That closer mentality

Yanks, Sabathia in seventh heaven
2009 Draft: Notes & Thoughts

One of my baseball pet peeves right now is bullpen use. While Joe Girardi has often been the target of my ire, this disease infects Major League managers everywhere, and as Joe noted to me earlier this week, Girardi isn’t doing anything another manager wouldn’t be doing.

The issue is this: If a team has a small lead in the 8th and their opponents’ 3-4-5 hitters are due up, I believe a team should use its best reliever in that spot. Generally, that would mean turning to the closer. The closer would then probably not pitch the 9th and not receive a save in the box score. Managers, however, are loath to follow this path. Some deploy their closers for saves longer than three outs, but many turn to the set-up men to get through the 8th regardless of who that lesser reliever has to face.

From a pure leverage situation, my method, the one post-save-rule baseball traditionalists object to, seems like a sounder strategy. After all, if the lesser relievers give up the lead to the heart of the order, the best reliever can’t make it into the game, and as Yankee fans saw after Jeff Weaver’s 2003 World Series appearance, it hurts to lose without using the team’s best bullpen weapon.

Earlier this week, I got to see some of my theory play itself out in a rather unorthodox way. After three very close games against the Twins, the Yankees did not have Mariano Rivera available when a save situation presented itself. With Brian Bruney still shelved, Joe Girardi turned to Phil Coke to get his first Major League save.

With a two-run run lead and the Twins’ 5-6-7 hitters due up, Coke should have been able to breeze through the 9th. He couldn’t. He gave up a run on two walks, and it took a visit from his manager and two from his catcher to get him through the inning.

After the game, Coke spoke with Marc Carig about pitching in a high-pressure situation in the 9th. “I was trying to play mind games with myself rather than think ‘oh God, where’s Enter Sandman?'” Coke said. “It just seemed like everything was way more amplified.”

Carig’s piece goes more in-depth about what the reporter calls Coke’s harrowing 9th inning experience. By the end of the game, an exhausted Coke had one phrase to sum up his night as the Yanks’ closer. “I’m completely and totally gassed,” he said.

So maybe Coke’s experience should teach me something about the bullpen. Maybe there is something to that closer mentality and having a bullpen with set roles. Maybe Coke is more focused and less bothered by the pressure in the 7th and 8th innings, and maybe he wouldn’t handle the 9th inning with the grace and aplomb of Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner or the emotional and demonstrative approaches of Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez. Or maybe he’s just more cerebral and concerned about his role than the vast majority of other relievers.

Much like the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I didn’t believe in Closer Mentality before reading this piece. After all, it’s just another inning with three outs to it. But if the players believe it and live it out through adrenaline and nerves, maybe those of us watching and analyzing the games should too.

Yanks, Sabathia in seventh heaven
2009 Draft: Notes & Thoughts
  • Mike Pop

    Much like the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I didn’t believe

    You better hope T-Dizzle doesn’t read this post.

  • Whizzo The Wize

    Statistical metrics + eyeballs + a bit of psychology = well rounded baseball analysis.

    And coke is right, Mo is amazing. Not for all the success he;s had through just one pitch, but for all the success he’s had *despite* some of the biggest loses over the last decade (Cle ’97, AZ ’01, Bos ’04). Mo puts all that behind him and just throws bb’s. His mental makeup impresses Whizzo far more than his absolutely stellar cutter.

  • Will

    There are lots of examples to go around, but Coke’s comments definitely illustrate the point well. Undoubtedly, there is something “special” to being able to pitch in the ninth inning. Leverage is definitely a sound concept, but ultimately, the psychology of the 9th inning has to be factored in as well.

    Similarly, I think the same psychological elements play into “clutch” hitting, although I think there are several mitigating factors that render the effect much, much smaller. For starters, clutch opportunities are essentially random, whereas a closing situation is spelled out in advance. Secondly, hitters are used to being in clutch situations, whereas non-closers seldom have the opportunity. In addition, failure by a hitter in a clutch situation is more acceptable because of the nature of offense in baseball (i.e., failure at a much greater rate than success), while blowing a save is as high profile and unacceptable a form of failure as there is in the game (giving up 2 runs in 1 inning is an ERA of 18.00!).

