     .39    .901              1            8            1
Politte       2.24    3.27    .575              6            2            2
Vizcaino      3.92    -.35    .757     1        1                         5
Cotts         2.44    1.45    .527     1        1                         2
Walker        8.53    -.37    .762     2        1                         4


WXL – Expected wins added over an average pitcher, adjusted for level of opposing hitters faced. WXL factors in the MLVr of the actual batters faced by the relievers. Then, like WX, WXL uses win expectancy calculations to assess how relievers have changed the outcome of games.

THE FUTURE OF CLEAN 9THS

If the diffusion of innovation works normally here, other
teams will adopt the South Siders’ approach, many without getting
the context right, some spot on. That’s not automatic. As Bill
James noted in his Guide to Baseball Managers, the transition
from reliever-as-failed-starter to skilled-relief-specialist was
made by a successful team, the 1924 Champion Washington Senators, and no-one
followed the successful experiment; it sat on the shelf for about
25 years before it was widely adopted. It could happen
to the Closer by Situation, too.

Three of the factors that made it possible for the Chisox to
execute so successfully are not available everywhere.

The first is a bullpen stocked with multiple strong talents
with a mix of pitch arsenals and deliveries, a polycultural group
that can complement each other in getting different kinds of
batters out easily.

The second is a team where strong collaborative consciousness
takes priority over individual ego. When Hermanson was
“demoted” for Phase III, he didn’t complain–he acted
the good citizen and publically supported the idea that whatever
made the team most effective was good enough for him. Williams
traces part of the team ethos to a move Guillen and he made in
late 2004. When Mike Jackson complained about not getting the
work he wanted and Guillen called Williams to report on someone
whining, Williams interrupted the manager, “Just waive
him…don’t even tell me who it is…and tell the team I didn’t
even want to know who it was when I told you that.” The Pale
Hose deliberately collected a filibuster-proof majority of
players who were comfortable being a “we” team, a
predominance large enough to drag the waverers along through
social pressure.

The third is that this Closer by Situation wasn’t an approach
inspired by budgetary objectives. This is an important lesson for
managers in all fields. While most of the publically-available
enthusiasm for applying the model is about how much cheaper it
would be to do without a classic high-priced “closer,”
the White Sox’ design and execution of it wasn’t about saving
money, it was about preventing runs. As in any endeavor, an
initiative created with the goal of trimming costs will usually
trim short term costs, but it will rarely, and only accidentally
have a positive effect on quality. Williams and Guillen had a qualitative goal and they, at least for this season, achieved it. The
financial high benefit/cost ratio was merely a side benefit.

None of the three factors is typical. Following the Closer By
Situation model may prove a harder task than just overcoming the
comfort of using what have become standard bullpen management
practices.

James Click contributed research to this column


Jeff Angus is a management consultant and he writes a weekly column on
sabermetrics for The Seattle Times during the season. He’s the author of
“Management by Baseball,” which Harper Collins will release next summer, and
of the Web log at http://cmdr-scott.blogspot.com.

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