Zach Britton Watched the Orioles Lose

There is one article to be written about Tuesday’s American League wild card game, and that article will be written in 25,000 different places. I thank you for taking the time to read our own version. I can’t promise that it’s a different version from what’s likely to be already out there, but, see, that’s just the thing. There was a problem with how Tuesday played out for the Orioles, and everybody but perhaps the TBS broadcasters has been able to put their finger on it.

The Orioles lost, sure, and that’s the biggest problem. There’s no problem that affects them more. But the Orioles lost in extra innings. After Chris Tillman was removed, Buck Showalter cycled through six different relievers. Not one of those relievers was named Zach Britton, a closer who spent the year being so dominant he’s constructed a case for the Cy Young. The final pitch of the Orioles’ season was thrown by Ubaldo Jimenez. This is about what it looked like, and then it was time for them all to get packing.


I’m usually averse to being overtly critical, especially when it comes to matters managerial. The way I figure, they’re the ones in there, they’re the ones who tend to know best, and, who am I to say which decisions were wrong? The longer the Orioles played, the more curious it became that Britton didn’t appear, but I tried to give Showalter the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, I thought, Britton had had something happen. Showalter has helped build the Orioles into something successful in large part through his management of the bullpen. Something had to be up, right? Perhaps Britton was at least feeling under the weather?

No, it wasn’t that.

It wasn’t even anything weird. It was something that’s weird precisely because of how unusual it isn’t. Showalter repeatedly made the same decision managers have been making for decades. He didn’t want to use his closer in a tie game on the road. You could say it made some sense when he went to Mychal Givens. You could make some sort of case when he went to Brad Brach. You might even be able to defend, almost, going to Darren O’Day. But then Brian Duensing pitched, and then Ubaldo Jimenez pitched. Oh, I have a table for you.

2016 OPS Against
Pitcher OPS
Mychal Givens 0.664
Donnie Hart 0.519
Brad Brach 0.578
Darren O’Day 0.717
Brian Duensing 0.714
Ubaldo Jimenez 0.772
Zach Britton 0.430
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Point-four-three-zero. Do you know what a .430 OPS is? That’s how well Cardinals pitchers just hit. Mariano Rivera allowed a career OPS of .555. He finished one season below .430 — that would be 2008, when Rivera’s OPS against was .423. The difference between Britton and Rivera is nothing to do with performance level. It’s just about how long Rivera kept it up. Britton is no worse than Rivera at his prime, and, say, I seem to recall Rivera getting used non-traditionally an awful lot in October.

About that. I have to say a couple things. One, this is not without precedent. In the 2013 NLDS, Fredi Gonzalez famously opted for David Carpenter over an available Craig Kimbrel. That was in the bottom of the eighth, and Carpenter turned a 3-2 lead into a 4-3 deficit. Kimbrel didn’t pitch and the Braves lost the series. Even more relevantly, there was Game 4 of the 2003 World Series. The Yankees tied the Marlins at 3-3 in the ninth. Joe Torre subsequently called on Jose Contreras and Jeff Weaver, leaving Rivera in the pen. Weaver lost the game and the Yankees lost the Series. So, even Rivera lived this once. Showalter didn’t make literally the worst decision of all time.

And two, Buck Showalter didn’t lose the game for Baltimore. The players lost the game. The lineup had four hits in 11 innings. There’s no guarantee the Orioles would’ve won even had Britton been used. They made it through 10, after all, and Jimenez could’ve conceivably worked a scoreless frame or two. He’s had a good recent stretch. It’s important not to exaggerate the actual effects of managerial decisions. They can swing win expectancy, no question, but decisions like that don’t win or lose games. It’s almost all about the players, and the managers are peripheral.

But. To say the Orioles could’ve lost anyway doesn’t excuse Buck Showalter, because in a one-game playoff, you can’t afford to sacrifice any win expectancy, and that’s what he did. Even though he didn’t light the house on fire, he’s the one who stuffed every wall with oily rags. During the year, by our numbers, Zach Britton handled 17% of the Orioles’ high-leverage plate appearances. In the single most important game of their season, he handled 0%, as Showalter waited for a lead he never got.

