The Craziest Part of Showalter’s Crazy Decision

You already know the story of last night’s AL Wild Card game. The Orioles lost, and Zach Britton didn’t pitch. Everyone is talking about it today. Jeff Sullivan wrote a good piece on Showalter’s call, as did basically every other baseball writer in existence. Now, 12 hours later, it’s still hard to believe that it actually happened.

In reading the accounts from those who talked to Showalter — this one by Tyler Kepner, in particular, was really well done — you can feel the respect people have for him, and rightfully so. Showalter is one of the winningest managers in baseball history, and despite what he did last night, he didn’t get that way on accident. Two years ago, I wrote a post extolling Showalter’s postseason usage of his relievers; he clearly understood then that the postseason is a different animal, and needs to be handled differently from the regular season.

And while I certainly was among the chorus calling for Britton in the eighth inning — and every inning after that — you don’t have to squint too hard to see some logic in how Showalter used Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, and Darren O’Day. The Jays lineup is very right-handed, and those pitchers all throw from difficult angles for RHBs. Britton is the Orioles’ best reliever, but especially against a right-handed lineup, Showalter was picking from a variety of good options, all of whom were likely to pitch well in that situation. Britton might have been a bit more likely, but when factoring in the platoon splits, you can least kind of see why Showalter might have felt comfortable with his three primary right-handed setup guys.

But while Showalter stated in the postgame press conference that his decision wasn’t based on some philosophical issue, the 11th inning suggests differently. Because the only way you rationalize letting Jimenez face Edwin Encarnacion is if you’re dead set against using your closer in a tie game on the road.

Encarnacion came up to the plate with runners at first and third, with only one out, so the season-ending run was 90 feet away. Any reasonably deep fly ball would score Devon Travis, giving the Blue Jays the win. At that point, the Orioles badly needed one of two outcomes: preferably a strikeout, but if not a strikeout, then definitely a ground ball.

Edwin Encarnacion is a fly-ball hitter, only putting the ball on the ground about 36% of the time he makes contact. Ubaldo Jimenez is a slight ground-ball pitcher, with a 47% ground-ball rate for his career. If Encarnacion made contact against Jimenez, the likely outcome was that the ball was going to be in the air. And given Encarnacion’s strength, it probably wasn’t going to be a short fly ball. Regardless of what you think about how Jimenez has pitched lately, or the platoon matchup advantage, or any other reason you might like having Jimenez on the mound, in that situation, Jimenez was unlikely to get a ground ball, which is what the Orioles badly wanted to happen — if they couldn’t strike Encarnacion out, anyway.

Now, here’s the crazy part: no team in baseball history has ever had a better option for this specific situation than the 2016 Orioles. Here at FanGraphs, we have batted-ball data back to 2002. Here are the highest single-season ground-ball rates we have recorded since then.

Highest GB%, 2002-2016
Player Season GB%
Zach Britton 2016 80%
Zach Britton 2015 79%
Brad Ziegler 2012 76%
Zach Britton 2014 75%
Brandon League 2006 73%

Britton has three of the four highest ground-ball rates we have on record, and this season, he became the first player to ever generate a ground ball on 80% of his balls in play allowed. Even putting aside that Britton was far more likely to strike Encarnacion out — the best outcome possible — the difference in expected ground-ball rate with Jimenez and Britton on the mound makes a change there such an easy call. This is the situation for which Zach Britton was created. Instead of being put to use in the scenario in which he was most uniquely suited to succeed, he was forced to watched Ubaldo Jimenez screw it up.

Now, of course, using Britton there is no guarantee of success. Maybe Encarnacion hits a weak ground ball that rolls slow enough to allow Travis to race home before they can throw home. Maybe Britton throws a sinker in the dirt that Matt Wieters can’t block, and the Blue Jays win on a walkoff wild pitch. Or maybe Britton gets Encarnacion out, but then Jose Bautista gets a hit. Or maybe Britton gets out of it, and then the Orioles still don’t score, and then when Britton is finally relieved in the 13th, the Jays score against Dylan Bundy or whoever else they had left. Putting Britton in wasn’t some magical way to make sure the Orioles won the game.

But you couldn’t design a situation in which Britton’s skills were more necessary. Season on the line, a fly ball beats you, and the ground-balling-est pitcher who ever ground-balled sitting in your bullpen unused? The only way to explain that is if you’re just vehemently opposed to using your closer on the road in a tie game, in any case, under any scenario. And unfortunately for Buck Showalter, that ardent adherence to a misguided philosophy kept him from making an obvious call.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

This one is going to hurt for a while. Losing due to an inexplicable decision is so much harder to accept than simply being outplayed.

Spa City
7 years ago
Reply to  jdbolick

But winning that way is even more enjoyable than simply outplaying the other team. The opposing team’s fans aren’t just disappointed, they are crushed and outraged.

7 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

Found the guy that threw the beer can.

7 years ago
Reply to  themightyquinn

@themightyquinn: Well played, good sir! Well played, indeed!

If there was a Bud Light commercial for you, it would go something like: “Bud Light salutes you, Mr. right on time with the perfect line guy!”

7 years ago
Reply to  Dmitri

I would weep tears of joy if they resurrected that series just for varieties of FG commenters.

7 years ago
Reply to  jdbolick

I agree with this sentiment. Us Mets fans had about 3 or 4 such games a year ago, and I’m expecting more in the near future.