How Delusion Lost the Trade Deadline

Man, the Baltimore Orioles really don’t know how to use Zach Britton.

After last year’s Wild Card game, you’d figure the Orioles maybe would have finally figured out how to deploy their greatest asset. But, it’s August 3rd and Britton still puts on an orange and black uniform every night that doesn’t say ‘Houston’ on the front of it.

Lol nope, they haven’t figured out. 

According to Ken Rosenthal, with about an hour left until the deadline the Baltimore front office called all teams interested in Britton – presumably Houston, Cleveland and Los Angeles – and told him that he wasn’t available any more. The Orioles then preceded to acquire Tim Beckham from the Rays, combining him with Jeremy Hellickson, acquired two nights prior, to make up their trade deadline prizes.  

The Baltimore Orioles, 4 games under .500 entering July 31st and featuring the 27th best MLB farm system according to ESPN’s Keith Law, decided to buy at the trade deadline.

Now, if we’re to believe Houston’s front office and a report by Jon Heyman, there was a Zach Britton to the Astros trade in place before it was “vetoed at the top.” Orioles owner Peter Angelos has only allowed his team to ‘sell’ for 2 out of the past 20-30 deadlines, so it seems pretty easy to understand who put the stamp on things.

Delusion reigned supreme in Baltimore.

From Angelos’ point of view, he’s 86 years old and I understand an urgency to win. But his win-now demands have tied the hands of his franchise. The Orioles traditionally don’t draft well or spend internationally, so they have to be on point with trading and free agency. Holding onto Zach Britton and Brad Brach – among others – at the deadline has set them up in a porous position going forward.

In a seller’s market for pitching, Baltimore had two of the most valuable assets and a chance to run the table. Instead, they decided to hold firm and, further, when they weren’t able to get the presumably exorbitant player returns they wanted on Britton and Brach, the Orioles decided to buy.

When Jeremy Hellickson doesn’t solve Baltimore’s awful starting pitching situation, things predictably collapse down the stretch of this season and the Orioles finish in the AL East cellar, they’ll have a dire offseason situation staring them in the face and nobody to blame but themselves. 

So, congratulations to the Orioles for still thinking they can contend, I guess. Enjoy Tim Beckham and another decade of irrelevancy.

What Baltimore – and a startling amount of other clubs – apparently fails to understand is that relief pitching is the most volatile commodity in baseball. Second on that list is prospects. So all the teams that decided to cuddle up with their relievers and prospects instead of sacking up and making smart, calculated moves did a great job holding firm and not being pushed around!

But don’t be too proud, you’re worse off than you were before.

Out in San Diego, General Manager AJ Preller was reportedly “reaching for the stars” with his asking price on reliever Brad Hand. Hand is having a breakout, All-Star season and had emerged as one of the most valuable deadline commodities.

The Padres have absolutely no use for him. A top quality relief pitcher on a bad team is like having icing, but no cake. Keeping Brad Hand in San Diego is a useless luxury because a good bullpen is usually the final piece in a championship puzzle, but the Padres don’t even have a box to keep it in, let alone the rest of the puzzle.

What AJ Preller apparently failed to understand is that he wasn’t in a position of leverage with negotiations surrounding Hand. Could teams such as the Dodgers, Astros, Red Sox and Indians all use a pitcher like Brad Hand? Absolutely, but the Padres aren’t in a spot where holding onto Hand instead of trading him gives them any sort of advantage.

Bad teams clearly fail to understand that they will not be able to extort GM’s of better teams in relief pitching negotiations. And instead of accepting a lesser, yet still valuable return on a luxury player they had no use for, the Padres opted to hold firm on their outrageous demands and ended up keeping Hand through the deadline.

Way to go, AJ Preller and company! You didn’t allow yourself to be pushed around and have wasted the only useful trade commodity wearing Padres brown. 

Considering that Hand has no track record of putting up the numbers he’s putting up this season and also considering the volatility of relief pitching, he could easily flame out within a year and San Diego would end up with nothing to show for what once could be considered the most valuable deadline commodity.

