The art – not the science – of failure

I worked from home today, which meant a consistent stream of sports news outlets streaming in the background for many hours. As such, I was subject to incessant chatter about the back-end bullpen situation for the Detroit Tigers. Normally when we think about the detrimental effects of the 24-hour cable news cycle, we apply it to much more serious matters than sports, but today I really began thinking about some of the outside the lines impacts of Detroit’s closer landscape in light of the modern media environment.

First, let me put my cards on the table. I hold the standard sabermetric-oriented beliefs regarding the closer role. Here are a few things I believe.

  • There is no closer gene; nearly all middle relievers who are highly effective and capable of getting out both right- and left-handed hitters can be successful closers.
  • High-end closers are certainly valuable players, but they are largely luxuries and usually not worth the salaries they command.
  • The ninth inning is neither always the most difficult to pitch, nor most important. The set-up man’s job is often tougher.

With all that said, here’s something else I consider relevant—a media circus is not good for a team; when your team is making the a-block of sports highlight shows for the wrong reasons, that is not a good situation. Players are professionals and it is their job to block out distractions and just play, but incessant questioning by the media and a team’s own fanbase can wear at a team and allow minor issues to snowball. It is through this lens that I question the way the Detroit Tigers have handled their bullpen situation in 2013.

So far the Detroit Tigers have either failed to or decided against bringing in an established closer to replace Jose Valverde in the offseason. They then led most to believe that Bruce Rondon was in line to open the season as their closer. Shortly before Opening Day, they optioned Rondon to the minors. They then announced they’d be using a closer by committee, though it appeared Joaquin Benoit was going to emerge as the closer. During this time, Valverde was pitching in the minors. Earlier this week, they called up both Rondon and Valverde. Valverde converted his first chance. Rondon failed to hold a lead today, allowing the tying run to score in the eighth, while the Tigers ultimately lost in ten.

If part of your job is to evaluate and question the moves across the league, or to find angles to second-guess the Detroit Tigers, you’ve stumbled upon a treasure chest. In terms of giving the media the rope to hang your organization, Detroit has basically done as much wrong as possible, even if the actual impact on winning games is less profound than portrayed.

Instead of essentially institutionalizing uncertainty and indecision and well as bringing back a player they lacked confidence in a mere few months ago, there were a number of other defensible avenues the team could have pursued.

For one, Detroit could have simply brought in a closer from outside over the offseason. Perhaps, there are strict financial and player value arguments against this idea, but it would have changed the discussion regardless of outcome. Detroit is a contender and a spender, so they are certainly in a position where spending a premium for an established closer is defensible. Additionally, had they added a Rafael Soriano type, the organization would largely shield itself even in the case of failure. One of the rubs between pure analytics and real-life team management is that among a fanbase and the media, not all failure is treated equally.

Hypothetically, had the Tigers brought in Soriano only to see him not get the job done, the majority of the blame would be placed on the player, not the Tigers organization. The fact would have been they brought in a player who had done a specific job before and he was asked to do it again, and was unable to do so. For the reputation of the organization itself, that’s a common and acceptable way to fail.

Another less messy way of going about assigning the job of closer would have been to pick a guy – Benoit was probably a decent enough choice – and run with it. Let him pitch himself out of the job or lock it in. This is not necessarily the ideal situation for a team with the expectations of the Tigers, but it’s certainly a common enough situation for teams around the league.

Finally, they could have simply brought a shaky Valverde back and looked for upgrades while letting him prove or disprove himself.

Instead, what they’ve done is open up every possible line of questioning, while relying on a highly questionable option, who has the pressure of essentially being a savior. He’s also fresh off a string of disappointing his team’s fans in the previous postseason.

Again, it’s not just if you lose, but how you lose that drives perception in the pro sports fishbowl and 24-hour cable sports news cycle. There will be a lot of teams whose bullpens will blow many games. There will even be teams who might be playoff teams but for horrible bullpen performances. But that won’t be big news and it won’t be tremendous fodder for everybody to question the wisdom of entire organizations. Last year, the Brewers likely could have made the postseason, if not for an absolutely horrible bullpen, and a seemingly endless string of blown saves by John Axford. The narrative there was that Axford was not performing, not that the Brewers were inept.

If the Detroit bullpen keeps blowing games, it will keep making news in ways that other teams’ bullpen failures won’t. If they were consciously attempting to implement a strategy that was unconventional, but in line with analytic-based understanding, I’d defend them all the way. But, frankly, it looks like they don’t really have a vision at all, and that’s a recipe to turn a molehill into a mountain in short order. The dominant narrative of Detroit’s 2013 season may depend on Jose Valverde taking this opportunity and really running with it.


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Chris
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Chris

I go back and forth on the issue of when to use your best reliever. I understand the theory of using your best reliever in the highest leverage situations, but what if you’ve used your “closer” in the 6th and now have to go to # 3 or 4 in the pen for the 9th? I think I’d still rather save my best reliever for the 9th, cuz that really is do or die time.

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Well, when I think about that question, I think about the days of the “A-Rod is not clutch” argument with the Yankees. The Yanks would be down 7-2, he’d hit a 3-run HR, which people would dismiss as meaningless. Then, he’d get up in the 8th with one on and two out and pop out or something and the fans would kill him for not being clutch. …But, that AB was only “clutch” in the first place because he hit the homer two innings ago, right? I understand that the 9th inning is do or die time and you have… Read more »
Ian R.
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Ian R.

To go back a little farther, Mariano Rivera’s best year may have been 1996, when he was setting up for John Wetteland. 107.2 innings of 240 ERA+ ball, almost all in high-leverage situations? Damn.

Chris
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Chris

So Derek what we’re saying is that managers/coaches manage more to save their jobs than actually win?

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Chris, I don’t know if it’s that explicit or deliberate, but yes… kind of. I think the more strong accusation can be made in football, where each game and late-gate decision is dissected so publicly. There must be times when a coach thinks, “I’m really tempted to do this – but I can’t…” There was an Atlanta-Carolina game last year that played out as such, when Panthers lost acceptably instead of doing what would have actually given them a better chance to win. …The Falcons got killed for going for 4th and shorts twice two years ago – once against… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
I disagree about the “closer gene”.  This article my Malcolm Gladwell describes exactly what I see/feel about being clutch or being a choker:  http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_08_21_a_choking.html This is a nice follow-up article on it:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/the-new-neuroscience-of-choking.html  (by Jonah Lehrer) I lived that, albeit, on the choker side, so I know there are those who don’t choke. And that is what I would call the closer gene (or clutch gene), being able to perform the way you normally do, in spite of the situation.  Everyone has their own threshold, their tipping point.  Just because one can handle the middle innings does not mean that… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
(cont.) Furthermore, I don’t think that sabers generally understand how crucial having reliable closers are.  If SF’s and LAD’s Save% in 2012 were average of 70% (and presuming that blown saves end in losses), the Giants gained 6 wins by having above average saves while LA lost two wins by having slightly below average, so they would have ended 2012 tied at 88 wins.  So how much value was it to SF to have the closers they had and to LA that they didn’t have what they needed?  If LA had 80% Save%, they would have tied with SF last… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
…It’s not an absolute. Remember all the qualifiers I laid out – 1. I believe a pitcher can transition if he has the skill set, largely ignoring the make-up aspect of things. If you can get both RH and LH batters out at a very high level, you can lock down an inning – any inning. 2. I acknowledge, when discussing Detroit, that being a contender matters. The extra win or two that paying that premium might get you can be very important if that is the difference between 88 and 90 wins. 71 and 73… not so much so.… Read more »
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