By Cliff Corcoran
Buck Showalter is one of the best managers in baseball and his expert use of the Orioles' bullpen has helped Baltimore reach the postseason in three of the past five seasons. But in Tuesday night's American League Wild Card Game against the Blue Jays in Toronto, he committed the cardinal sin of bullpen management, expediting the end of his team's season in the process. With his team playing a single game to keep their season alive, Showalter refused to bring his lights-out closer, Zach Britton, into a tie game on the road only to lose the game, 5-2, with a lesser pitcher on the mound.
The unwritten rule on closer use in tie games on the road is that you don't use one until you have a lead, because even if your team does take a lead, you'll still need three outs from your pitching staff to seal the win. That thinking ignores something so obvious I can't even believe I have to type it: Pitching with a lead in the bottom half of the ninth inning or later is a lower-leverage situation than pitching in the bottom half of such an inning with the game tied.
With a lead, the pitcher in question can give up a run (or more, if the lead is larger) without losing the game. With the game tied, however, every pitch carries the risk of a walk-off home run. If the goal of bullpen management is to put a team's best pitchers in the highest-leverage situations, and if each team's closer is indeed its best reliever, the rule should be that as soon as a team is facing a walk-off situation, its closer should be in the game.
Britton was arguably the best reliever in the Majors in 2016 and, on a batter-by-batter basis, one of the best pitchers, period. In case you missed it, the O's closer posted a 0.54 ERA in 67 innings this season, setting a record for the lowest ERA in a season of 50 or more innings pitched in Major League history. Over the past three years combined, Britton has posted a 1.38 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, and over the past two seasons his FIP (fielding independent pitching) has been 1.97.
According to STATS, Britton's ground ball percentage of 79.4 this season was the second highest by a pitcher with 50 or more innings pitched since that figure was first tracked in 1987. (The highest? Britton last year at 80.4 percent.) All those ground balls help minimize home runs, which is why Britton allowed just one all year and just four in 132 2/3 innings over the last two years combined. Entering Tuesday night's AL Wild Card Game, Britton had not allowed a run in his past 14 appearances and hadn't allowed a home run in his past 65 appearances dating back to April 15. If one were to design the perfect pitcher to use in a potential walk-off situation in a tie game on the road, that pitcher would be Zach Britton.
But let's consider the situation in an attempt to be as kind to Showalter as possible. He has more than earned that courtesy over the course of his 18-year managerial career, after all.
With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Showalter had Brad Brach still in the game after he pitched a scoreless eighth. One could understand Showalter wanting to get a second inning out of his second-best reliever before going to Britton. After Brach faced the most dangerous bats in the Blue Jays' order, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion, in the ninth, Showalter then used his third-best reliever, Darren O'Day, with one out and runners on first and second, and the game on the line. He escaped by inducing Russell Martin to hit into a double play. O'Day then stayed on to get through the lower part of the order in the tenth.
However, when Toronto's lineup turned over in the bottom of the 11th to bring up Donaldson and Encarnacion again, a pair of hitters who combined for 79 home runs this season and 80 home runs last season, Britton still didn't get the call.
Instead, Showalter went with erratic repurposed starter Ubaldo Jimenez. Clearly expecting Jimenez to throw multiple innings, Showalter let Jimenez face Donaldson after Devon Travis greeted Jimenez with a single, and let him face Encarnacion after Donaldson singled, pushing the winning run -- the season-ending run for the Orioles -- to third. Encarnacion then sent an 108-mile-per-hour, no-doubter, three-run home run on the first pitch from Jimenez, a fat, 91 mile-per-hour fastball right down the middle.
"There's a lot of different ways to look at it, so that's the way we went," Showalter said after the game. "It didn't work out."
But let's back up. With Britton available, Brach -- a fly-ball pitcher -- should not have been allowed to face the power-hitting Donaldson and Encarnacion in the ninth in the first place. As it was, Donaldson opened the bottom of that frame on Tuesday night with a double. Brach intentionally walked Encarnacion and struck out Jose Bautista looking. O'Day -- another fly-ball pitcher -- got Martin to ground into that aforementioned inning-ending double play. Keep in mind, though, it was only O'Day's second double play induced in 23 opportunities this season. Pure luck.
With O'Day having thrown just one pitch in the ninth, Showalter stayed with him so as not to waste one of his top-three relievers. That marked the second of three times in the game that Showalter prioritized getting as many innings as possible out of a lesser pitcher over Britton. And he chose fly-ball pitchers over a guy who specializes in keeping the ball on the ground -- and in the park.
If Showalter's goal had been to get his closer into the game in the highest-leverage situations, he could have avoided trapping himself and instead could have had Brach or O'Day available to follow Britton with a pair of innings, if necessary. If his goal had been using Britton against the dangerous heart of the Blue Jays' order when a single swing could have ended his season, he could have used him in the ninth or the 11th. Instead, Showalter let his team lose without their best pitcher, who was healthy, ready, willing and as frustrated as everyone else by his manager's refusal to use him in a winner-take-all game.
Showalter has accomplished enough in this game and with this team and this franchise that this shouldn't be his epitaph. But I do hope it will be a flashpoint that changes the book on how and when to use closers on the road in future seasons.
Then again, we've been here before. I won't force the comparison to Showalter leaving John Wetteland unused in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series against the Mariners when Buck was manager of the Yankees, even though the optics of a lanky right-handed starter giving up a season-ending run on a northern turf field when the opponent's heart of the order came up in the bottom of the 11th are striking, to say the least. Still, Wetteland had been awful in the previous game in that series, and the Yanks had given Jack McDowell a one-run lead in the bottom of the 11th, so Showalter clearly wasn't holding his closer back for the save -- he just didn't trust him, period. Still, it's hard to believe so little has changed in the 13 years since Joe Torre failed to get Mariano Rivera into Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, a game the Marlins won on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 12th. I've railed against closer usage in tie games many times during the intervening years on multiple platforms, and many of my sabermetric-friendly colleagues have, as well. For all the gains that advanced analysis has made in the Majors, however, this remains our white whale.
It's still out there, roaming free, and it just ate the Orioles.