Delusional return demands and the idea that they had some leverage made San Diego hold onto Hand and caused them to fail the deadline. Enjoy more irrelevancy, Padres; not like it’s anything you aren’t used to, though.

And now we get to the biggest failure of the deadline, the Houston Astros.

3 weeks ago, I said that if Houston didn’t trade for a young, controllable starting pitcher they will have failed the trade deadline. Well, guess whose parents aren’t gonna be happy with the report card coming in the mail.

The Astros’ team ERA has gradually risen from 3.38 in April, bottoming out at an alarming 5.08 over the month of July. Team ace Dallas Keuchel has spent extended time on the DL this season, and Lance McCullers Jr. just was placed there on Wednesday morning. Right now, Houston would roll into a playoff series with Keuchel, Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh making up their rotation.

And the front office’s brilliant solution to this problem was Francisco Liriano.

I certainly believe that the Astros were busy because, as I mentioned earlier, they reportedly had a deal for Zach Britton all set until it got “vetoed at the top.” But, unlike the Dodgers, Houston didn’t seem to have a backup plan after their Britton pursuit failed.

Los Angeles finalized 3 trades in the span of an hour after the Britton shutdown and solidified their contender status. Houston curled up in a corner and convinced themselves that they were already good enough.

And then as soon as the masses predictably began questioning the Astros’ lack of trade movement, the executives played the victim card. General Manager Jeff Luhnow talked about how disappointed he was that some deals were “almost over the finish line” but then couldn’t get done. He mentioned that things either got vetoed at the top or that Houston’s “math guys” didn’t like the long term numbers of deals in place.

Whatever excuse they come up with next, the Astros failed miserably.

Houston’s seeming lack of a Britton back up plan is pathetic. If Liriano was their back up plan and the trade just got announced sooner than the Britton news happened, that’s less pathetic but still not conducive to a team trying to win its first ever World Series.

If the Astros were worried about their long term math being messed up, that’s even more of a problem because it shows that the front office lacks perspective. As I mentioned yesterday, you don’t get to choose the winning window because it chooses you. Houston seems to be irresponsibly acting as if, by holding onto their precious prospects, the window is going to be open forever and that trading some away would close it immediately after 2017.

Teams in a similar position, the Yankees and Dodgers, went out and aggressively acquired quality starting pitching. Houston, with just as many prospects to trade as those two teams, let themselves be bullied into a corner and have thus allowed the gap between them and the rest of the American League to be all but closed.

The Astros will have nobody to blame but themselves when 2017 turns into another ‘what could have been’ year in the franchise’s long, title-less history.

Considering that I implored every team to either buy or sell at the deadline, you can put me up at the top of the list of people that are immensely frustrated by the holistic lack of movement over the month of July.

The Giants only traded Eduardo Nunez because it was convenient. The Mets moved laterally by shipping out Addison Reed but bringing in AJ Ramos. Milwaukee allowed themselves to be bullied around by the Cubs and opted to only comfortably acquire a few relievers. The Tigers unwisely held firm on Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler. The Pirates went nowhere. Cincinnati failed to capitalize on Zack Cozart’s sky high value. And I have yet to even mention teams like St. Louis, Toronto, Seattle, and the Angels that all remain without a clear franchise direction.

This trade deadline was a mess, and all the ‘losers’ have delusion to blame.

Baltimore’s delusion was believing it should buy. Houston’s delusion was believing prospects are more valuable than winning now. San Diego’s delusion was believing they had leverage with Brad Hand negotiations. Among many, many others, these stand out most.

Hopefully 2017’s trade deadline can serve as a reminder to all GM’s that midseason activity is pivotal to franchise success, whether that be during the current season or in the future. Sitting pat is a useless activity that yields nothing but mediocrity and irrelevancy.

To the D’Backs, Cubs, Indians, Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Dodgers or Nationals: one of you will enjoy a 2017 championship.

To the A’s, Rangers and especially the White Sox: enjoy the future fruits of your selling labor.

To everyone else: figure it out or remain irrelevant. The choice is yours.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

How Delusion Lost the Trade Deadline

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.

ubaldo-jimenez
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