    If a bullpen was stocked with pitchers with 9th inning experience, then you could probably go with a committee approach. That’s hard to develop though because there are only so many 9th inning chances, and such a high profile part of the game is hardly the time to hold auditions.

    In summary, the moral of the story is Mariano Rivera is awesome.

    • Linnea

      IAWTC

      That’s the moral of every story.

  • Some call me…tim

    Fan-frickin-tastic post.

    And +1 for using ‘aplomb’ in a baseball blog.

  • Ed

    If you’ve got the media hounding you every day about the importance of the 9th inning and how tough it is, I could see how the idea would seep into your mind, even if you wouldn’t have thought of it on your own.

    I mean, look at what the media has done to the 8th inning in the eyes of the fans over the past two years.

    • Whizzo The Wize

      Who will embiggen the forgotten 4th inning?

      Whizzo hopes it’s some cromulent newsie.

    • kunaldo

      exactly ed. exactly.

  • A.D.

    I think the mentality comes from the buildup & scrutiny that is the 9th inning, it just seems losses in the 9th are less acceptable than losses in the 4th.

  • Stryker

    i think it was good for coke to get through that 9th inning. i feel like it toughens him up a bit; if he ever, for some reason, has to do it again he at least has 1 instance under his belt.

  • kunaldo

    bah humbug…this “9th inning pressure” is contrived…first, are we to believe that he was really feeling the nerves of the 9th inning save, or was he just being a non-elite reliever and in turn using the save situation as an excuse to his mediocrity?

    if there were no save rule, there would be none of this supposed “pressure” to get the final 3 outs against Cuddyer, Gomez, and Punto. I understand that emotion is part of the game, but this whole idea is just silly to me, and is basically all Tony LaRussa’s fault. Bastard.

    • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

      What he said.

    • Arman Tamzarian

      I’m inclined to agree, this reminds me of the debate around Arod’s early game homers. Where I disagree is that, groups can create norms for themselves. In baseball there is “pressure” in the 9th, regardless of who is at bat. Somehow this differs from the pressure of pitching to the 3-4-5 guys in the 7th or 8th. It’s all a mind game, as Coke said. The ability to create a situation in one’s mind makes it just as real, as whether it is actually there. It’s BS to me, but if these guys believe it, it makes it real for them.

      • kunaldo

        yeah, i mean the mind games are media/save stat created…you know what the fans feel? when our mediocre relievers are in a close game in the 7th or 8th(with bruney out, of course), and the game is hanging in the balance? THOSE are pressure situations.

      • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

        That’s a real good way of putting it. I think baseball players have a real self-fulfilling prophecy complex. “Well if they say the ninth inning is so big, it must be.”

        As for A-Rod’s early game homer yesterday, it essentially won the Yankees the game. Before his homer, they had a 46% chance of winning. Directly after it: 66.3%.

    • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

      I respectfully disagree.

      In general, I’ll trust numbers over subjectivity. But I do think that the pressure of the 9th inning is, for whatever reason, real. As long as I can remember, some guys just couldn’t hack it. I remember Ron Davis being an elite set-up guy who didn’t thrive in the closer role. I do think that, again, for whatever reason, there is a real pressure in getting those last three outs, and some guys handle it better than others.

      Ben’s last line sums it up:

      “But if the players believe it and live it out through adrenaline and nerves, maybe those us watching and analyzing the games should too.”

      • AlexNYC

        The same exact thing happens to the 8th inning guy on the Angels.

  • AndrewYF

    I bet you Bruney has that ‘closer mentality’, and would be more than capable of pitching the ninth inning. Do you support the theory if there is another bullpen guy capable of being a closer?

