The art – not the science – of failure

I worked from home today, which meant a consistent stream of sports news outlets streaming in the background for many hours. As such, I was subject to incessant chatter about the back-end bullpen situation for the Detroit Tigers. Normally when we think about the detrimental effects of the 24-hour cable news cycle, we apply it to much more serious matters than sports, but today I really began thinking about some of the outside the lines impacts of Detroit’s closer landscape in light of the modern media environment.

First, let me put my cards on the table. I hold the standard sabermetric-oriented beliefs regarding the closer role. Here are a few things I believe.

  • There is no closer gene; nearly all middle relievers who are highly effective and capable of getting out both right- and left-handed hitters can be successful closers.
  • High-end closers are certainly valuable players, but they are largely luxuries and usually not worth the salaries they command.
  • The ninth inning is neither always the most difficult to pitch, nor most important. The set-up man’s job is often tougher.

With all that said, here’s something else I consider relevant—a media circus is not good for a team; when your team is making the a-block of sports highlight shows for the wrong reasons, that is not a good situation. Players are professionals and it is their job to block out distractions and just play, but incessant questioning by the media and a team’s own fanbase can wear at a team and allow minor issues to snowball. It is through this lens that I question the way the Detroit Tigers have handled their bullpen situation in 2013.

So far the Detroit Tigers have either failed to or decided against bringing in an established closer to replace Jose Valverde in the offseason. They then led most to believe that Bruce Rondon was in line to open the season as their closer. Shortly before Opening Day, they optioned Rondon to the minors. They then announced they’d be using a closer by committee, though it appeared Joaquin Benoit was going to emerge as the closer. During this time, Valverde was pitching in the minors. Earlier this week, they called up both Rondon and Valverde. Valverde converted his first chance. Rondon failed to hold a lead today, allowing the tying run to score in the eighth, while the Tigers ultimately lost in ten.

If part of your job is to evaluate and question the moves across the league, or to find angles to second-guess the Detroit Tigers, you’ve stumbled upon a treasure chest. In terms of giving the media the rope to hang your organization, Detroit has basically done as much wrong as possible, even if the actual impact on winning games is less profound than portrayed.

Instead of essentially institutionalizing uncertainty and indecision and well as bringing back a player they lacked confidence in a mere few months ago, there were a number of other defensible avenues the team could have pursued.

For one, Detroit could have simply brought in a closer from outside over the offseason. Perhaps, there are strict financial and player value arguments against this idea, but it would have changed the discussion regardless of outcome. Detroit is a contender and a spender, so they are certainly in a position where spending a premium for an established closer is defensible. Additionally, had they added a Rafael Soriano type, the organization would largely shield itself even in the case of failure. One of the rubs between pure analytics and real-life team management is that among a fanbase and the media, not all failure is treated equally.

Hypothetically, had the Tigers brought in Soriano only to see him not get the job done, the majority of the blame would be placed on the player, not the Tigers organization. The fact would have been they brought in a player who had done a specific job before and he was asked to do it again, and was unable to do so. For the reputation of the organization itself, that’s a common and acceptable way to fail.

Another less messy way of going about assigning the job of closer would have been to pick a guy – Benoit was probably a decent enough choice – and run with it. Let him pitch himself out of the job or lock it in. This is not necessarily the ideal situation for a team with the expectations of the Tigers, but it’s certainly a common enough situation for teams around the league.

Finally, they could have simply brought a shaky Valverde back and looked for upgrades while letting him prove or disprove himself.

Instead, what they’ve done is open up every possible line of questioning, while relying on a highly questionable option, who has the pressure of essentially being a savior. He’s also fresh off a string of disappointing his team’s fans in the previous postseason.

Again, it’s not just if you lose, but how you lose that drives perception in the pro sports fishbowl and 24-hour cable sports news cycle. There will be a lot of teams whose bullpens will blow many games. There will even be teams who might be playoff teams but for horrible bullpen performances. But that won’t be big news and it won’t be tremendous fodder for everybody to question the wisdom of entire organizations. Last year, the Brewers likely could have made the postseason, if not for an absolutely horrible bullpen, and a seemingly endless string of blown saves by John Axford. The narrative there was that Axford was not performing, not that the Brewers were inept.

