Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Is Torre's fatal flaw common?

For the past few years, I have on numerous occasions started yelling at my TV or computer screen during a completely predictable situation. It occurs when my favorite baseball team is on the road, in a tie game, in the ninth inning or later. For some reason, the manager of that team (Joe Torre) refuses to pitch his best reliever (Mariano Rivera) in a situation where there is no margin for error. If the home team scores— it’s game over, end of story. I am infuriated by this failure of logic, of this apparent managing towards a made-up statistic. “There could be a Save Situation later!” thinks the manager, and keeps his best reliever on the bench while a worse pitcher gives up three hits and the game is over. At no time was this more frustrating than Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, when I watched in horror as Jeff Weaver gave up a home run to Alex freaking Gonzalez (career SLG: .396) in the 12th inning while Rivera watched from the bullpen.

I've had flashbacks to that a lot recently, because Joe Torre has done this twice in the past four days. On Saturday in San Fransisco, after Alex Rodriguez belted his seventh ninth-inning home run to tie the game, Torre put in Luis Vizcaino to pitch the ninth inning of a tie game. At that point, Vizcaino’s ERA was 5.71 and he had pitched an inning the night before. Torre had also burned Mike Myers, Brian Bruney, and Ron Villone (all in the seventh inning), followed by Kyle Farnsworth in the eighth. This left him with Vizcaino, Scott Proctor, and Rivera. In the ninth inning of a tie game, Torre went with the worst available option. It worked out for Vizcaino and then for Proctor, who pitched the eleventh and twelfth. In the top of the thirteenth, with the go-ahead run on first and two outs, Torre allowed Proctor to bat and he struck out. In the bottom half of the inning, Torre finally got someone up in the bullpen- but it was not Rivera, it was Roger Clemens. But Clemens would have to wait a day to make a relief appearance, as Proctor allowed a run and the game was over.

Then, last night, as the Yankees offense continued to struggle and put up runs for the brilliant Andy Pettitte, Torre repeated this maneuver. After Kyle Farnsworth pitched a scoreless eighth, Torre brought in Scott Proctor again in the ninth. Proctor allowed a walk, a single, a popup, and a walk to load the bases. Rivera was still not warming as Proctor’s 3-2 pitch to Ramon Hernandez walked in the winning run.

There are many Yankees fans that agree with me, that Torre is responsible for these losses because he manages to the save statistic. This website counts the number of such losses. Even a loyal Torre follower like beat writer Pete Abraham questioned Torre after last night. The Yankees manager responded:

He pitched in the 8th and 9th just a couple of days ago on Saturday and I wasn’t
ready to bring him in at that point.

Now, maybe it was late, maybe he just made a mistake. But Saturday was the day that Rivera was definitely not used, in a tie game on the road. Rivera pitched 1.2 innings (20 pitches) on Friday, in a game where the Yankees led by four runs. Before then, Rivera had last pitched June 12. Proctor was the one who had thrown 50 pitches on Saturday. This is pretty inexcusable, but it still misses the overall logic- leaving your best reliever on the bench when one run allowed loses the game. Instead, the closer is saved for a situation in which one run does not lose the game, or perhaps doesn't even tie the game- suppose Proctor gets out of the ninth and the Yanks score 2 in the top of the tenth. Then Torre brings in Rivera? This makes no sense.

In fact, Mariano Rivera has been used late in a tie game on the road once this season, in the eleventh inning of a game in Oakland. Last year, he pitched in the Boston Massacre Part Deux in the ninth inning of a tie game. Since he became the closer in 1997, Rivera has started the bottom of the ninth or later (in a tie game) just five times. It would take a lot of digging to figure out exactly how many innings he did not pitch in a tie game on the road, but I'm certain it's quite a bit more than five.

But hold on a minute. My rebirth as a baseball fan has included statistical analysis, and one of the lessons to be learned is to compare someone to their peers, such as VORP and RCAA. How do other managers handle their elite closers? Let's dig.

Some notes: This includes all appearances in the ninth inning or later on the road, starting the inning. So in extra innings, the manager has already made the mistake of having an inferior releiver pitch in a walk-off situation. This would make sense if the rest of the bullpen were quite solid, but even with a really good bullpen, like, say, the 2003 Astros, the closer was still used in this situation by Jimy Williams multiple times. So I think we can safely say that use in this situation is

1) limited
2) varies by manager, and has nothing to do with the closers' ability.

What does this mean for Torre? He is simply average in this regard- it does not change the logic of the situation and does not account for personalities and other intangibles. While many fans are calling for Torre's head over this, the reality is that it is rare to find a manager that does not make this mistake, and so other reasons are necesary. Like bunting with your power hitters, for example. But that's for another day....

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