You can sum up the American League Wild Card game by simply saying that Tuesday night, Baltimore and Toronto played a tightly-pitched,11-inning game and Orioles manager Buck Showalter used seven pitchers, none of whom were reliever Zach Britton. Inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.
Only, we have to be honest about this: It isn’t inexplicable at all.
Let’s look at two key situations from Tuesday night:
First, it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the score is tied, and Toronto has runners on first and second with only one out. Russell Martin comes to the plate. If you are Baltimore, you are one single away from losing the game and going home for the winter.
The obvious thing you would want in this situation is (A) a strikeout pitcher or (B) an extreme ground-ball pitcher who will coax the double play.
Zach Britton, conveniently, is both. He strikes out 10 batters per nine innings. But more to the point, he’s the most extreme ground-ball pitcher in baseball — his 80-percent ground-ball percentage this year was the highest EVER RECORDED.
Instead, Showalter put in 33-year-old Darren O’Day. Now, it’s true that O’Day has proven to be something of a strikeout pitcher in his circuitous career, though he’s not exactly Aroldis Chapman. But as for Plan B, no, he doesn’t induce grounders. At all. He’s a pure fly-ball pitcher (35-percent ground-ball percentage last two years). He had not thrown a double-play grounder all year — and he had only thrown four in his entire career. Again, inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.
So what does O’Day do? He gets Martin to hit a double-play ground ball. Because: Baseball.
“So hilarious seeing these stats heads get so worked up about Buck’s bullpen moves,” tweeted my friend and stat-needler C.J. Nitkowski. “Experience & instincts > your spreadsheet.”
We’ll get back to that in a minute.
Second situation: It’s the bottom of the 11th inning, score still tied, one out, and the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup is due up. The top of the Blue Jays’ lineup is pretty darned good. Devon Travis hit .300 this year with some power. Josh Donaldson won the MVP award last year and was almost as good offensively this year. Edwin Encarnacion has hit the second-most home runs in baseball the last three years.
Now, once again, you are in peril of losing. What you would want in this situation is your best available pitcher. That is obviously Zach Britton. He had one of the greatest relief-pitching seasons ever, regardless of which type of statistic you want to use — he had an 0.54 ERA, the league slugged .209 against him, he was 47 for 47 in save opportunities, he led the league in win probability added and so on.
Instead, Showalter put in 32-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez. Until one month ago, Jimenez was pitching so badly it was fair to wonder if the Orioles would release him even with another $13-plus million due to him. In September, though, he pitched better. It was only five starts, but the Orioles won four of them, and as they said on TV, Jimenez had a 2.31 ERA over that time — like ERA over five starts means anything.
“No one has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo,” Showalter said, not only spouting the nonsense philosophy of small-sample size but also just being ridiculous. Over those five starts, Jimenez’s batting average on balls in play — the famed BABIP — was a ludicrously low .176. The rest of the year, it was .355. Do they really think that he suddenly learned how to get hitters to direct the ball right at fielders? The guy was good in September, but he was also lucky. Either way, he’s not Zach Britton. Once again, inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.
Travis smashed a line-drive single to left, couldn’t have hit it harder.
Donaldson smashed a line-drive single to left, couldn’t have hit it harder.
First and third, one out, season on the line, Showalter decided his best bet was to let Jimenez pitch to Encarnacion. The 440-foot bomb that Encarnacion smashed was only surprising in that it wasn’t 450 feet.
A little while later, Nitkowski tweeted a photograph of a hand waving a white flag.
But I think C.J.’s original tweet is more to the point: Experience and instincts. Showalter isn’t the only major league manager who would have gone to absurd lengths to avoid pitching Zach Britton in a tie game on the road. He’s in the majority.
There’s a notion all around baseball, one that has been hammered home by constant reinforcement for 30-plus years, that it takes a special kind of person to pitch the last inning with a small lead. Pitching in a tie game — any good pitcher can do that. Pitching with a small deficit — any good pitcher can do that. But to close out a lead, yes, that takes someone with unique and ineffable skills.
In managers’ minds, closers are the brain surgeons of baseball. Others can operate on your liver, your prostate, even your heart. But you don’t want any of those doctors messing around with your brain.
So, if the Orioles were ever going to score a run (an unlikely possibility based on the feebleness of their lineup in the late innings) Showalter wanted, NEEDED, his brain surgeon. No one else could bring the team home. It’s not inexplicable. It happens practically every day all around baseball.
It is, however, ludicrous and illogical and many of Nitkowski’s spreadsheet friends have been making that case for years. People often argue about the value of a closer. This year, many people think that Britton should win the American League Cy Young Award even though he only pitched 67 innings, and even though he mostly pitched in games that the Orioles were all-but-certain to win anyway.
But Showalter just gave a dramatic demonstration of why Britton ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT win the Cy Young Award.
Look: Here’s a very general little chart to pull out whenever a closer comes into a game in the ninth inning. This is the team’s general likelihood of winning a game with a lead going into the last half-inning:
When up one run: 79-82 percent.
When up two runs: 90-92 percent.
When up three runs: 95-97 percent.
Britton saved all 16 of his one-run save opportunities, which is impressive. You would expect an average pitcher to blow three of those, a good pitcher would probably blow one or two. Britton did not allow a single run in one-run save opportunities, which speaks to his awesomeness (and let me state for the record, I do think Britton is awesome … this is about role, not player).
Britton saved all 16 of his two-run save opportunities, which is a bit less impressive. It’s like a 91-percent free-throw shooter making 16 straight free throws or a 91-percent kicker from 40-yards-and-in making 16 consecutive kicks of that length. Nice but hardly earth-shaking.
Britton saved all 15 of his three-plus-run save opportunities (he had two four-run saves because he came in with men on base). These were a complete waste of his time and talent. You would expect any pitcher to save those. Putting in a pitcher to blow any of those games would have been like finding one of the three percent of climate scientists who do not believe the Earth is warming or (if it is warming) that human beings are the main cause.*
*I would not normally use a politically-charged topic like global warming as an example, but when you type in 97 percent into a search engine, you are flooded with the 97 percent climate scientist consensus. I could have used the three percent of customers who apparently are not satisfied with Geico, but that would have been pretty obscure.
All of which to say: Zach Britton had a closer year for the ages … and it really didn’t add up to all that much because of how he was used. Yes, of course, every win counts, and closing out all those one-run leads matters. But the limitations managers put on these great pitchers is absurd. Throwing your best pitcher only when you have a lead is self-defeating; you are probably going to win those games anyway. It’s the tossup games, when you are tied, even when you are down a run, that demand greatness.
All of this has been obvious to the spreadsheeters for a long time, but the Orioles gave us a vivid display of it on Tuesday. No, the Orioles didn’t lose because of Showalter’s choice to leave Britton in the bullpen. They lost because they didn’t get a hit the last five innings of the game. They lost because Michael Bourn misjudged a catchable fly ball. And so on.
But a manager cannot win or lose a game anyway. What a manager can do is give his team the best chance to win, to extend their chances. When you are tied on the road and your offense is tanking, your pitchers cannot win the game for you. What they can do is give you more time. In the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles desperately needed just to make it to the 10th. In the bottom of the 11th, the Orioles desperately needed just to make it to the 12th.
Showalter decided to take his chances based on experience and instincts and the overriding belief that he needed Britton and only Britton in case the team got a lead.
Unfortunately, the lead will not come until next April.