    • kunaldo

      I support the idea that we have another reliever that can get outs on a consistent basis without letting too many baserunners on regardless of the situation, yes.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

      Oh yes, I do. Some of this may just be Phil Coke’s personality.

      • A.D.

        Or just his inexperience, after all he hasn’t even been a reliever for very long.

        • Stryker

          i’m more inclined to chalk this up to inexperience and not coke’s personality.

          • http://pinstripealley.com Edwantsacracker

            This conversation reminds me of a debate I had with a Red Sox fan. That season, for whatever reason, David Ortiz actually could hit homers, and was doing it in the ninth inning with the game on the line regularly.

            My argument then, and now, is that there is noone who is better in the ninth inning than any other inning. David Ortiz or Mariano Rivera doesn’t pitch better because they know their team means it.

            There are some people however, who are basketcases. So the people who are often labeled as clutch are people who can treat the ninth inning just like any other opinion and not get too amped up or scared.

  • Chofo

    I would love to see the best pitcher when the game is on the line, even if that means using your closer in the 7th, 8th or 9th. But almost every player and manager that do this for living agrees that the 9th is tougher than any other inning, and they know more than us. Maybe is because managers use special strategies (pinch hitters or runners, bunt, steal, guarding the lines or no doubles outfield) or because the pressure or fear of loosing (the frustration of giving up a lead in the 9th is not the same as giving it up in the 7th), or the human nature that reacts diffently when knowing is your last chance

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      But almost every player and manager that do this for living agrees that the 9th is tougher than any other inning…

      Pavlov rings bell, dogs mouths water.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_conditioning

  • Will

    Alot of people have presented valid arguments for why the 9th inning “shouldn’t” hold more pressure than the previous innings, but it sure seems as if it does. The 9th inning is basically a deadline, and it seems as if human nature is adverse to such constraints. Great closers are basically talented relievers capable of doing some of their best work on deadline.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

      As a guy who does freelance work at the last possible second, I absolutely love the deadline analogy.

      • kunaldo

        This would make sense if the game was timed though, like in basketball. Guys like Kobe Bryant ARE closers. Baseball, however, is a game of outs. And outs in the 9th inning, everything else equal, are the same as outs in the 1st inning. Maybe these guys are created an unnecessary feeling of a deadline approaching, but then they’re just being foolish. B/c they can take their sweet ol’ time.

        • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

          kunaldos, your statement that outs are the same in the 1st and 9th innings is objectively true.

          But life is not always objective. Players are people. And when it’s the 9th inning, the stadium feels different. The crowd is suddenly engaged (home or road). The whole situation has trappings the 4th inning doesn’t have.

          And while you reject it, the deadline analogy really is perfect. The losing team has only three outs separating them from defeat, and the winning team has only those three outs standing between them and victory.

          The human beings who play the game will feel those factors, and I think some guys are better suited to perform in those situations than others.

          • LiveFromNewYork

            It’s also a matter of pouring yourself into it for 8 innings and certain things happen that make it “getting away from you” a shame.

            If it’s a blowout then the outs don’t matter that much. If the team is playing poorly or it’s just one of those nights where nothing is coming together, then it might not matter…but if it’s a night where the team is playing well together and certain guys (ie bottom of the order) really stepped up or someone had their first something or a record breaking something, it’s good to go out with a W. In the first none of that has happened yet so it might not matter. You don’t know what the game is shaping up to be.

            But by the 9th the game has a personality, it has a flavor and there are some you don’t want to let out of your reach. Sometimes it’s just another game, sometimes a lost cause or you really want this one.

            When you really want this one, it matters. And though there are “we really need to win this one” in the first inning, most “we really want this one”‘s don’t happen til the later innings.

            • Arman Tamzarian

              “If it’s a blowout then the outs don’t matter that much. If the team is playing poorly or it’s just one of those nights where nothing is coming together, then it might not matter”

              Doesn’t this support the notion that the pressure in the 9th is perceived. That the pressure can come from any inning, where the games is perceived to be “on the line”. In this analogy the game could have been saved from being a blow out in the second inning, by bringing in Rivera to keep the score close. The game didn’t have to become a blow out if you used your best pitchers where the need is greatest.

