(BaseballStL) – Baseball has a long history rich with traditions that make the game great. The use of a closer exclusively in the ninth inning is not one of them.
Sometimes you need your closer to get those last three outs of a tight game. More often than not, you needed them a lot earlier. Unfortunately convention trumps logic more frequently in baseball than it should.
Monday night’s thriller served as a perfect example of how dogged adherence to the norm can kill a team long before the grand slam ever does.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, the Cardinals trailed 5-3. Freese led off with a single, and Carlos Beltran knocked a pinch-hit double to put runners at second and third.
The crowd was roaring, and the Cards were on the doorstep of a comeback. The game was on the line and it was time for a pitching change.
Aroldis Chapman is one of the leagues premier closers. He’s in the top 10 in the majors and tied for third in the NL with 33 saves. The Reds are paying him $30 million dollars over six years to be the most sure-handed pitcher in tough situations on their roster. He has 90 strikeouts in 53.1 innings, and has a 100+ mile per hour fastball with a knee-buckling curve.
So why then, did Manny Parra come into the game? Manny Parra with a WHIP of 1.3 and a below-average runs per nine inning mark.
Because that’s when he is supposed to come in. Chapman is the closer, so he comes in in the ninth- or if you’re really crazy- the eighth for a four-out close.
So Parra comes in to face arguably the best leadoff hitter in baseball, and walks him. The bases are loaded in a two run game and Jon Jay is coming to the plate. Jay is hitting .345 in August and has an OPS of .925.
Chapman remains on the bench. Jay taps a grounder to first, scoring a run. Once again it’s second and third, and the Cardinals are one run closer. Matt Holliday, who has already hit a towering home run, is up next and behind him is the best RBI man on the roster in Allen Craig.
While the game is clearly important to the standings in the NL Central, and crucial to beginning a stretch of tough games for the Cardinals, it became elevated in importance with the emotional stake invested.
Going back and forth, trading hits and great pitches, both teams needed this win. It provided tremendous momentum to the winner, and would suck the air out of the losing team after all the drama. Chapman remains on the bench.
Enter J.J. Hoover, with a WHIP of 1.2 and a ground ball to fly ball ratio of .43. He walks Holliday, bringing Craig to the plate with the sacks jammed.
From the bullpen, Chapman watches as Craig takes the first pitch to the right field seats for a grand slam and the Cardinals eventually win. He never throws a pitch, and one of the most exciting games of the year goes to the now-division-leading Redbirds.
While there’s no guarantee Chapman would have gotten those outs, it’s what he’s paid to do. His job is to shut down an offense with the game on the line. Sometimes that crucial moment is in the ninth, sometimes it’s the seventh.
Why in the world would you not put your best high-leverage pitcher in during what is clearly the defining moment of the game to this point? Perhaps the thought is if you put him in in the seventh and then he can’t go the ninth and you lose it there, you made a mistake. I guess, but if your other guys can’t get three outs in the ninth, why would you assume they can do it in the seventh in that situation?
Managers always talk about putting their best guys on the field, and giving the team the best chance to win. Were Manny Parra and J.J. Hoover your best guys to shut down the heart of the order with the game on the line?
If they are, then why don’t they pitch in every like situation? If they’re not, then who is and why isn’t he out there?
The truth of it is, Baker won’t be criticized for doing what he did. He used the guys in the innings they were supposed to be used based on what convention dictates. It’s the safe and standard play, and no one ever got fired doing what everyone else was doing.
Maybe late August isn’t the time to change up roles. Maybe it’s something that should come at the outset of a season and not the playoff push. In any event, it seems like an awful lot of money to pay your best door-shutter to watch the game get lost because it wasn’t the usual inning for him to come in.