I watched Buck Showalter neglect to use his lights-out closer in the ninth and tenth and eleventh innings of a tied, loser-goes-home baseball game, and I watched it work for two of those innings! All I can say is: I’ve seen people at the blackjack table hit on 17 and get 21, too. I’ve never seen anyone make a habit of doing it and walk away from the table up.
Outcome-based analysis is flawed. But this is process-based analysis, and Showalter’s process led to Ubaldo Jimenez, he of the 5.44 ERA, facing the powerful heart of the Blue Jays’ order, while Zach Britton, ERA of 0.54, never touched the ball. That Jimenez allowed three straight hits, including a walk-off mars shot, is outcome. That Showalter was prepared to enter the offseason without putting his best pitcher on the mound was process. It might’ve worked—it didn’t—but in no universe did Showalter’s pitching decisions give the Orioles their best odds of advancing.
Everyone was speculating that Britton, who had gotten warm three separate times, must’ve hurt himself. After all, there was no other excuse to not bring him in, right? Showalter: “He was fine.” (And yes, before you even click, that’s obviously a link to the comic strip of the dog surrounded by flames.)
After the game, Showalter insisted that this isn’t about the long-held, slightly-less-long-derided philosophy that teams shouldn’t use their closers in tied road games, because if they’re going to win, they’re going to need to protect a lead anyway. Instead, the O’s manager said there was purpose to his parade of relievers.
“I liked the job that Darren could do,” Showalter said. “I liked the job that Brad could do. I liked the job that Mychal could do. I liked the job that Duensing could do. Nobody has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo, too, so there are a lot of different ways to look at it.
“That’s the way we went. It didn’t work out. It has nothing to do with ‘philosophical.’”
“It didn’t work out,” is the fatalist’s alibi, as if the Orioles wouldn’t have had a better chance to keep things tied and alive had they brought in Britton, who had the highest WPA for an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000. (Yes, that Pedro season.)
The thing is, until the 11th inning, Showalter’s moves were defensible. A game like this, tied and headed to extras, is open-ended—you don’t know how long it’s going to go, but you know it’s going to be nothing but high-leverage outs until it’s over, so a manager should maximize the use of his best pitchers.
Keeping Brad Brach in for the ninth, after he had pitched the eighth, made some sense—he’s a ground-ball pitcher with a high K rate, and once you take him out, you can’t get him back. Replacing him with Darren O’Day made a little less sense, but O’Day too has been good, and strikes guys out at a high clip. Once O’Day was in, it again made sense to leave him on for the 10th inning.
The 11th is where Showalter loses the benefit of any doubt. Instead of going to Britton—and again, Britton is a legit Cy Young candidate, with a heavy sinker and the best ground ball rate in baseball, and if you lose with him, OK, and if you don’t lose with him, you keep the game tied another couple of innings and you figure out your bullpen from there!—he tapped Brian Duensing, a lefty, to get one lefty batter. Then it was Ubaldo Jimenez, who has been a much better pitcher since returning from bullpen exile in August. The plan here, I guess, was to let Ubaldo throw until the O’s either gained a lead—or until Jimenez lost the game. It did not take long.
Conventional wisdom is not always correct. But the concept that you maximize value and win expectancy by using your best pitcher in the highest-leverage situations is not “wisdom”—it is fact. It does not always work, just as convention-bucking like what Showalter pulled last night does not always fail, but the odds are the odds. You can’t outsmart them. Showalter has all winter to think about it.