              • UWS

                It doesn’t matter whether the pressure is perceived or real to us (the fans). If the players believe it, that makes it real to them, and that’s really all that matters.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                  But it does matter, because if we artificially created the concept that the 9th inning is more pressure packed, we can similarly demolish than concept and create a more appropriate one in its place.

                • Arman Tamzarian

                  I agree and I said as much earlier, I’m arguing sound strategy, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I allow a rational RAB reader to buy into ridiculous baseball group think. Hurumph!

                • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

                  tsjc, you are a powerful man. That has been demonstrated on RAB time and time again. Apparently, you won a fantasy football league, even though you never mentioned it much here …

                  But you do not have the power to tell human being baseball players, “Be less nervous in the 9th inning.”

                • LiveFromNewYork

                  I was at a Yankee/Red Sox game when Mo loaded the bases in the 9th. It’s true that the entire fan base, both Yankee and RS fans, just sat there looking bored.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                  But you do not have the power to tell human being baseball players, “Be less nervous in the 9th inning.”

                  You’re right.

                  What I do have the power to do is to tell them that “While the 9th inning makes you nervous, it shouldn’t be be be-all end-all to your manager’s baseball strategy. While it seems like the game is decided there, it’s often not. So, while I understand your nervous energy, your manager should employ his best pitcher wherever the situation dictates, and if that means the 9th inning instead falls to you, Mr. Inferior Bullpen Pitcher, try your best to calm your understandably shaken nerves with the knowledge that the hardest part has already been accomplished and statistically speaking, you stand an excellent chance of making it out of this inning without surrendering the lead.”

                • kunaldo

                  well said tsjc.

    • Mike HC

      I agree with the deadline mentality as well. The key is to forgot that the article/paper is due in X amount of time, and to do just do the necessary work. If you constantly focus on the fact that time is running out, you will get nothing done. It is a skill to block out the consequences of not getting the job done with time running out, and to just do it.

  • Chris

    The other thing to remember is that this was Coke’s 30th game in the majors and his first chance to close. Give him a few more opportunities to close, and I’m sure the nerves would go down and he’d be just as comfortable in that role as he is pitching the 8th.

    • Will

      That’s undoubtedly true, but the 9th inning is a hard place for on the job training. Someone like Coke might eventually grow into the role, but then again, he might not. The high profile status of the 9th inning makes it a less than ideal time for finding out.

    • Zack

      “Give him a few more opportunities to close”

      Mo and Bruney will have to be ‘unavailable’ before that happens, and lets pray we never have that situation

  • LiveFromNewYork

    It has often been said that Mo has icewater in his veins. He is one person who performs BETTER with the game on the line. We all know that Mo in non-saves is not quite the same hunker down and do it Mo in save situations.

    But I also think it’s more than that. I think he also knows how to handle a crushing blow graciously. It has been commented over and over again how he answered questions after Game 7 of the 2001 series and how he didn’t stop answering until there were no more questions left. To be grounded like that in high pressure situations, to be gracious in both winning and losing a big one, is a difficult task for most people let alone pitchers.

  • LiveFromNewYork

    I think Coke has like half-surfer mentality. Dude, surf is SO up!

  • http://www.penbaynetworks.com/ mcmanus

    I think lack-of-experience is a more compelling explanation for Coke’s emotions than anything else. The rules are the same in the ninth, the stakes just a little higher.

    I think you ought to use your best pitcher to get the most important outs. How can that possibly be controversial? The opposing manager wouldn’t keep his best pinch hitter on the bench (say down by one, with 2 men on and 2 out) in the 7th just because “we’re saving sluggo for the ninth”.