If the Detroit bullpen keeps blowing games, it will keep making news in ways that other teams’ bullpen failures won’t. If they were consciously attempting to implement a strategy that was unconventional, but in line with analytic-based understanding, I’d defend them all the way. But, frankly, it looks like they don’t really have a vision at all, and that’s a recipe to turn a molehill into a mountain in short order. The dominant narrative of Detroit’s 2013 season may depend on Jose Valverde taking this opportunity and really running with it.

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  1. Chris said...

    I go back and forth on the issue of when to use your best reliever. I understand the theory of using your best reliever in the highest leverage situations, but what if you’ve used your “closer” in the 6th and now have to go to # 3 or 4 in the pen for the 9th? I think I’d still rather save my best reliever for the 9th, cuz that really is do or die time.

  2. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Well, when I think about that question, I think about the days of the “A-Rod is not clutch” argument with the Yankees. The Yanks would be down 7-2, he’d hit a 3-run HR, which people would dismiss as meaningless. Then, he’d get up in the 8th with one on and two out and pop out or something and the fans would kill him for not being clutch. …But, that AB was only “clutch” in the first place because he hit the homer two innings ago, right?

    I understand that the 9th inning is do or die time and you have to lock down a lead there to win – you’ve climbed most of the mountain, so it hurts if you fall of so close to the top. But, at the same time, you have to get to the 9th with a lead in the first place, or else none of it matters.

    It’s interesting that I wrote this article about the Tigers, as I have another memory about an interesting bullpen season that involved Detroit. In 2006, the year they lost to the Cards in the WS, Joel Zumaya set up for Todd Jones. Zumaya was by far the better pitcher and he actually served as something of a “fireman” role too – coming in difficult situations and not simply starting innings in 0 on 0 out states. I thought that season was funny because it felt as if Detroit used their bullpen really well, but basically did so by accident. Zumaya was the better pitcher and Jones occasionally blew leads, but I’d posit that they won more games that way than they would had they demoted Jones and asked him to come in and do Zumaya’s job. They may have lost fewer leads in the 9th, but I bet they would have gotten to the 9th with leads less often.

    I was at the Mets game last night and saw the same thing with Kenley Jansen and Brandon League.

    But, this all goes back to the way you are judged if you lose. If you use your best reliever in the 7th because you are up by 2 with the bases loaded and 1 out and need to protect that lead, but then the next pitcher gives up a two-run dinger in the 9th to tie the game and you lose in extras, you’ll get roasted. But, if the 3rd best pitcher handles that situation and gives up a bases clearing triple and you don’t never get to the 9th with a lead in the first place, the blame is placed at the foot of the pitcher instead of the manager.

    This is actually an even bigger problem in football, IMO. I see coaches make bad statistical decisions all the time because making the right one would increase their chances of winning by, say, 10%, but if it doesn’t work, they’ll get killed! The football media and fanbase is way behind that of baseball when it comes to understanding what big data says versus “the book” or “the gut.”

  3. Ian R. said...

    To go back a little farther, Mariano Rivera’s best year may have been 1996, when he was setting up for John Wetteland. 107.2 innings of 240 ERA+ ball, almost all in high-leverage situations? Damn.

  4. Derek Ambrosino said...


    I don’t know if it’s that explicit or deliberate, but yes… kind of. I think the more strong accusation can be made in football, where each game and late-gate decision is dissected so publicly. There must be times when a coach thinks, “I’m really tempted to do this – but I can’t…” There was an Atlanta-Carolina game last year that played out as such, when Panthers lost acceptably instead of doing what would have actually given them a better chance to win. …The Falcons got killed for going for 4th and shorts twice two years ago – once against New England, and at least once against the Giants in the playoffs – yet, both decisions were “right.”

    In baseball, I think it’s more of a conventional wisdom or force of habit thing – just engrained inefficiencies. If you veer from the norm, you best either have a track record worthy of trust (LaRussa), an organization that backs you, philosophically (Maddon), or make sure it works!

  5. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    I disagree about the “closer gene”.  This article my Malcolm Gladwell describes exactly what I see/feel about being clutch or being a choker:

    This is a nice follow-up article on it:  (by Jonah Lehrer)

    I lived that, albeit, on the choker side, so I know there are those who don’t choke.

    And that is what I would call the closer gene (or clutch gene), being able to perform the way you normally do, in spite of the situation.  Everyone has their own threshold, their tipping point.  Just because one can handle the middle innings does not mean that he can handle setup or closing.

    Setup guys I can see being closers, but we don’t know their threshold, their tipping point either, at which things go awry for them.  As the Lehrer article made clear, everyone has their own choking point.

