When Do Managers Use the Hook?

For the uninitiated, this piece heavily relies on my previous work around refining the inning/score matrix to quantify bullpen usage, and more recently, using RE24 to adjust the score differential for the base/out state in cases where the pitcher is not entering into a “clean” inning.

In that most recent piece, I concluded by alluding to a sort of “leaderboard” for base/out state adjustments. One hypothesis that you might have – certainly, one that this author had – was that we might see elite non-closers at the top of the list, implying that those pitchers are being brought in with runners on base more often than usual. Although closers are generally among the most highly-regarded relief pitchers in the game, the managerial status-quo has been to use closers almost exclusively in the “clean inning” state entering the 9th. Thus, while closers might not lead in terms of score adjustments due to inherited runners, an elite setup man certainly might.

Without further ado, here’s what that leaderboard looked like in 2016.

Largest Average Negative Score Adjustments
Player Team # Apps Mean Adj. Score Mean Adj. Inn Score Diff Inn Diff
Colton Murray PHI 24 -2.30 6.90 -0.22 0.15
Chaz Roe ATL 21 -0.73 7.57 -0.21 0.11
Gavin Floyd TOR 28 0.54 8.04 -0.21 0.11
Dean Kiekhefer STL 26 -1.78 7.59 -0.21 0.13
Alex Wilson DET 62 0.18 6.97 -0.19 0.13
Carl Edwards CHC 36 1.31 7.84 -0.19 0.15
James Hoyt HOU 22 -1.77 7.26 -0.18 0.26
Jordan Lyles COL 35 0.68 7.34 -0.18 0.09
Tommy Layne NYY 29 0.83 7.49 -0.17 0.25
Matt Bowman STL 59 1.08 7.28 -0.17 0.06

So… this isn’t exactly what I thought I’d find. There aren’t any closers in this group, but there really aren’t many top-flight middle relievers, either. If anything, this group came in when the team was tied or trailing more often than not. What’s going on here?

What we can’t discern is whether mid-inning appearances tend to be high-leverage affairs. There are most certainly cases where long men are used in the middle of the 4th inning to relieve an ineffective starter. That situation isn’t interesting in a vacuum; but it may be interesting to know what portion of those mid-inning appearances are of this low-leverage variety, and which are of the high-leverage variety.

One way that we can answer this question is to stratify qualifying relief pitchers by their average inning when entering the game. To accomplish this, let’s define a “closer” as a pitcher with an average inning of 8.5 or higher, and a “middle reliever” as a pitcher with an average inning between 7 and 8.5. Then we can look at the percentage of appearances for each group which were not “clean” innings.

(Click the graph for an interactive version)

As you might expect – even if you vehemently disagree with the practice – closers very rarely enter the game mid-inning. 85-90% of their appearances come in clean innings. Middle relievers, on the other hand, come into the game at the start of an inning closer to 60-65% of the time. That number has been on the rise recently, which seems a bit odd, or at least, at odds with what we’ve seen in the postseason recently (more on that in a bit).

Some small percentage of the time – the area between the lines of the same color – pitching changes are made with 1 or 2 outs in the inning but with no one on base. This is probably not optimal: The pitcher coming into that situation has an easier-than-average job, as they’re essentially getting a shortened inning to work through. If a guy like Dellin Betances can face 300 batters in a season, why waste 20 of them on situations that are easier than average?

The orange lines represent a subset of the overall middle relief group where the team in question is either tied or has no greater than a 3-run lead, in either the 7th or 8th inning. These are situations of high importance and leverage. An effective manager might be employing mid-inning pitching changes more often in these situations in order to limit damage and preserve leads.

Yet, this subset isn’t very different than the overall middle relief group. Whatever difference exited in 2012 and 2013 has been eroded in the last few years, as part of a general trend: Mid-inning appearances in the regular season are becoming less common.

As a final step, let’s contrast this picture of usage with an analogous graph on postseason appearances. We’ll maintain the same definitions of “closer” and “middle reliever” for consistency.

(Click the graph for an interactive version)

Chaos! This graph looks more disorganized than the regular-season version, but then again, the postseason is more chaotic in general. We’re dealing with smaller samples and we can’t put too much faith into these trends. That said, two things stand out when comparing postseason usage to regular-season usage:

  • Closers are no longer treated as a special species. Even through 2014, closers were entering postseason games in clean innings about 80% of the time. In the postseason! When the managers are paying attention! When there are high-leverage situations at every turn! But in the past two seasons, closers have been used increasingly with runners on base – in fact, even more so than middle relievers have in close/lead situations during that time. Again, small samples, but this screams efficiency. If your closer is your most effective weapon, you should be using him with runners on base and a late lead, instead of using your second-most effective weapon instead.
  • Middle relievers have been used more often in “matchup” situations. 2014 and 2016 stand out in this regard, and it probably has something to do with guys named Bochy and Maddon representing large shares of the sample in those years. Recall that the gap between the dotted and solid lines of the same color represents the frequency of “1+ out, 0 on” appearances. Those gaps are huge in 2014 and 2016! While mid-inning appearances among all classes of pitchers were highest in 2016, that’s not the case at all for “men on base” appearances, which were more or less in line with historical norms. This represents an increase in match-up-based thinking, not leverage-based thinking.

These graphs look different, and they probably always will. Teams have relatively fewer resource constraints in the bullpen come October. They have more days off between games, and fewer games to budget resources for in the future.

That said, there’s been no carryover at all from the wild, and relatively new, bullpen management seen in the postseasons of 2015 and 2016. Constraints will limit the extent to which managers can call upon their best arms with runners on base late in games, but it would be hard to imagine that a status quo which holds the closer for the 9th inning almost 90% of the time can’t be improved upon in some way. Teams have spent more on bullpens, but they haven’t figured out how to use them any more efficiently in the regular season, and the differences we’ve witnessed in the postseason show that they’re only getting it about half right, even when it matters most.

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I'm an actuary who plays around with baseball data on the side. Brooklyn, NY. Twitter: @malkusm

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Well, setup men also come into clean innings a good chunk of the time. It’s just usually the 7th or 8th inning rather than the 9th. The guys who come in with runners on base most often are your specialists, guys brought in to get ground balls or to face a tough lefty/righty.