    I’m always amazed in baseball when players and managers cede their greatest advantages due to some aged baseball contrivance.. “wasting” an 0-2 pitch, “taking all the way” a 3-0 fastball, leaving your best pitcher on the bench with the game on the line, or ever taking Johan Santana out of the game for anybody except k-rod :)

  • http://theyankeeuniverse.com Moshe Mandel

    In terms of psychology, this is a very basic concept. Think about it: When watching the game as a fan, when are you more nervous? There is no reason that players should feel differently. There is a certain finality to pitching in the 9th. If you blow the game then, there is little time for the team to recover.

    • whozat

      I certainly buy that pressure exists, and that people respond to it differently. I also agree that there are people who get in their own way and psych themselves out. I _also_ agree that it takes a special something to be a generational closer like Mo and be able to put failure behind you with such grace.

      That said, I think using the experience of a rookie closing his first MLB game (his only save outside of the sally league) as evidence of the necessity of a closer mentality is a bit specious. I mean, I believe in the pressure…but I think that the set of guys who can handle that pressure well enough to close big league games is a bigger than the media would often have us believe.

      • http://theyankeeuniverse.com Moshe Mandel

        That’s a very fair statement. I have no problem saying that there is more pressure in the 9th, but that there are plenty of pitchers who can handle it. However, I think that as fans, it is very hard for us to make judgements on this kind of stuff, one way or another. If everybody who plays the game seems to think that closing takes a special skill and chemistry does matter to teams, who am I to dispute that when we are really talking about the psychology of the game? Meaning, if people in the game believe things that fly in the face of objective fact, I can argue with that and call them stupid all I want. But when talking about the psychology of the game and the clubhouse, I think that fans come to the debate with a distinct disadvantage of clearly not being in the clubhouse and not having the relevant information.

  • http://www.writingthepine.com SweeterThanJeter

    what do you guys think about this piece on Mark Teixeira?

    • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

      It’s a bit light on content.

    • LiveFromNewYork

      You might want to provide a link to it in a post about him or hitting. This one is about closers. I’m not trying to be a dink but your points will get more traction when they’re on topic.

  • Mike HC

    This was one of my favorite RAB posts thus far. All the new age stats are great. There is much value in all of them, but I think it is dangerous to forget that there is a human element involved that cannot be quantified. RAB is maybe the foremost Yankee stat centered blog that I know of, and I’m happy to see that they can at least recognize the game is “maybe” about more than just analyzing all kinds of statistical formulas.

    Just because the 9th inning has added pressure, does not take away from the fact that every inning in Major League Baseball has a ton of pressure associated with it. But there is added pressure when there is nobody left to bail you out, you either win the game here, or you blow it. And if you blow it, the perception is nothing else in the game matters or is talked about; the loss is all on you. If you cleanly save the game, the perception is that the A-Rod, Teix, Jeter, Damon etc… homers/hits were the reason … or the CC/AJ/Joba dominance was the reason. And as you guys all know, perception is everything.

    • whozat

      RAB is maybe the foremost Yankee stat centered blog that I know of, and I’m happy to see that they can at least recognize the game is “maybe” about more than just analyzing all kinds of statistical formulas.

      That’s unfair hyperbole. No one here refutes that there is a human element to the game. It’s that it gets blown way, WAY out of proportion by people who need there to be a narrative and a story to everything.

      • Mike HC

        I think it is fair considering Ben analogized 9th inning pressure to “the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.”

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          He didn’t analogize “9th inning pressure) to imaginary and fanciful concepts.

          He analogized “The Closer Mentality” to imaginary and fanciful concepts. And that’s an important difference.

          I don’t think it’s false that there’s any increased pressure to pitching in the 9th inning. I do think it’s false that the 9th inning is some unbearable crucible of pressure that only the best of the best can ever possibly handle. I think 9th inning pressure is real. I think the immutable caricature of the all-important “Closer Mentality” is hyperbolic sentimentality that totally oversteps its bounds.

          He’s not denying the goodwill and charity of the Christmas Spirit, a real and demonstrable human emotion. He is denying the personification of that real and demonstrable human emotion in the created imaginary character of Santa Claus.