    I would also note research by THT, I think in the last annual, that showed that teams generally know what they got in their players and let go into free agency (or trades) the ones that are not as good.  So maybe closers might be overpaid in free agency, but the evidence is that teams seem to generally know what they have, and some teams do retain their closers, even at high salaries, suggesting that they know what they got and paid appropriately.

  6. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...


    Furthermore, I don’t think that sabers generally understand how crucial having reliable closers are.  If SF’s and LAD’s Save% in 2012 were average of 70% (and presuming that blown saves end in losses), the Giants gained 6 wins by having above average saves while LA lost two wins by having slightly below average, so they would have ended 2012 tied at 88 wins. 

    So how much value was it to SF to have the closers they had and to LA that they didn’t have what they needed?  If LA had 80% Save%, they would have tied with SF last season, how much would a reliable closer been worth to them?

    Arizona went from 82% in 2011 to 66% in 2012, whereas the Giants were 79% each season.  Had AZ had 82% again in 2012, they would have been 91-71, still not good enough to make the playoffs, but if they had been 66% in 2011, they would have had 9 less wins and finished 85-77, and the Giants would have made the playoffs in 2011, instead of AZ.  What’s their value of having good reliable closers?

    Clearly, there is value in having a good and reliable closer, and, as well, value in having a good and reliable setup man who could step up into a closer role.  The Giants would not have gotten into the playoffs without a good reliable closer (and above average at 78%, tops in majors) in 2010.  The Giants would not have gotten into the playoffs in 2012 without having setup men who were able to step up and continuing saving at a high rate. 

    And you noted in your second bullet about the salaries, well, the Giants general fan population was in a huge uproar over the large salaries that Affeldt, Lopez, and Casilla got, because they were just setup men.  If it were up to the fans, we would not have those reliable pitchers in there, we would have went with cheap alternatives on the free agent market or farm system.

    But as I showed above, the Giants don’t even sniff the playoffs in 2010 and 2012, let alone win the championship, if their bullpen was not as superb as they were. 

    Obviously, we don’t give them the whole budget, but hopefully I’ve made it clearer that closers are not the fungible commodity that sabers generally think that they are, that there is value in having a reliable closer, year in, year out, that there is value in having closer-like set-up men, both to, as you note, take care of the tougher leverage situations earlier in the game, as well as to step up into the closer role when needed. 

    I would note that Bochy knows about the need to bring his closer in for tough situations, Brian Wilson pitched a good number of times in the 8th inning and then closed out the game, pitching over one inning in those appearances.  So there are managers who understand that you want your best earlier, sometimes.

  7. Derek Ambrosino said...

    …It’s not an absolute.

    Remember all the qualifiers I laid out –

    1. I believe a pitcher can transition if he has the skill set, largely ignoring the make-up aspect of things. If you can get both RH and LH batters out at a very high level, you can lock down an inning – any inning.

    2. I acknowledge, when discussing Detroit, that being a contender matters. The extra win or two that paying that premium might get you can be very important if that is the difference between 88 and 90 wins. 71 and 73… not so much so.

    But, a few things to note here.

    A. I believe that, by and large, players who truly can’t handle pressure are rooted out before the Majors. Everybody in the pros is at the 99.9th percentile of their profession – they’ve been relied on the carry their teams to every major accolade they’ve earned throughout their entire playing careers from teeball to AAA. Pressure is not something that surfaces for the first time in “The Show.”

    B. An elite closer usually make $10M+. I don’t argue that such a player can be worth a few wins. But, that’s not the only way a team can increase their win total. For the price of a top tier closer, you could also upgrade at any number of positions, which would also net you more wins. I’m not arguing you aren’t getting more wins, I’m just questioning whether you are getting the best bang for your buck.

    C. Reiterating my earlier point – focusing on protecting leads in the 9th inning is a tad bit myopic. If you could tinker your reliever usage pattern such that you got to the 9th win a lead more often, it’s also possible you could actually convert fewer saves, yet still win more games. …The idea of wanting your best pitchers on the mound in the highest leverage situation is pretty straightforward.

    D. I totally understand your math with the save percentage. I even mentioned the Brewers in the article as an example of a team whose 2012 would have been substantially different had they had a reliable back-end of the pen. But, this is chess, it isn’t checkers.

    E. Fernando Rodney 2012.

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