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.
Britton warmed up three different times, but was never used. You could tell there was major frustration there. On his part & teammates’
— Dan Connolly (@danconnolly2016) October 5, 2016
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.
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:
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.