          • Mike HC

            so you are saying that Ben did not believe that some people perform better under pressure than others? I don’t think he was saying that. I think he was saying that the idea of added pressure affecting a reliever in the 9th inning, rather than the 8th, is fantasy; that all outs are created equally and it is more important for the best reliever to face the 3,4,5 in the 8th, rather than him start the 9th against the 7,8,9. It is rather undisputable that some people fold under pressure, while others thrive. It is the idea that there is added pressure in the 9th that is being debated.

          • Mike HC

            “He’s not denying the goodwill and charity of the Christmas Spirit, a real and demonstrable human emotion. He is denying the personification of that real and demonstrable human emotion in the created imaginary character of Santa Claus.”

            huh??? you lost me here …

            • LiveFromNewYork

              There is such a thing as Christmas Spirit. There is no such thing as Santa Claus.

              • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                Precisely.

                The emotion of nervousness in the 9th inning is real. The artificial construct of the mythological “Closer’s Mentality” is a narrative we have created that his dubious and most likely false.

              • Mike HC

                The analogy makes little sense. Christmas has nothing to do with pressure or how Santa handles the Christmas spirit better than other people. Santa is the mascot of Christmas. If anything, Christmas furthers the argument that people react differently in the same situations. Even Christmas spirit is handled differently by people. Based on past experiences, some people get really joyous and upbeat during Christmas time, and others fall apart and get really depressed. It is the idea that Christmas/Closing is a heightened emotional time, and people handle those emotions quite differently.

                And this post and my response is the reason I have got to stop commenting on these articles. I love the articles, but these blog debates are ridiculous. They are addicting, but I am done.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

                  You’re taking my analogy WAAAAAAAY too literally.

                  In fact, you were always taking the analogy (Ben’s original analogy) too literally.

  • Mike R. – Retire 21

    The pressure of the 9th inning is in it’s finality. I find it funny that the same people that say “Don’t panic! It’s only (insert month here)” don’t understand that the 9th inning is more stressful. The logic is the same. There is more time to recover from a mistake in April/6th inning than one in September/9th inning.

    • http://mantisfists.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/julius-carry-aka-shonuff.jpg The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      “I find it funny that the same people that say ‘Don’t panic! It’s only (insert month here)’ don’t understand that the 9th inning is more stressful. The logic is the same.”

      But the people you’re referring to (who you use a straw-man argument against, but that’s besides the point) DO understand that the 9th inning is perceived as more stressful, they just wish that perception wasn’t so pervasive and that managers would use their best reliever in the highest leverage situations.

      I don’t think anyone is arguing that players don’t think the ninth inning is more stressful for them, that’s a tough argument to make. If the players say it is, then it is, and that’s that.

      • A.D.

        Just an aside, you must type “straw-man” more than anyone here.

        And exactly the idea is use your best reliever when the game is most on the line, which easily could be the 3-4-5 coming up in the 8th. Then its not throw some scrub in the 9th, but whomever you would have pitch the 8th.

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          Mondesi : “straw-man” :: jsbrendog : OAKTAG

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      Here’s the rub, though:

      I will agree with you that the 9th inning is more prone to pressurized situations than the 8th, and the 8th more than the 7th, and so on, precisely because, as you say, the margin for error decreases because there are fewer remaining outs in the game with which to change the outcome.

      However, simply by saying that the 9th inning is more “stressful” or “pressurized” than the 8th does not mean that it is inflexibly the soundest strategy to use your best bullpen pitcher in the ninth inning. There’s a counterbalancing in play here. It may by psychologically harder to pitch well in the 9th inning than in the 7th or 8th inning, but the actual game is often at it’s greatest risk of being won or lost in the 7th or 8th innings as opposed to the 9th, and this is due to the random ordering of events that determine when the team’s most dangerous hitters come to the plate.

      There are two competing objectives: use your best bullpen pitcher to get the last three outs because they’re the most stressful, and use your best bullpen pitcher to face the most challenging hitters in the most dangerous situation. A great majority of the time, these two objectives will overlap, but often they don’t, and when they don’t, the latter strategy of using your best bullpen pitcher to face the other team’s best hitters when the opposition stands the best chance of scoring a run should take priority.

