Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Closing a baseball game is not a discreet skill set

The entire Pirate bullpen is blowing it tonight.  Happens.  It's actually great when it all happens at once, because these guys are pretty awesome, and you'd rather their rare bad nights not be spread over multiple games.

Anyway, Steve Blass and Greg Brown on the TV side, just making this so much more difficult than it needs to be.

Blass is talking about how closing is the most difficult job in sports.  Brown is playing devil's advocate, not because he knows his stuff, but because he hates Blass and wants to show him up.  Anyway, the paraphrased discussion goes something like this:

BROWN: But you look at other relievers who often come in during much more difficult situations [1], whereas a closer just has to get three outs and not give up one or two runs.   I'm not disagreeing with you, Steve, I just want you to explain it for everyone at home.

BLASS:  Well... Uh... ask any manager[2].  It's just... those three outs are harder [3].  They just... everything about them matters.  It's do or die [4].

My paraphrased response goes like this:

1. We call those difficult situations "high leverage," Greg.  And just so everyone knows, leverage is measured by the volatility of the game outcome in any given situation.  If it's a ten run game, it doesn't much matter if either team has the bases loaded: the outcome is already pretty determined.  If it's a tied game, we consider it super high leverage because any one swing of the bat could make it a not-tied game.  Super easy to see how this works.  Super easy to realize that the asshole pitching in the 8th inning of a tied game is being entrusted with more responsibility than the asshole pitching the 9th inning of a 1-run game.

2.  Steve, I'm not going to ask any manager about anything for fear of this.  And also because managers are dumb and stupid.  They're the reason we have saves, and bunts, and blogs instead of early bedtimes. 

3.  Those last three outs are not harder.  They're not.  They're just not.  There is nothing about the rules, equipment, stadium, or players that changes significantly.  What changes is perception.  Radhames Liz comes in and gives up a moonshot.  Tony Watson comes in and gets blasted.  Mark Melancon comes in and is crap.  It's all the same,  but we only fault one of them because our memories don't go back more than one inning.  (Actually, mine does, and not to brag but I remember some assbag pitcher for the Cubs giving up a bases loaded double to Jung-Ho Kang.  By the looks of it, the three outs in the bottom 7th were some of the toughest to record.  Perception.)

4.  It's do-or-die when the game is tied and you are really close to the end of the game.  It is specifically not do-or-die when you have the lead.  When you have the lead, it is do-or-else-you-might-have-to-score-more-runs-but-at-least-you-won't-be-dead.  This is absolutely true when you're at home, usually true when you're on the road.

Pitching with the lead is a cushion that is unnecessarily bestowed upon a team's best reliever.  On those rare bad nights, everything is all the more glaring.  But look what stats teaches us: over a long enough timeline (like 162 games) we see a lot of shit and some of it doesn't mean anything, even if it is glaring.  The specific inning in which a reliever is crappy: meaningless.

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