Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Closer?

Baseball managers, players, fans, and media like to say “baseball is a game of match ups.” Watch any game and moves are constantly being made by managers to ensure the best match up for their team. Left and right hand hitting platoons, situational left handed relief pitchers, and pinch hitters are all examples of adjustments Major League managers will make attempting to create a favorable match up for their team. But when using their bullpen in the 8th and 9th innings of a game, managers stop trying to create the best possible match up. All Major League managers have clearly defined roles for their bullpen and they almost never deviate from it. Without any regard for what might be the best possible match up, all 30 Major League managers will use their setup man to pitch the 8th inning and their closer to pitch the 9th. This is the way baseball is managed in the 21st century. Last evening I watch this ridged structuring cost the Minnesota Twins a game making me wonder how many games are lost each season because teams have predefined bullpen roles.

Heading into the 8th inning the Twins were leading the struggling Detroit Tigers 4-3. Since it was the 8th inning and his team was ahead, Ron Gardenhire did what every other Major League manager would have done and brought in his setup man Jesse Crain. I don’t think Gardenhire considered who was coming up for the Tigers. Rookie Clete Thomas was scheduled to lead off followed by Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, and Miguel Cabrera. A one run game with four of the best hitters in the American League scheduled to hit and Gardenhire has his second best relief pitcher in the game! Five batters later, Miguel Cabrera hits a rocket over the left field wall and the Tigers were ahead 6-4.

I don’t fault Gardenhire for the way it turned out. As I wrote in the beginning, he did what every other manager would have done. But even though every manager would have handled it the same way, I don’t understand why. The Twins recently made it clear they consider Joe Nathan their best relief pitcher. They signed him to a multi year $40+ million contract. But the Twins view Nathan’s role as “the closer” and that means he pitches the ninth inning regardless of the score or situation. I don’t see any logic to this approach. Gardenhire should have looked at who was scheduled to hit for the Tigers and not the inning. When it became unavoidable that Sheffield, Ordonez, and Cabrera were going to hit, he should have gone with his best pitcher. There is no way a manager should lose a game with his best pitcher sitting in the bullpen waiting for the 9th inning.


Joe Walz said...

I also see this situation come up all the time and agree that managers need to break the pre-defined roles, saving their closer for only 9th inning situations (or the occassional 4 out save). Especially in a situation where you are facing the heart of the order with proven hitters only up by one run, you need to be more flexible and stick with providing your team with the best match up. The Dodgers fell into this trap the other night as well...Torre had great match ups through the 6th, 7th and 8th against the pirates...but in the 9th, with two outs, two on and Saito looking a bit shaky and now facing a lefty with good power, Joe decided to stick with his closer instead of pulling him, bringing in a lefty, getting the out and securing the win. I understand having your closer's back and building up his confidence and trust, but I think the 3 run homer to lose the game that Siato then proceeded to give up was more a blow then if Torre would have taken him out and they had won the game.

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