The Washington Nationals loss in game 4 of the NLDS put a spotlight on one of the most baffling enigmas in professional sports; most major league managers have absolutely no idea how to use relief pitchers. Major league managers, even Matt Williams, are all of at least average intelligence, yet they routinely make terrible moves with relievers late in games, particularly so in the playoffs.
Playoff baseball magnifies by a factor of ten the flawed approach that managers have towards relief pitching. When you are managing over a 162 game season, it makes some sense to stick to a predetermined routine of middle relievers, set up men, and closers. You have to think big picture and can’t wear out your best arms trying to win every game as if it is your last. The difference with the playoffs is that often times the game could very well be your last.
In game 2 of the NLDS, up 1-0, Williams took starter Jordan Zimmerman out of the game with 2 outs in the 9th inning after walking a batter. The closer promptly surrendered the tying run and the Nationals went on to lose in 18 innings. Not wanting to risk overworking your starter makes perfect sense in April, but when you already down one game to none in a best of three series, the starter is likely to get six months rest before his next start if you don’t win that game. They didn’t win and Zimmerman’s next start will be in April of next year.
The decision in game 2 was nowhere near as bad as game 4. Tied 2-2 in the 7th inning of an elimination game, the Nationals surrendered a lead with their two best relievers along with Steven Strasburg watching helplessly from the bullpen. This perfectly illustrates the problem with big league managers’ approach to relief pitching. When the Giants got runners on base, that was the time to bring in the absolute best pitcher you have available at the time, but Williams chose not to bring in his best relief pitcher because managers have all inexplicably decided that your best relief pitcher should only ever pitch the 9th inning. There is absolutely no objective reason for this beyond inertia. In the playoffs, there is no reason why any reliever would have to pitch the 9th. With a shortened post-season rotation, a starter could be the one to close out a game. In the case of game 4, Steven Strasburg was more than capable of coming out and getting 3 outs in the 9th inning if necessary.
For all the progress that the study of data and analytics in baseball has made, the myopic approach to closers seems to have only gotten more entrenched in recent years. Managers will likely cling to this outdated strategy as long the most useless stat in all of baseball, the “Save”, continues to be tracked and given such high regard. Only when relievers and managers are unchained from this demi-stat will we ever see truly rational use of relief pitchers.