      In order to elevate the importance of that situation in the consciousness of the baseball world, we’re going to have to begin demystifying the undeniably real, but considerably overstated, importance of the 9th inning.

      • Mike HC

        The idea of using your best reliever in high leverage situations is really not a new idea. That was actually the thought process of baseball people before “the save” became so important. Rather than call your best reliever “the closer,” they were called “the fireman.” The game has evolved into the idea that your best reliever should pitch the 9th, rather than come into 6th inning with bases loaded and the cleanup hitter up. It is debatable which situation has more pressure though. Is it that 6th inning with the bases loaded, or is it starting the 9th with a clean slate? Maybe the game will one day go back to “the fireman.”

        • LiveFromNewYork

          Goose Gossage has talked about the evolution of relievers since he typically pitched at least a couple of innings and starters were expected to pitch 7. I’ve watched a bunch of Guidry/Gossage games on YES and there didn’t seem to be a lot of questions about who is coming in when. Gator went 7 and then Goose pitched 8 and 9. Even if one was struggling that seemed to be the way it was (I know my sample is skewed. I just like watching Guidry games and Goose seemed to be his closer a lot of the time).

          The middle relievers came when? I don’t really know. Maybe one of our historians can talk about it.

      • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

        I think, tsjc, that there is some merit to the argument that you use your best reliever (usually the closer) when you need him, not automatically the 9th. So, as the example has been laid out, if the other team’s 3-4-5 hitters are up in the 8th, it might make sense to bring the closer in there.

        But, if you adopt that without realizing that there is an added pressure in the 9th inning, even against the “lowly” 6-7-8 hitters, and you go in with the premise, “It’s just another inning, we can put anyone in there,” then I think the closer-in-the-8th theory runs into trouble.

        So, if you have a bullpen of 1999-vintage Mo, Nelson, and Stanton, you might be able to bring Mo in in the 8th, because you know that Stanton (but probably not Nelson) wouldn’t be affected by the 9th inning pressure (I refuse to use closer’s mentality, since it’s so toxic here). But if your bullpen is last week’s Mo-Coke-pray a lot even if you’re an atheist, then I don’t buy the “every inning is the same” argument.

        You can’t just say players “shouldn’t” care if it’s the 9th. They do. The stadium feels different in the 9th than it does in the 6th. And even you can’t change that.

        • whozat

          But, if you adopt that without realizing that there is an added pressure in the 9th inning, even against the “lowly” 6-7-8 hitters, and you go in with the premise, “It’s just another inning, we can put anyone in there,” then I think the closer-in-the-8th theory runs into trouble.

          Read the comment. That’s not what TSJC said. He said this:

          There’s a counterbalancing in play here. It may by psychologically harder to pitch well in the 9th inning than in the 7th or 8th inning, but the actual game is often at it’s greatest risk of being won or lost in the 7th or 8th innings as opposed to the 9th

          There IS added pressure in the ninth. We get that. Even if maybe there shouldn’t be, it’s psychological, so there is that pressure. Yes. We understand.

          HOWEVER

          The game may ACTUALLY be at greater risk in the 8th. And so you need to balance these two things when deploying your resources.

          • whozat

            And, I’ve botched my HTML. Crap. TSJC only said that first paragraph of stuff.

            • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

              Thank you, whozat, and you’re correct.

              Celerino, I’m not saying the 9th inning should feel the same as every other inning. It’s more stressful, and I agree with that, and I totally get why it would be.

              I’m saying the pendulum has swung too far. Yes, the 9th is stressful, but we’ve made it TOO stressful and overdramatized its actual stress levels by crafting these narratives of “closers” and “8th inning setup men”.

