Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Colossal playoff bonks

As a modern closer in baseball, you have one job. Get the last three outs and seal the win for your team. Despite the specialization of pitching roles and the narrow task of getting those final outs delegated to the fresh-from-the-bullpen closer, the incidence of losing leads late in the game is no lower since the advent of the modern one-inning closer in the mid-80s than it was when guys like Lefty Gomez would throw 25 complete games in 34 starts in the '30s or Bob Feller would throw 370 innings.

The first time a team blew a ninth-inning lead in game 7 of the World Series and lost was 1997, when closer Jose Mesa did it. Such failures had happened in the League Championship Series -- in 1977, the Royals lost a 3-2 ninth inning lead to the Yanks but that dissipated with starters in relief; in 1992, the Pirates blew a 2-0 lead in the ninth inning of NLCS game 7 to the Braves and their starter took the loss.

So even with the closer as a specialty position, teams have not been better served with the fresh arm out of the 'pen late in playoff games. Instead, more closing opportunities has led to major failures: Rivera in the '01 WS, Mitch Williams in the '93 WS, Eckersley in the '88 and '90 WS.

But some bonks are simply bad. Those are the ones where the closer has a multi-run lead and starts the ninth. Worse than the bonk is when the stakes are high. On Sunday, Jon Papelbon gave up 3 runs in the ninth with two out to the Angels . . . and did the Angels' comeback eliminated the Redsax. It was the first time a team allowed a comeback from 2 or more runs down with two out in the last inning of an elimination game in the playoffs and lost. Yesterday, Huston Street had two out, two on, and needed only one strike against Ryan Howard to get the Rox to game 5 of the NLDS. Double, single, three runs and the Rox are setting up tee times. As the closer roles have become more specialized, so have the approaches that hitters take in the ninth inning to the closer -- more careful, more apt to battle the pitcher to force him to throw lots of pitches because the one-inning closer burns out after 18-20 tosses.

Stretching a closer to even four outs is anathema to most managers. Last year, when he set the record with 62 saves, Frankie Rodriguez had ZERO appearances all year of more than one inning. By contrast, Mariano Rivera had nine saves of 4+ outs in 2003 (out of 40), and five more in the playoffs. This year, even as the Yanks have essentially babied him, Mo had seven 4-out saves. Papelbon had six of 4+ outs.

And the Yanks will need more out of Mo. Phil Hughes has looked like Tom Gordon (career postseason = 21 IP, 17 ER, 6 HR, 7.06 ERA). Joba is unsteady. And Girardi, for some daft reason (overconfidence in his 'pen), has had a quick hook (Burnett = 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 95 pitches; Pettitte = 6.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 81 pitches) even though his starters allowed 3 ER in 19 innings with 22 K against the Twins. If that bites Girardi and the Yanks against the Angels, you'll have heard it here first.

No comments: