The Zach Britton Debacle: Why and How

First of all, what a game that was last night.

When you look at the idea behind a Wild Card game, what last night’s contest between the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles should be the blueprint that all future Wild Card games follow. Seriously, could it have been any better? You had absolutely all of the ingredients.

Two incredibly evenly matched teams that were definitely deserving of a playoff spot, yet lost a tough division battle? Check. A sellout crowd that was red hot right from the first pitch? Definite check. A tightly contested game between those two evenly matched squads? Check. An extra inning tactics battle? Check. One incredible moment that will linger in baseball memories for a lifetime? Check.

But, before we could get to Edwin Encarnacion’s memory making moment, an incredibly tight bullpen battle was waged. And, considering that they threw 5 innings of shutout baseball, you might assume that Toronto won the battle of the bullpens. And, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but Baltimore lost the bullpen battle more than Toronto won it.

Purely based on rhetoric and generalization, Buck Showalter is one of the greatest bullpen-managing managers that has ever lived. He is known for squeezing every ounce of talent and success out of any given bullpen.

For 8 innings of the American League Wild Card game, all of this proved undeniably true.

I was lauding Showalter’s masterful usage of his bullpen during the game last night. Through 8 innings, he had used only 3 pitchers, and still had the three best bullets of his bullpen gun locked in the chamber. Brad Brach – who pitched the 8th, but was economical enough to be stretched out for another inning – Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton were all available for Showalter to deploy as the game rolled into the 9th inning.

In a tied game entering the 9th inning, having your three best relievers all available is the work of a magician, and Showalter was set up about as close to perfectly as he could have drawn up.

But then, the fire nation attacked.

As perfectly as Showalter was set up entering the 9th inning, he canceled all of it out with his abhorrent extra-inning management of the bullpen, which ultimately led to the worst managerial decision that I have ever seen.

As I said, entering the bottom half of the 9th inning, Showalter had Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton all available to use. So, what was the actual decision and what was the correct one?

Coming up for Toronto was Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista, all of whom are right handed batters. Brad Brach was coming off of a 13 pitch 8th inning, and the Orioles offense had not scored since the 4th inning.

At this point, I break this decision down to one question; how much faith do you have in your offense? If you believe in your offense’s ability to score against the Jays’ bullpen and end the game soon, then the decision leans towards using Britton or O’Day because – again, hinging on the belief in your offense’s ability – the thinking is that you would want to put your best pitchers in during this high leverage situation.

However, the thing about high leverage situations is that there is no way to know, in the heat of the moment, whether or not a higher leverage situation will arise later on down the line. So, if you believe that the game will be over soon, you theoretically use Britton and O’Day in order to maximize run prevention now in hopes that the game will be over soon and you won’t need those two later on in an even higher leverage situation.

If you’re still with me, you deserve an award.

Showalter stuck with Brach to pitch the 9th inning. The thought process behind this decision – from Ryan’s point of view, I can’t speak for Showalter – is that you don’t believe your offense will score anytime soon, so you want to save O’Day and Britton for potential higher leverage situations later on in the game.

Is this the correct decision?

To me, it 100% is and I would have done the exact same thing. The thing that all the hardcore Twitter sabermetricians were harping on is that Britton is your best reliever, and if you don’t use your best reliever against the heart of the Toronto order there won’t be any more baseball to play because any other pitcher will lose the game.

Britton is not guaranteed to put up a scoreless frame. Neither is Brach, and neither is O’Day, but all three of them are really good options, but I still want to save O’Day and Britton for later innings, and I believe in Brach’s ability to get through the 9th without giving up a run.

What I would have done – and what was only partly done – is get both Britton and O’Day up and warming lightly. Because if Brach gets in trouble, I have a back-up plan readily available and don’t get caught with my pants down.

Well, sure enough, Brach gave up a leadoff double to Josh Donaldson, followed by an intentional walk to Encarnacion, setting up Jose Bautista with men on first and second and nobody out. Only O’Day was warming up in the Orioles bullpen, so with Brach sitting at 23 pitches, Showalter stuck with his man.

