March 21, 2011 at 8:22 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves
There has been some debate over who should be the team’s closer: Craig Kimbrel or Jonny Venters. If you’re going to stick to strictly defined roles, it doesn’t matter who pitches the 8th inning and who pitches the 9th inning, you have to get through both to win the game and in most cases they’re equally important in the long run. Baseball fans, media members, and even some baseball operations personnel (including managers and coaches) tend to view the 9th inning as more important, but this couldn’t be a dumber position to assume. Why do they do it? Saves, of course.
Per Wikipedia, the Save was invented by Jerome Holtzman, a baseball journalist, in 1960. His intentions seem good: feeling that ERA, W-L, and other various ancient metrics were inadequate, Holtzman wanted to establish a way to measure a reliever’s effectiveness (again, per Wikipedia). It’s now obvious that Saves are a pretty poor way to judge a reliever’s effectiveness, especially in today’s game–Kevin Gregg had as many saves as Billy Wagner last year, for example–but we can’t fault the guy for trying. It is not Jerome Holtzman’s fault that managers deploy their relievers in a way that maximizes the save total of the relief pitcher they’ve deemed “closer” rather than in a way that maximizes the team’s win total.
Let’s take a look at the save rule (Wiki):
That rule states the official scorer shall credit a pitcher with a save when such pitcher meets all four of the following conditions:
- He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
- He is not the winning pitcher;
- He is credited with at least ⅓ of an inning pitched; and
- He satisfies one of the following conditions:
- He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning
- He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck
- He pitches for at least three innings
We’re all used to this rule and everything, so it’s impossible to judge it from a completely bias-free perspective, but do you notice how arbitrary the rule is? Especially condition 4. Where did these conditions come from? A sportswriter made them up. That’s where they came from. And the joke’s on baseball, because managers are letting some journalist’s inane set of rules written in the ’60′s dictate how they should manage the game, even though doing so often runs counter to the optimal use of a manager’s resources if he’s trying to win the game. Yeah, that’s a really good strategy.
So Fredi Gonzalez has two choices. Choice one is to cater to fantasy baseball players and a dead writer. If that’s what he wants to do, having a defined “closer” is the way to go. And, like I said, it doesn’t really matter if he picks Kimbrel or Venters to do it, they’re both good pitchers and they’re both going to get their share of important PA’s when the game is close under this policy. One of them will get about $2 million more during his first year of arbitration due to the 40 saves he racks up, which is the only meaningful result of this decision (should he decide to be a moron and go with a defined closer).
However, if he’s more concerned with winning baseball games and making the playoffs and things like that, he might want to consider using his relief pitchers in a way that will maximizes his team’s chances of winning, which involves ignoring “saves”, “save opportunities”, who his “closer” is, who his “set-up man” is, et cetera.
The optimal use of the bullpen would involve using Kimbrel or Venters during the most important plate appearances of the game once the starter is out. Whether they come in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t get through the 7th or 8th inning, the 9th is irrelevant, and any pitcher the Braves bring north from camp will be perfectly capable of navigating the 9th inning with a 3-run lead something like 96% of the time. For example, if the Braves are up 3-1 on Philadelphia with 1 out in the top of the 7th and Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz are on first and second base, Jonny Venters should be brought in to face Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, et cetera. Similarly, if the Braves are up 3-1 on the Dodgers with 1 out in the top of the 7th and Rafael Furcal and Andre Ethier are on first and second base, Craig Kimbrel should be brought in to face Matt Kemp, Casey Blake, Juan Uribe, Marcus Thames, et cetera. Fredi has two relief aces at his disposal, one right-hander with extremely high strikeout/walk tendencies and one left-hander with high strikeout/walk tendencies and extremely high ground-ball tendencies. It’s not that hard to pick the spots to use them that are most beneficial to the team (hint: they rarely come with a 3-run lead and 3 outs to get).
Sure, he’ll be second-guessed by reporters, analysts, fans, and even *gasp* bloggers, especially if his move didn’t work that particular night. Tough, you’ve got to have thick skin to do that job anyway. It’s not like he wasn’t going to be second-guessed all the time, anyway.
There’s no good reason to manage a bullpen the way most managers do these days, and the only (bad) reason to do it that way is: “that’s the way it’s done”. Ignoring the defined “closer” role and deploying the best relief pitchers in the most important situations, regardless of the inning, will net a team a few more wins in the long run, and that’s how managers concerned with winning should manage their bullpen.
Not that I expect the guy who justifies batting Heyward 6th instead of 2nd by saying: “Before it’s all said and done, Jason’s a kid who is going to be a middle-of-the-order run producer. In my head, if we have to start tomorrow, I’m putting him in the six hole” to get this right.
UPDATE: Unrelated, but I did this Q&A with Brotherly Glove.