We’ve had some discussions about the use of the “closer” in the comments on this site, and the prevailing attitude of most of our readers is that the closer role is overrated — and therefore the Joe Nathan signing was unwise. After Friday night’s loss, Howard Sinker has some words about the conventional wisdom of keeping the closer on the bench in extra inning games.
The “closer” is supposed to come into games and end them. Close them out. He pitches those last three outs to finish off the victory. That’s all he does. Right? Well, let’s think about why you’d have someone called a “closer” who would have that responsibility.
Are the outs in the 9th inning “special” in any way, or somehow more difficult to get than outs in any other inning? Probably not. However, their importance is increased by the fact that there’s so much leverage during that time. Performance during these outs has a huge impact on the output of the game. If the pitcher gets outs, the team wins. If the pitcher fails, the team loses. That’s quite a bit of leverage.
I think everyone would agree with that, regardless of where they stand on the pro-closer or anti-closer debate. If I’m wrong about that I’m sure someone will let me know.
So you use your closer in the highest leverage situation in the game. He’s your best reliever, that’s when you should use him. But even though the last three outs intrinsically have a higher leverage than “normal” outs, is the final inning when your team has the lead really the highest leverage situation? Always?
When you’re winning by one run, going into the 9th inning, and the middle of the order is coming up … obviously that’s a high leverage situation where you’d want your closer available. So you bring him in and he gets the “save.”
But when you’re winning by three runs and the bottom of the order is coming up … that’s not a very high leverage situation. You should hope that you could trust every reliever in your bullpen to get through that inning without surrendering the lead. But you bring in the closer and he gets the “save.”
These are just examples, obviously. And they’re the opposite ends of that spectrum. But imagine the inning before that. Say there are two men on base, 1 out, and the middle of the order is up. These are high-leverage outs. If you end this inning cleanly, you have a good chance of going on to win the game (since you’d be winning by 3 and the bottom of the order is up, and any reliever on your team can handle that). But if you blow it, you may well lose the game. Whoever can get you out of the inning has “saved” the day. Would you bring in your best reliever, or an inferior reliever?
Most people would say “bring in the best reliever!” And they’d probably look at me like I’m being an idiot for even asking the question. But then you give these guys titles. Do you bring in The Closer or a Setup Man? Well … then the answer might change. Especially if you’re a manager. “Closers close games!” So the manager brings in the inferior reliever, and Detroit beats us twice in a row because of it. Oops. I mean … the team’s chances of getting the win drop dramatically. Kind of slipped there, I guess.
But that brings us to the reason I’m bringing this up today. Last night, the Twins lost in the 10th inning to the Rangers, ending their 7 game losing streak. The heart of the Rangers’ order, the 3-4-5 hitters, were due up in the 10th. In a tie game, where any run could end the game, we had two guys warmed up in the pen. Joe Nathan, elite reliever vs Juan Rincon, washed up former juicer with arm problems and diminished abilities (and an ERA filled with crooked numbers). To the untrained eye, this seems like a no-brainer: it’s a high leverage situation where you should use your best pitcher! But that’s just what an untrained observer thinks! He’s not a major league manager like Ron Gardenhire, who knows that Joe Nathan is The Closer, and therefore he can only pitch when we’re already winning. So Rincon pitches the 10th … and we lose.
Maybe we would have lost the game anyway. We hadn’t scored for 8 innings, and Rincon would probably have had to pitch the 11th whether we had the lead or not (though it would have been the bottom of the order). But that’s not how a manager should be thinking during the game. He’s supposed to put the team in the best situation to win; give us the best chance. And putting your best reliever on the mound to get the toughest outs is one of the few things he can actually do during a game to change the outcome of the game. So last night’s decision was a bad one. In the “humble” opinion of this addled blogger, anyhow.
I’ll finish by pointing out that, unsurprisingly, I did not address Nathan’s contract here. I don’t fault the GM for signing the contract. There’s nothing at all wrong with having an elite reliever on your team, and there’s nothing wrong with paying him at the same rate as his (lesser) peers. I fault the manager for misusing Nathan’s elite services. Someday I’ll write a post about how I care more about “baseball” than the “business of baseball,” and I’d rather think about what the manager could do to improve our chances of winning a game than think about what the GM could have done to get us a better deal on someone’s contract. I can watch baseball games. I can’t (and wouldn’t) watch contract negotiations. But today is not that day, so I’m not going to write about it. (This paragraph is a “subtle” request that we all try not to talk about the contract. In case you missed that.)