Saving the best for never

When you have a problem and you know how to fix it, the solution should be obvious. Unfortunately, it’s not apparent to the Atlanta Braves and many other baseball teams.

The Braves have lost six in a row, but their best relief pitcher, Craig Kimbrel, hasn’t thrown the ball once during that stretch. This is a common managerial strategy by manager Fredi Gonzalez and other big league managers, and there’s no good reason for it.

A team’s best relief pitcher should pitch in the most important situations. Preserving closers for save situations often doesn’t make any sense because those situations may never come. You have to get there first.

How do we know when the “closer” should get in the game, if not necessarily the 9th inning? The answer is to use the Leverage Index, which is a table that shows how important each game situation is. The Leverage Index comes from “The Book,” by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin.

High leverage situations occur when the game hangs in the balance. That’s when you want your most effective reliever in the game. Closers typically appear in situations with leverage of about 2.

In Saturday’s game, that situation came when the game was tied 4-4 in the top of the sixth and there was a runner on third base with one out. The chart shows the leverage of that situation was 2.0, higher than at another other point in the game, but Kris Medlen was left in there to face Chad Tracy, who hit a double to put the Nationals ahead 5-4 on their way to an 8-4 victory. (The website Fangraphs lists the LI in that situation at 2.55, presumably based on a more detailed calculation than what’s provided in the chart. Under both the chart in “The Book” and on Fangraphs, that situation had the highest LI in the game.)

In Friday’s game, the Braves trailed 3-4 in the top of the 7th with the bases loaded and two outs, but starting pitcher Tim Hudson was allowed to continue pitching even though he had already thrown 105 pitches. Three pitches later, Ryan Zimmerman hit a bases-clearing double and only then was Hudson pulled from the game. In that situation, the game leverage was 3.1.

The trend also can be seen in the Braves’ previous losses.

When Medlen gave up a grand slam to the Reds on Thursday, the leverage index was about 4.0 when the bases were loaded in the bottom of the sixth with one out and the Braves led 2-1.

Again with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth and one out on Wednesday and the Braves ahead 1-0, Tommy Hanson was left in to pitch to Jay Bruce, who tied the game with a fielder’s choice. That LI was about 3.3.

On Tuesday, during the Braves 9-2 loss, there weren’t many high-leverage situations because the Reds took an early lead and then built on it. The 4-1 loss on Monday was also a low-leverage game–it game was tied at 1-1 in the second, and then Mike Minor gave up three consecutive solo home runs in the fourth.

So out of the last six games, the Braves had four high-leverage late inning situations where Kimbrel could have been used.

Instead, inferior pitchers were put in the game, Kimbrel rode the bench, and the Braves found themselves in fourth place.

5 Responses to “Saving the best for never”

  1. Zac says:

    I want to point out that looking at the LI at any one instant is probably a little short-sighted. If a pitcher was going to come in at bases loaded in the 6th inning, he needs to already be warmed up. I doubt Kimbrel was warming up in anticipation of coming into the game, nor should he necessarily be.

  2. Tony says:

    1) The current Braves pitchers are known for getting into jams in the 6th and 7th inning
    2) The Braves have at least three pitchers that could competently fill the “closer” role (though Venters is slumping a bit)
    3) One of EOF, Venters, or Kimbrel should be warming up at the first sign of trouble every game – call this pitcher the “get out of jam” pitcher. It could be one designated individual or rotate based on matchups, slumps, etc. One of the remaining pitchers should be saved for a close situation, should one arise.

  3. Mark says:

    Zac: Right, it’s hard to evaluate during a game when the highest-leverage situations will occur, and therefore you don’t want to “waste” your best pitchers too early in the game. My point is that it’s far worse to never use an elite closer in these situations. I would have liked to have seen Kimbrel pitch in at least one or two of these spots when he was needed most.

    Tony: The sooner baseball teams move away from the idea of having a single closer that must pitch in only the 9th inning, the better.

  4. Ethan says:

    The whole idea of a bullpen pitcher is to be the “get out of jam pitcher.” That is why they all have specific roles. The mind of a bullpen pitcher is very different than that of a starter and comfort plays a large role in that. For example last year, everyone and their brother knew that it was O’flaherty in the 7th, Venters in the 8th, and Kimbrel in the ninth. The previous few years before that, everyone knew Peter Moylan was coming in with runners on and 1 out to get the double play. That is why they were so successful, because they knew their roles and were mentally prepared to come in at that time. Have you ever seen a closer come in for a non-save situation? This is almost always when they have their worst outings. They simply cannot get into the game mentally. Being a former college bullpen pitcher, I understand how not knowing when you are coming in can have huge affect on your performance.

    Speaking to Mark’s comment about “the sooner baseball teams move away from the idea of having a single closer…” that is why the guy is the closer. The last three outs of a game are always the hardest to get, mentally. Like I stated earlier, everyone needs to have/know their roles. The problem with the Braves is that the only ones that know their roles are O’flaherty, Venters, and Kimbrel, which is why we have trouble getting from the 5th to the 7th/8th innings. And also, no one said the closer must pitch only in the ninth inning. Plenty of closers have come in plenty of times to get a 2 inning save, especially in the postseason. Also, you speak as if Kimbrel can be used every day in the most crucial situation in each game. They all got tired after appearing in half of the games last season. The problem is more bullpen pitchers have to step up and do their jobs. Oh and the fact that people who can do all of these sabermetrics calculations think that baseball is that simple. There is still way too much of an element of randomness to say, “Oh the Leverage Index was so high at this point so Pitcher A must be used now.” If baseball were that easy, anyone could do it but it isn’t.

  5. Mark says:

    There’s no evidence that closers pitch worse in non-save situations, and it doesn’t make sense to me either. You’re telling me that a professional pitcher who can handle the ninth inning can’t perform in non-save situations? I don’t think so.
    Ideas of the closer mentality and the comfort of specified roles don’t stand up to scrutiny. I’d be interested in any statistical data backing up those ideas, but as far as I can tell, there is none.

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