This is a story that’s relevant in 2016, but this is also an article that could’ve been written in 2001. This is old-school sabermetrics, fundamental sabermetrics, Sabermetrics 101. It’s classic complaining about closer usage, but the complaints have never gone out of fashion. Analysts got some stuff wrong back in the day. Like, say, dramatically underrating defense. That was an oversight, but the closer-usage critiques were right on. Articles like this have been written for so long they’re hardly even interesting, the path being so well-trod. For some players, it’s important to have roles. In the playoffs, especially, those roles should go out the window. The best players should play the most. The best pitchers should make the biggest pitches. Rigidity is inefficiency.

Showalter would’ve preferred to use Britton with a lead. Well, of course. It made him uncomfortable to think about some other pitcher trying to potentially slam the door. But, you still have to get to the point where you can achieve a lead, and the Blue Jays needed but one run to finish the Orioles off. Showalter, say, didn’t love the idea of having to use Duensing or Jimenez or Tommy Hunter with a lead, if Britton had already been used. What makes a tie game any better? What makes a tie game any less stressful, when a pitcher has even less of a margin of error?

Zach Britton gave the Orioles the best chance for a scoreless inning or two. In a tied one-game playoff like this, you don’t put those innings off. You seize them when you can and worry about the later innings if you play them, because, possibly, the later innings won’t be played. Britton should’ve been used even earlier, but let’s say he works the 11th. If the Orioles score in the 12th, perhaps Britton can stay out there. No game tomorrow, after all. And even if not, odds are Britton could at least get the Orioles clean to the 13th. Britton could’ve bought the offense time, and even if it stayed quiet, that still manages to delay Duensing and Jimenez. There’s value in that alone. How far do you take it if you’re trying to save Britton for a potential lead? Do you put a position player on the mound when you’re out of other pitchers? Who had to be bad enough for Buck Showalter to give the ball to the single most dominant reliever of this baseball season?

Real quick, in case you’re curious:

Zach Britton as a Reliever
Save Situation 0.194 0.254 0.260 0.515
Non-Save Situation 0.167 0.223 0.227 0.450
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

That’s Britton over the last three years. Not only has he not been worse in non-save situations — he’s even been better. There was no reason to be concerned about how Britton might deal with a tie game. He’d deal with it the way he deals with any game. He’d go out there and throw Zach Britton-y pitches. Many of those pitches get hitters out.

The Orioles lost for so many reasons. Most visibly, aside from one swing by Mark Trumbo, they just didn’t hit. And maybe they were never going to. Jimenez pitched poorly in relief, after having had a pretty encouraging stretch that earned him some of Showalter’s trust. The Orioles team performed a little worse than the Blue Jays team, and when that happens, one team moves on while the other is eliminated. But baseball is incredibly hard. It’s impossibly hard. Players can’t will themselves to do better. They can’t improve their chances doing anything easily. Given how hard it is to play, then, all a roster should ask for is a manager who doesn’t reduce the chances of moving on by way of his own decisions. Some decisions are not so cut and dry. And Buck Showalter, more than almost anybody else, has shown he can usually get the most out of 25 guys. But Tuesday, Buck Showalter was faced with an easy choice. On more than one occasion, he ignored it, and the best reliever in baseball watched his team lose, like all of the rest of us did. Showalter made no use of his team’s biggest edge, and though that didn’t directly cause the loss, that doesn’t make it any more forgivable.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

I can’t recall a managerial decision so bad that the word ‘indefensible’ can be used literally. Until tonight. I’m 32 years old.

This thing was the Mona Lisa of bad decisions by a manager.

Neils-Henning Orsted Joc Pederson
6 years ago
Reply to  ashlandateam

The Grady Little Debacle was worse.
In Pedro’s final 2/3 of an inning, he allowed 7 hits to 9 batters, including a homer, three doubles, and three singles. Four runs scored. Game went to extras.
Waiting to relieve him were Embree, Timlin, and Williamson. To that point in the playoffs the trio had combined for — are you bracing yourself against something? — 23 innings and ONE run. They’d allowed just 8 hits and 5 walks while fanning 26 men.
But Grady stuck with Pedro, who by the way had allowed hitters to bat .298 after pitch #100 during the regular season. Little left him in for 123 offerings.
And this as you probably remember was Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series. You know, when the Carmines were trying to win their first Series since God spoke to Moses.
The only bigger blunder in playoff history belonged to Don Denkinger.