              The beast exists, but instead of taking the rational act of caging it up and starving it, we’ve instead let it out of it’s cage and we’re feeding it blood. Our emotions tell us it’s way more important. Logic tells us it’s actually a bit less important. We should meld the two and realize we’ve been needlessly inflaming as opposed to rationally analyzing.

  • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Aunt Becca-Optimist Prime

    Great post.

  • Mike R. – Retire 21

    I am in total agreement with you. It is sound logic to use your best reliever, normally your closer, in the highest leverage situation (not always the ninth), but it takes serious cojones to be an innovator and more so in NY because the media believes that the success or failure of a decision should be measured with results. If Girardi makes the smart choice based on logic and statistical evidence and it fails it will be a “stupid decision” according to the press.

    I just don’t think Girardi has the standing to try something like that.

    • Mike HC

      “the media believes that the success or failure of a decision should be measured with results”

      haha … and how do you believe the success or failure of a decision should be measured???

      I mean, even if all the numbers back up a certain decision, and it still does not work, then it is a failure. I’m not sure how else you are supposed to look at it.

      • Mike R. – Retire 21

        If you make 4 lefts and get to your house it was a success. That doesn’t mean it was the right choice. The right choice would be going straight.

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

          When good process ends up with good results, that’s easy to identify. When bad process ends up with bad results, it’s also readily apparent.

          Sometimes good process still ends up with bad results, and sometimes bad process still ends up with good results. That’s what Mike is talking about. Sometimes people do everything right and still lose. Sometimes people do everything wrong and still win.

          It’s too inflexible to draw concrete inference from nothing but results without attempting to explore the processes at work behind those results, because while results and process have a high correlation, it’s not an absolute perfect correlation. That’s what Retire 21 is saying.

  • Just Asking

    IMO there’s a simple way to determine whether the current use of the ninth inning, one-inning closer is optimal (or whatever the correct term is for a strategy that dominates other known strategies, whether optimal or not).

    Have teams over the last ten years have blown more or fewer leads, or about the same number of leads, in the ninth inning (holding constant the size of lead) than in the decade of the 70’s (before the current Eckersley-model closer was invented, but when the idea of an annointed closer/fireman was around, even though that closer/fireman might work 2 or 3 innings), or in the decade of the fifties, before the idea of an everyday closer/fireman was established? Or pick your own time periods if you like.

    If teams today blow fewer leads, then I guess the Eckersley model is an improvement. If they blow the same number or more, then I guess it’s not.

    This research must have been done – does anyone know?

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      No, that’s still a fallacy of the undistributed middle.

      You’re saying there’s two models: The 2-3 inning, single closer model, or the current 7th inning guy-8th inning guy-9th inning guy current model.

      What we’ve been advocating for is a new “fireman” model: rather than relying either on one guy to pitch 2-3 innings, or relying on three guys to pitch one inning a piece with predetermined roles and a staggered hierarchy, modify the latter (current) approach to use three guys with the flexibility of using the best guy in the most important, game critical situation. If that situation is the 9th, it’s the 9th. If it’s the 7th, it’s the 7th.

      There’s not really a data set on this third concept yet, because nobody has really employed it with any modicum of regularity.

      • Just Asking

        I think that model is somewhat similar to what teams used to do before the “modern closer” era. They brought their best reliever into a tight game when they thought it most useful to do so.

        The difference was that teams would then tend to leave that reliever in to finish out the game, if he could, whereas you are advocating sticking with the one-inning (or approximately one inning) model, just at a more highly-leveraged point in the game than the ninth inning?

  • Tony

    Ideally you have both a closer who can handle the rigors of closing out a game & a fireman who can be a goose gossage type & handle the high leverage situations that come up in the 6th, 7th & 8th.

    This way you have set roles that players can mentally prepare for & you have the right players to execute them. In my ideal world you would pay the closer & fireman similiar $$ amts.

    Good piece Ben

    • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

      I wish the fireman would make a comeback. I think guys like Aceves and Coke could probably do that role very well.

  • LiveFromNewYork

    This has been one of the most provocative and enjoyable posts on RAB. Nice job Ben.