Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How Frustrating Is "Saving" the Closer?

I HATE the "save the closer in a tie game on the road" strategy. Here's the thinking behind it: Your closer usually pitches just one inning, so there's no need to bring him into an away game unless your team has the lead. In other words, your offense needs to score in the top half of an inning to warrant using the closer to finish off the home team.

Jonah Keri and some other prominent writers have moaned and groaned about baseball managers' groupthink in late-game situations. Here's the conclusion Keri reached:

"[A]s much as some managers might talk a good game when it comes to bullpen usage, the vast majority of them can't resist following nearly identical usage patterns. Ned Yost might not be making the right choices, but he's hardly the only one."

Well, in Wednesday afternoon's Yankees-Cubs game, Joe Girardi continued the trend of "saving" his closer so that his closer might net a save. After tying the game in the ninth inning, the Yankees used every one of their relief pitchers before scoring the go-ahead runs in the thirteenth. Every one of their relief pitchers, that is, besides David Robertson. 

Since returning from an early-season stint on the disabled list, Robertson has been terrific, posting a 1.54 ERA and striking out over a batter an inning. The recent run of success by Dellin Betances has been wonderful, but Robertson is definitely the team's most reliable relief pitcher. It makes sense that the Yankees would want to let him, you know, pitch. 

In the bottom of the tenth, the Yankees gave the ball to Matt Daley and the Cubs put men on first and second with one out.

At that point, it seems like Robertson should have been called upon. He has a history of pitching out of tight spots, even earning the nickname "Houdini." Additionally, Girardi has shown a penchant for using advanced statistics and has to know that a team's best pitchers should be used in high-leverage situations

Instead of turning to Robertson, Girardi left Daley in there, and the righty rewarded his manager's faith by picking up a strikeout. Girardi then signaled for Matt Thornton and set up a lefty-against-lefty matchup.

Fortunately, Thornton got Nate Schierholtz to line out to left on a full-count pitch. It wasn't ideal, but the Yanks got out of the jam.

In the eleventh, Girardi used a combination of Thornton and Preston Claiborne to pick up three outs. What's that you say? Masterful bullpen usage? I'm not so sure. Remember that over a 162-game season, managers should focus on process over single-game results. Girardi's best pitcher was sitting in the bullpen, leading me to post this:

On the YES Network, Michael Kay and Al Leiter spouted out the gospel of late-inning pitcher usage, accepting Girardi's decisions as the obvious (and correct) ones. But while Girardi mirrored his fellow managers' bullpen usage, should his decisions have seemed so obvious?

In the thirteenth, Leiter and Kay finally brought up the possibility of Robertson entering the tie game, but only because they were wondering about how many more pitches Claiborne could throw. Ridiculous.

The worst part of the whole thing? Girardi's decision "worked." The Yanks went ahead 4-2 in the top of the thirteenth, and Robertson came in to leisurely close it out in the bottom of the inning. I'm sure most fans, happy with the victory, thought that Girardi made the right choices. But that kind of results-over-process thinking just reaffirms a strategy that should, at the very least, be questioned and re-evaluated.

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Follow FranT on Twitter at @frantweet and follow Brian Kavanaugh at @btkav

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