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.