There are few things in baseball more frustrating than a blow lead, and the Yankees’ shaky bullpen has broken our hearts on more than one occasion this season. Joe Girardi generally does a pretty good job managing his bullpen, but there’s always a better way to deploy your best relievers.
Written by Rebecca of This Purist Bleeds Pinstripes and You Can’t Predict Baseball fame, this guest piece breaks down the concept of using your best reliever in the most important spot of the game for everyone who’s adverse to baseball’s statistical revolution.
Q: What is the leverage argument?
A: The leverage argument states that a manager should use his best pitcher at the game’s most critical points.
Q: So you mean, like, CC Sabathia should be pitching the ninth inning?
A: Well, no. A CC Sabathia who’s pitched eight other innings is probably not as sharp as a Mariano Rivera who hasn’t pitched any that day, and the ninth inning is not necessarily the most important part of the game.
Q: What do you mean the ninth inning isn’t the most important part of the game?
A: Well, in many games, a team will take a lead early in the game, in the first or second inning, and then lead and build on that throughout the game, so that by the eighth inning, they might be up by six runs, than say the one run they led by in the second.
Q: So then you’re saying Mariano Rivera should pitch the second inning?
A: Again, no. Unless your fifth starter is the April 2009 version of Chien Ming Wang, your starting pitcher is always going to be more valuable than the reliever. The leverage argument focuses primarily on what occurs after the starting pitcher has been removed from the game. This will, hopefully for your team, take place in the latter three innings, and not in the second or third inning, unless something’s gone horribly wrong.
Q: All right, hold up a sec and help me out here: how do you determine what the most important part of the game is?
A: Well, if you want to be technical about it, you can go and look at the WPA graphs on Fangraphs (they’re the graphs the RABbis post in the recap after every game with that line that goes ziggy zag zig wheee or zag zig zag oof, and the bars underneath, where the higher the bar, the more crucial that play was in that game).
However, if anything remotely math-y or graph-y rubs you the wrong way, the most important points of the game are pretty much any point in which the lead is in danger of changing from one team to the other. Like on Saturday, the Yankees had the bases loaded with no one out, that was a high leverage situation, because the likelihood that Toronto’s 2-0 lead would go bye-bye became much higher than it would be had the bases been empty and there been two out.
Really, most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell when it’s a high leverage situation–the crowd will get loud because their team is rallying or groan because Joba’s busy imploding again, for example.
That said, here’s the key thing, the thing so important that I’m bolding it: the importance of the ninth inning is nil if you can’t get through the eighth, and the eighth is not important if you can’t get through the seventh.
Q: Okay, I see your point, but you can’t have Mariano pitch the seventh, I mean, what about the saves?
A: Saves are a stupid stat. Did you know that in the game Texas won in 2007 30-3 against Baltimore, they got a save because the same guy, who wasn’t the starter, pitched the final three innings?
Q: But still! I mean, you can’t have Mariano pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth, the dude’s bloody forty years old!
A: Understood. I didn’t say the leverage argument wasn’t without risk. If the most critical point of the game happens in the seventh inning–like it did in Game 5 of the 2009 ALCS, then the leverage argument says you have Rivera pitch the seventh. It means that Joba or Robertson or pitcher X pitches the eighth and the ninth, but I revert back to the bolded statement above: the eighth and ninth won’t matter (as much) if you blow the lead in the seventh inning. The idea is that you get the lead, and keep it: walk offs and dramatic home runs are awesome and everything, but to be in that situation means that you’re relying on an awful lot of pure luck.
Q: Okay, so the Yankees are up 1-0 in the seventh in Game Seven of the World Series and the Dodgers are sending up Russell Martin, Blake DeWitt and Clayton Kershaw. The Yankees should go to Mo?
A: Well, not necessarily. Those three, right now, are the bottom of the Dodger lineup (and we presume this game is at Dodger Stadium). The situation is important, but if you’re winning 1-0, and it’s game seven, chances are CC is busy being CC and cruising. You know that in the eighth inning the Dodgers have Furcal, Eithier and Kemp due up (theoretically much better hitters than the bottom three), and thus that is perhaps more likely to be the more crucial situation.
That said, once Martin or DeWitt reach base, the complexion changes because then, barring ye olde GIDP, Furcal or Eithier will bat in that inning. That’s when you ring the phone and tell Mariano to start tossing.
Q: But what if DeWitt hits a home run?
A: It’s baseball, stuff happens. The leverage argument is about playing probabilities, and doing your best to use those probabilities to your advantage.
Q: That sounds much too much like sabermetrics.
A: Well, it is. That said, you don’t need statistics to tell you that Albert Pujols is more likely to hit Chan Ho(me run) Park than Mariano Rivera or that Chad Gaudin will probably find Juan Pierre and easier out than, say, Manny Ramirez.
Q: Okay, I get you, but this still seems really risky. What if Joe Girardi did go to Mariano in the eighth on Saturday and then Joba blew the lead in the ninth?
A: Alas, it’s one of the risks you’re going to run. That said, think about it like this: would you prefer to be tied 1-1 going into the ninth, or have a 1-0 lead going into the ninth?
The real point, here, however, is what happens when your team is on the road in extra innings. Most managers (still) won’t use their closer on the road in extras, saving them for save opportunities that may never actually materialize. Yet, us Yankee fans got lucky on the last Yankee road trip: two extra inning games preceding off days, Joe Girardi elected to use Mariano Rivera to pitch the bottom of the ninth, instead of other relievers he had at his disposal. The Yankees were lucky enough to score runs in the tenth inning both times, and because the off day allowed him to do so, Girardi went back to Mariano for the tenth inning.
The Yankees won both games.
Q: All right, you got me hooked. Where should I go?
A: Fangraphs and their WPA charts are my favorite, but you may also find Baseball Reference or the Leverage Indexes posted at The Hardball Time useful as well. Mind, these guys get very into it, actually calculating numbers to determine which situations (ie, how many men on base, how many out, the inning, etc) are more critical than others. It’s a baseball stat nerd’s dream, but you don’t need to get that complicated to understand the point.
Q: So what’s the point?
A: The ninth (or even the eighth) inning is not necessarily the most important inning of the game, and boxing in relievers as “the eighth inning guy” or “the closer” without allowing for an occasional adjustment as circumstances warrant can come back to bite you in the ass. Almost everything about a bullpen and the game of baseball is malleable; use it to your advantage.
Q: You’re still mad at Joba, aren’t you?