Whether or not this is the correct decision is irrelevant because O’Day wasn’t up and warm yet, and no amount of gamesmanship would have been able to get him ready in time to face Bautista, so Showalter’s hand was forced and he had to stick with Brach.

Brach responded with a strikeout of Bautista to bring up Russell Martin with men on first and second but one out. With one out, the Orioles smelled a double play – Toronto led all of baseball with 153 double plays grounded into during the 2016 regular season – and Showalter made the move to O’Day, who he clearly felt was more likely to induce the aforementioned double play out of Russell Martin.

Sure enough, on the first pitch, Martin grounded into a double play, and the Orioles were out of the 9th inning and coming to bat in the top of the 10th. Unsurprisingly, they went in order against Toronto closer Roberto Osuna and Francisco Liriano.

In the bottom of the 10th, Showalter’s easiest bullpen decision confronted him, as O’Day had only thrown one pitch in the bottom of the 9th, so he goes back out, and that’s exactly what happened. Easy.

O’Day responded with a 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th to send the game to the 11th. And, of course, Baltimore went silently in the top of the 11th because what else is new?

Now we get into the real controversy of Buck Showalter’s bullpen management.

Top of the 11th, Darren O’Day is sitting on 14 pitches, and Zach Britton is still available out of the bullpen. Due up for Toronto is Ezequiel Carrera, Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson.

Showalter warmed up left hander Brian Duensing and right hander Ubaldo Jimenez during the top half of the 11th, and he went with the left handed Duensing to get out the left handed Carrera.

This is where I started scratching my head.

At this point, I was curious as to why Britton had not even begun to warm up at any point yet, but it was all excusable, even when you exclude the results. But, when Showalter went to Duensing, a different lefty, to start the 11th, I wondered if Britton was legitimately hurt.

Following Duensing’s 5 pitch strikeout of Carrera, Showalter made the move to Ubaldo Jimenez to face Travis and, presumably, Donaldson and Encarnacion if needed. Travis and Donaldson knocked back to back singles to give Encarnacion a first and third situation with one out.

And we all know what happened after that.

Showalter held a team meeting on the mound, decided to stick with Jimenez to pitch to Encarnacion, and the Jays’ first basemen destroyed the first pitch he saw to send Toronto through to the Division Series against Texas.

Edwin Encarnacion.jpg
Photo by Nick Turchiaro for USA Today Sports

Zach Britton did not throw a single pitch.

Let me say that again. Zach Britton – who set a Major League record for lowest single season ERA by a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched, 0.54 – did not throw a single pitch during a winner take all postseason game.

It’s absolutely ludicrous to try and wrap your thought around. But, why was Britton not used?

The first sketchy decision of the 11th inning was using Duensing for only 5 pitches to get Ezequiel Carrera – the Jays’ number 9 hitter. In such a tight extra inning game, where Showalter has refused to use his best reliever with the mindset that there will be more high leverage situations later on in the game, why would he use a reliever to only get one out?

At this point in the game, every viable relief arm is an extremely valuable commodity, and using 4% of your roster for the sole purpose of getting Ezequiel Carrera out is just not wise. Furthermore, when you consider that the Baltimore offense had not scored in 7 innings and the game was beginning to feel like it would be extending for quite a while, it only further emphasizes the need to maximize every available bullpen arm.

Considering the way that Ubaldo Jimenez had pitched coming into the playoffs – 2.31 ERA over 35 innings in the month of September – having him available to pitch out of the bullpen is a very good idea. But bringing him into the game before Zach Britton? No….just no.

Immediately, it became impossible to ignore that Jimenez was not having a good night at the office. On his third pitch of the outing, Jimenez gave up a sharp single to Devon Travis, which was followed by another sharp single off the bat of Josh Donaldson. The ball was slightly mis-played in left, allowing Travis to go to third. Encarnacion stepped in with first and third and one out.

