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Buck Showalter cost the Orioles their season, but at least the conventional wisdom will change

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The conventional wisdom might change in two decades, sure, but if there's no defense for keeping Zach Britton out of an elimination game, the entire strategy is suspect.

Buck Showalter was clever. At first. The first two times he pulled a lever in the AL Wild Card Game, magic came out. It was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen. He summoned two relievers into different situations with runners on base, the game hanging in the balance each time, and they each threw exactly one pitch to get a double play.

Have you ever seen that kind of magic before? It was coming out of the vents at Rogers Centre, swirling all around ...

Yes, just like that. It was beautiful. At first. You’ll never believe what happened next.

That GIF up there is from Saving Private Ryan, and there’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln in that movie that’s always stuck with me:

"It’s a fine line between stupid and clever."

Showalter was on the clever side for the first nine innings. He put in two pitchers in different double-play situations -- desperate, pleading double-play situations — and they each got a double play on exactly one pitch. Pull the lever. Magic comes out. Pull the lever. Magic comes out. And yet all we’re talking about is the one time he pulled the lever and face-melting wraiths came out. Seems like recency bias to me.

What everyone is talking about: In the 11th inning, with Zach Britton available to pitch, Showalter decided to use Ubaldo Jimenez, who is notable for being famously bad at pitching. This was when the heart of the Blue Jays’ order was coming up.

It makes sense, though, considering just how confident Jimenez was in h ...

"Yeah, of course,’’ said Jimenez, when asked if he were surprised Britton wasn’t in the game. "He’s our best pitcher.

"And couldn’t get into the game.’’

Oh.

There’s a second half to that GIF up there, but you don’t need to see it unless you want to. Just know that it happened just like that in real life. No one was spared, not even the people who didn’t look.

If Jimenez isn’t the most erratic pitcher in baseball, he’s on a very short list. His velocity, command, and control all vary based on how repeatable his mechanics are. That seems typical, except his mechanics make him look like he’s filled with otters all trying to escape his body at the same time. It’s impossibly hard to repeat his motion and delivery, and for most of 2016, this meant that he wasn’t very good at getting hitters out. When I wrote that he was famously bad at pitching, that was more from an aesthetic standpoint than a results standpoint. But the results weren’t pretty this year, either.

A simple way to describe the decision and how it worked out: Britton allowed four runs all season. Jimenez allowed three runs in the Wild Card Game without recording an out.

Anyway, if you’re here, you know that people are complaining about the decision. If you’re curious about why it’s wrong to hide a closer until there’s a save situation on the road, there’s a longer piece here on it, but I’ll try to dumb it down.

When a manager uses Brad Brach instead of Zach Britton, fine, the difference really isn’t as great as you think. Britton is outstanding, but I’ll make a $100 bet that his ERA goes up next year. He’s probably not a warlock, and Brach is also quite good. I would use Britton before Brach in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road, but I’m not going to hold my breath and turn blue when a manager saves his closer to go with someone who would also make an excellent closer.

When a manager uses Jimenez instead of Britton, though, what he’s saying is that it’s impossible to win a game if he doesn’t have his closer. That there’s no way to build a lead so comfortable that anyone else can protect it, so Britton has to be held back, just in case. That it’s worth bringing in one of your very worst relief options with the heart of the Blue Jays’ order coming up, because it’s far, far likelier to lose with a blown save later than an Ubaldo Jimenez inning right then.

There it is. Isolate that little snippet of logic.

It’s worth bringing in one of your very worst relievers because you’re far, far likelier to lose with a blown save later than your worst pitcher right then.

That ... that isn’t how baseball works. It isn’t how it’s ever worked. There are some pitchers who are better at finishing ballgames than others, but the team with the lead heading into the last half of what could be the final inning is overwhelmingly likely to win. That’s regardless of who is pitching, historically speaking. It’s more important to extend the game and continue trying to get the lead than it is to save a lead you might not ever hold.

By putting Jimenez into the game, Showalter was effectively eliminating the possibility of building a lead so big that he would be comfortable putting Jimenez into the game. What would the Orioles have done in the top of the 12th? Hit a dinger? Hit three of them? We’ll never know. But if Jimenez mowed through Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista and Russell Martin and maybe Troy Tulowitzki, we might have found out. And that’s yet another sentence that makes you cock your head like a very drunk German Shepard.

It’s a fine line between stupid and clever. And we’re here at something of a crossroads, where even the players are questioning the conventional wisdom of saving a Cy Young candidate for a situation that might not exist, and one in which the team is extraordinarily likely to win anyway. I honestly can’t tell if this is actually a tipping point, or if it’s just one we’ve all invented because we’re tired of talking about this. This was a very, very visible deconstruction of why that strategy fails, using the most extreme set of examples possible. This has to be it, right? The conventional wisdom has to change, doesn’t it?

Sure, but slowly. Manager by manager, example by example. It’s like that other famous saying, "Eckersley wasn’t built in a day." It took a while for managers to flock to the brainless, blame-limiting strategy of using closers in exactly one way. It will take them a while to see that there’s just as much blame hidden under that strategy, if not more.

When we do an oral history of the history of the closer, though, save a paragraph or four for the 2016 American League Wild Card. Using Ubaldo Jimenez instead of Zach Britton might not have started the revolution. But it was a decision so bad, it at least started the discussion that will lead to the revolution.

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