Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Choker by Committee

Sabermetricians can use line drive rates, zone ratings and a myriad of other statistics to predict a player or team's future results or explain the past performances. While the analysis between the foul lines has become more and more advanced, there is still one frontier that no expert has yet to crack: the analysis between the ears of a relief pitcher. Forget Bill James, Rob Neyer and Nate Silver: we need to call in Dr. Phil.

The concept of a closer by committee seems extremely logical. Why not use your best pitcher in the highest leverage situations? Why not match up a team's lineup with a righty or lefty specialist, even if its the ninth inning? Why have a pitcher in the bullpen who can only enter the game with a lead of three runs or fewer, and often pitches ineffectively when asked to pitch in a tie game or blowout? Newly hired Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and his advisors, including Bill James, pondered these questions prior to the 2003 season after seeing how volatile Ugueth Urbina could be, and made the infamous decision to move forward with a closer by committee comprised of Alan Embree, Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Timlin and others. After some highly publicized blown leads early in the season-ESPN and other media outlets treated this experiment with high scrutiny- Red Sox managment converted Byung-Hyun Kim, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks midseason, to a reasonably effective closer until his meltdown against the Oakland Athletics in Game One of the Division Series. Understandably, the Red Sox gave up on the experiement and traded for Keith Foulke the following winter, and the rest is history.

So this brings us to last night, when Duaner Sanchez, a fairly reliable set up man called upon to hold a three run lead against the fifth due to closer Billy Wagner being sidelined -eerily similar to his absence in parts of August and September last season-with shoulder spasms, sixth and seven spots of the Philadelphia Phillies admitedly potent lineup. Several flat fastballs and meatball changeups later, the bases were loaded with no one out. The opposing batters were right on top of his pitches, not swinging and missing a single time -it would be difficult for the Mets to blame sign stealing this time, as they were at home. So how do you chalk it up? Just a bad night? Perhaps Sanchez was too confident up three runs and didn't feel inclined to put as much zip on his pitches? Regardless, having any pitcher inherit the bases loaded is a recipe for trouble, and despite shortstop Jose Reyes miscalculation of a Joe Smith induced chopper, the blame for the ninth inning meltdown has to be solely placed on Sanchez, though Pedro Feliciano surrendering a deep drive to banjo-hitting outfielder So Taguchi is also inexcusable -you can't blame left fielder Endy Chavez for having it go over his head, as Taguchi's bat doesn't exactly warrant a no-doubles defense. By the time shortstop Jimmy Rollins was up, you knew the game was over, as when it rains for Feliciano, it pours-the issue of inheriting runners is also an important one, as some releivers are just awful at handling them.

Other teams have also experienced trouble patching together the latter ends of games, including the Milwaukee Brewers after they shelved Eric Gagne. It took them some time to find a suitable replacement until Salomon Torres took over the closer's role, and the Mets may have to do the same -Houston Street?- if they want to contend without Billy Wagner.

What is it about closing games? Is it getting pumped up by loud metal music? Feeding off the psychological pressure of the 'save?' Be sure to see my poorly timed post in that entry regarding saving a three-run lead. And if the ghost of Jerome Holtzman wanted to spite me, well I'll just pay you back in Hell, Jerome.


Anonymous said...

It helps to have nothing betwix the ears, like our pal on the banner above.

Bryan said...

I think that, if nothing else, it obviously helps the team to know who their closer is, whatever the stats say about who should be pitching when.

I will say that for all the Red Sox 2003 hullabaloo, it was the decision NOT to go to the bullpen that ultimately ended their season.