The situation was literally screaming for Zach Britton to enter the game.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley for Getty Images

If Travis scores from third, the Orioles’ season is over and there will be no save situation for Zach Britton to enter into. Also, with a double play in order – need I remind you that the Jays led baseball by grounding into 153 double plays – and Britton being the filthiest sinker-baller on planet earth with a 2016 ground ball rate of 80.1%, (!!!!!!!), it would only make sense to bring him in, right? RIGHT?!?!?!

Showalter had literally been saving his prized toy for that situation, and then he didn’t use him. By leaving Ubaldo Jimenez in to face Edwin Encarnacion in a situation where allowing a single run would have literally ended Baltimore’s season, Showalter effectively said that he believed there was nobody else in his bullpen that could protect a potential save situation down the road.

This rigidity ended Baltimore’s season and Showalter will never be able to live it down. It’s one thing to put your bullpen in what you believe to be the best positions to succeed and then not having them come through, but it’s a completely different thing TO NOT USE THE GREATEST RELIEVER IN THE HISTORY OF BASEBALL DURING A TIED ELIMINATION GAME just because it isn’t a save situation and he’s your “closer.”

So, what would Ryan have done?

As I think back on it, I have a remarkably simple solution to this otherwise extremely complicated situation. Having only thrown 14 pitches, I let O’Day go back out to start the 11th and get Britton up and warming lightly. If O’Day gets into trouble – such as first and third with only 1 out – I have Britton on speed dial and bring him in to put out the fire. If he fails, so be it, but I used my best reliever in the highest leverage situation of a do-or-die game, as a manager should.

Look, I understand Showalter’s hesitation to use Britton because he felt that he needed to save his greatest weapon for a later situation. As much as he’s been torn apart, I understand it. I wouldn’t have used Britton in the 9th, 10th, or even to start the 11th.

But when the situation literally slaps Buck Showalter in the face by saying, “Hey, use Zach Britton here” it’s still vexing why he wasn’t brought it. And it points back to a bigger issue that most managers still subscribe to.

It points back to the notion that you cannot use your closer in any spot that isn’t a save situation, and this fault continues to be exploited in high leverage situations year in and year out.

The most egregious example I had seen up until last night was in game 5 of the 2014 NLCS. With the Cardinals and Giants tied at 3, Mike Matheny refused to let his prized closer, Trevor Rosenthal, pitch in a tied game on the road and opted to throw Michael Wacha into the fire. Even if we exclude the fact that Wacha was coming off of a serious shoulder injury and had not pitched in over a month, the decision was still just awful.

Predictably, Wacha didn’t record an out and gave up a memorable walk-off home run to Travis Ishikawa to send the Giants to the World Series. When asked why Rosenthal didn’t pitch the 9th inning, Matheny stated that he needed to save his closer for a save situation and that he couldn’t shoot his best bullet during a tied game on the road.

Michael Wacha.jpg
Photo by Chris Lee for St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The thing that managers don’t seem to understand is that there won’t be any save situations to bring your prized closer into if you don’t handle the fire that’s currently burning down the building. It’s a do-or-die situation, and your best relief options cannot be saved for a theoretical situation that isn’t guaranteed while the season crumbles with Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound.

Sabermetricians have long been calling for Major League Baseball to get rid of the ‘save’ statistic in the name of removing the mantra of ‘closer’ from bullpens. This would give way to the idea of having a ‘relief ace.’ Your relief ace would be the best reliever in your bullpen, wouldn’t be tied down to any one inning by a predetermined role, and would be available to put out a fire during what the manager deems to be the highest leverage situation of a game.

When Mike Matheny spectacularly botches his bullpen management – as he did on that fateful night in 2014 and tons of times since – everyone shrugs and looks the other way because it’s commonplace to see Mike Matheny mess up a bullpen. But when Buck Showalter does it? It might be time to start paying attention to this ‘relief ace’ idea.

The ghosts of the 2016 Orioles will probably thank you.

The Zach Britton Debacle: Why and How

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