Buck Showalter and the Baltimore Orioles lost their Wild Card game against the Toronto Blue Jays 5-2 on Tuesday night. Edwin Encarnacion belted a three-run walk-off bomb to send the Blue Jays to the ALDS to take on the Texas Rangers. Surprisingly, the home run didn’t come off of Baltimore’s closer, Zach Britton, and Showalter was heavily criticized immediately afterwards.
Because of the high stakes of a winner-take-all game and the dominance of Britton during the regular season, it is head scratching why the two-time All-Star and AL saves leader didn’t take the mound. The Orioles did not have the lead in the 9th or extra innings, but multiple runners did reach base before the walk-off homer.
This begs the question about when a manager should elect to bring in his closer. Obviously, if a team is protecting a lead of three runs or less going into the last inning, general baseball protocol is to bring in the closer for a save opportunity.
For teams that struggle to win games and thus don’t get many save opportunities, a closer can be used as a regular bullpen arm or used in non-save situations to keep him active on the mound. Most closers do not make 100% of their appearances in save situations. Managers need to keep their pitchers fresh and throwing in games regardless of the scores.
The playoffs are a different story, especially in an elimination game. Again, the easy call is to bring in the closer when you are holding a lead.
Extra innings in an elimination game are completely different. The home team will never need to preserve a lead; they only need to keep the game tied or limit the runs scored by the visiting team. The visiting team will be pitching with either the game tied or a lead. Falling behind would result in the game being over.
Showalter and the Orioles did not use their closer at all. From the top of the 6th inning to the bottom of the 11th inning the game was tied. By not having the lead, it was a tough call to bring in the designated closer, but the notion of a closer should be ignored after the 9th inning. Here’s why: it is win or go home, and you have to put your team in the best possible situation every chance you get.
Buck Showalter is considered a great baseball mind, but he probably made a mistake not brining in a closer with a 0.54 ERA on the season. Even if he had brought him into the game in the 9th or 10th inning, there wouldn’t be an argument about “what if”. What if the Orioles bring in Britton to start the 11th? What if they bring him in in the 11th with runners on base? What if pitch Britton in the 9th and 10th and have Darren O’Day for the 11th?
You can make an argument that a team needs the lead to use its closer in that situation. You can make a stronger argument that you can’t count on one pitcher getting three outs to get to the next inning when you have a better pitcher in the bullpen that you didn’t use.
Just like the concept of an elimination game, there is the concept of an elimination inning. To end the game, a team has to win the current inning. To keep the game going, a team has to keep the game tied. Simple concept. The strategy then should be to use your best players from the 10th inning onward.
Perhaps there is a formidable lefty-lefty or righty-righty matchup that encourages a manager to use a particular pitcher. However, at some point, the matchups are less important that putting the best player on the mound.
Imagine the Boston Red Sox sitting David Ortiz and wanting to use him as a pinch hitter late in the game if necessary. What if the Red Sox fall behind by seven runs and never put Ortiz in the game because they want to get closer to give him a chance to make an impact? You can’t wait for a certain situation to arise to use a great player.
Would using Briton have won the game for the Orioles? It’s irrelevant and nobody knows. Baltimore hadn’t scored in six innings. Britton probably doesn’t throw more than two innings, if he goes more than one. All of the “what ifs” and hypotheticals reemerging.
Is Britton a better pitcher than Ubaldo Jimenez, the pitcher who threw the 11th and gave up the home run? Yes. That is the clearest argument to using him in that critical of a situation.