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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Saving Your Best Reliever

As Mr. Musser and I have been ranting about on this site for the past 5 seasons, the best reliever should try to be optimized in the most crucial (highest leverage) situations.  The problem with this is that the overwhelming majority of MLB managers can't wrap their heads around this logic.  This is infuriating because the logic is so painfully obvious.  Each time I think about this, I get increasingly angrier (as I mentioned on Crashburn earlier).

I am going to lay out my logic with common responses to this line of thinking, and the counterarguments for each.  This list is undoubtedly incomplete, so if you think of other points, feel free to add them in the comments.

Reasons to use the closer prior to the 9th inning with the lead:

Bringing in the best pitcher gives your team the best chance to escape the inning with the lead.

Q.) But who will pitch later in the game if you use your best pitcher before the last inning?

A.) Just because the best pitcher throws in the 7th or 8th inning, the number of pitches/game situation (spot due up for opposition) should dictate whether the closer could/should continue in the game.

Q.) What if there's a more crucial situation later in the game?

A1.) You can't predict the future.
A2.) Escaping the current inning with minimal damage provides your offense with more opportunities to increase the lead prior to using a lesser reliever.
A3.) For example, it's more important to use your best reliever with a 2-run lead and multiple runners on base in the 7th inning than risk that someone else will get the job done so you can bring in your closer with a clean slate in the 9th inning.

The lead may not be there in the 9th inning if you use a lesser reliever now, or the lead may have grown to a point where the best reliever would be wasted if used in the 9th inning, which could render him unavailable for future appearances.

Reasons to use the closer in a tie game on the road:

The only chance you have to win the game at this point is if your offense comes back up to the plate, and the best reliever gives your team the best shot at doing so.

Q.) But who will pitch later in the game if you use your best pitcher before the last inning?

A.) I'm pretty sure I've already addressed this question.  Try to keep up.

Q.) If you use the best reliever in tie games, he may not be available for saves/may get burnt out.

A.) You're in the 9th inning of today's baseball game.  You know it's tied.  Tomorrow may get rained out.  You may be blowing out the opposition.  You may be getting blown out by the opposition.  Win the game that you know you have a very solid chance at winning.

If this isn't enough to calm you down, it's not completely necessary for the best reliever to pitch in 3-run save situations.  Using stats, your team has over a 97% chance of winning when up by 3 runs in the last inning.  Tango has shown that basically any major league reliever has the same chance at converting a 3 run lead into a save.  I would also go so far as to argue that it's almost difficult for a major league reliever to come in with no one on base and allow 3 runs in an inning.  To give up 3 runs in just one inning of work would imply that a pitcher has a 27.00 ERA.  Yes, it only has to happen once, and any pitcher CAN give up 3 runs in one inning, but for example, in 2011 the Phillies allowed 3+ runs in 46 of 1480 IP.  This happened just 3.1% of the time last year.

I'll take my chances by trying to optimize Papelbon's use, and so should Charlie Manuel.


Anonymous said...

Do you lend any credence to psychological arguments? I seem to remember coming across some research showing that a fair number of closers pitch worse in non-save (including tie game) situations? Was just thinking how Papelbon went like nine for nine in save opportunities, and then got the loss when he was brought in for a tie game. I

Scott Graham said...

I'm not aware of the research. I'd love to read about it of you or anyone else is aware of where I can find it. I'd be just as prepared to argue that papelbon lost that game because he hadn't thrown in 9 days. I'd also say that 9/9 being compared with one tie game is a pretty small sample size of 10 (or 1 in the instance of non-save situation).

I'm guessing you're directing that more toward the tie games than the earlier appearances which could be more fittingly called save situations. Id be seriously troubled if a pitcher didn't feel just as much pressure in a game with no wiggle room (tie game) as a game where there is a small lead.

Sorry for any typos as I posted this on a cell phone.

Scott Graham said...

7* days

hk said...


According to, Papelbon's career numbers are slightly better in non-save situations than in save situations.

Robby Bonfire said...

Also, Mariano Rivera was notorious for being vulnerable in tie games, home and road. Just didn't have the same fire in the belly when no save was on tap for him.

Just goes to show how selfish today's ballplayers are that they need a self-serving situation to find any kind of motivation, and screw the best interests of the team if there is no personal glory in it for them.

And how about those relievers who give up the tying run and subsequently get a "win." Baseball really needs to over-haul this incentive to pitchers to do less than their best, in select spots.