6 years ago

But Pedro’s still Pedro. That doesn’t make it a good decision, but just in terms of narrative, leaving Pedro in the game is a lot more defensible than having Ubaldo Jimemez pitch before Britton.

OddBall Herrera
6 years ago
Reply to  Jon

I think the problem with Grady Little was that Pedro’s struggles after exceeding 100 pitches were so documented and foreseeable – I mean, I remember watching the game and the broadcast was talking about it even as Little was making the decision to leave him in – that Pedro’s giving up those runs, while not inevitable, felt like it was after the fact.

6 years ago

An upvote for your username.

6 years ago

At least in Grady Little’s case, as with many cases like this, there was possibly something he knew that the public didn’t. There’s an argument for tiring Pedro being better than Embree/Timlin/Williamson (who weren’t all that great during the regular season), even if it’s not a great argument.

There’s no argument for not putting Britton in. Unless you think Britton is a worse pitcher than all the guys the Orioles put out there after the 8th, there is no defense. It was mathematically the wrong move. The badness of Showalter’s decision lay not in the gravity of the mistake, but in how utterly wrong it was.

Rufus T. Fireflymember
6 years ago

And one of the most encouraging moments of my 30 years of Red Sox fandom was when Theo fired Grady Freaking Little very soon thereafter. (Heywood Sullivan or Lou Gorman would have let him have another crack at this managing thing.) Orioles fans must have been screaming at their TV’s just as I was that night in’03. My sympathies.

Deacon Drakemember
6 years ago

Disagree… Little made a “bad read” on the situation. Pedro had been pitching very well up until that mound visit, and few managers would have had the guts to silence their first ballot caliber pitcher and send him packing, than to trust him to make one more pitch to get out of the jam.

And none of those relievers mentioned were close to the talent or performance level of Britton.

Neils-Henning Orsted Joc Pederson
6 years ago
Reply to  Deacon Drake

Pedro was getting hammered, batter after batter. He was exhausted, and putting the ball on a tee, over and over. Even foul balls were being crushed. He was at 120+ pitches with 5 outs still to get. There was zero chance he would complete the game — so you go to the untouchable trio while you still have a lead.
I get the impression that some commenters here did not in fact watch the game, or were understandably far, far too traumatized to now recall it accurately. Here’s a link:

6 years ago

or maybe you’re so fixated on the thing that you said that you won’t look at facts?

Jimenez is worse than Pedro (both of them were hit hard, but only one of them is or will ever be in the HoF)
Britton is much better than Embree, Timlin, Williamson (i mean, what?)

Then there’s the whole extra innings, season-ending run on 3rd part? And also the fact that Britton has an 80% GB rate and a DP was available.

6 years ago

At least with the Grady situation, you could argue that emotions got the best of him. He wanted to BELIEVE that the best pitcher he’d ever seen would be able to dig deep and get those last few outs. Time and again in history, managers have made decisions that went against he book because of a gut feeling or simply a desire for a magical moment. Sometimes it has worked, sometimes it has backfired.

But Buck’s decision wasn’t emotional. It was calculated. He truly believed that Ubaldo was a better choice there. And that’s why it’s hard to defend.

david k
6 years ago
Reply to  Tim418

See: Collins, Terry, 2015 World Series, deciding whether to leave Matt Harvey in the game.

6 years ago

As a general rule, ‘went with my best pitcher too long’ is a less grievous error than, ‘didn’t use my best pitcher at all.’ I think. Which isn’t to say Grady was good that night, but is to say I think last night was worse.

6 years ago

This was clearly not as indefensible, and using 23 innings (among 3 pitchers) is ridiculous evidence to present on an analytics-focused website. I can’t believe how many plus-ones this has.