After watching Dusty Baker manage the Cincinnati Reds for six years and Byran Price now for one, Reds fans are well versedÃ‚Â with Closer Rules. Baker and Price are far from the only major league skippers who follow Closer Rules, but they are among its most devoted adherents.
To summarize, major league teams designate one, and only one, pitcher in their bullpen as the closer. Generally, the closer is also their best reliever. Managers then follow an informal, but strict — so strict we use capital letters — set of rules for how to use their closer.
According to Closer Rules, the team’s closer pitches the ninth inning of any game where his team has a one, two or three run lead, or in the top of the ninth of a tied game. Occasionally, if one of these specific situations doesn’t occur for several days, you can use your closer in a blow out just to get him work. Here’s what happens:
Managers always bring in their closer with a three-run lead. Managers never bring their closer in with a four-run lead (unless there’s an opportunity for a rare 4-run save). Why the arbitrary, but lock-step, cut-off point?
Managers always bring their closers into tied games in the ninth (not the eighth, not the tenth) when they are the home team, but managers never bring their closers into tied games when they are the visiting team. Why is the strategy of using your best reliever influenced by which dugout a team sits in?
Managers never bring their closer into games they are behind, no matter how important or urgent the situation. Why do managers maximize their chances of winning, by using the best pitcher, when they are in the lead, but never when they are behind?
Answer: The Save Rule.
It turns out, the precise rules for how managers use their team’s closer are dictated entirely by the way a Save is awarded.
By rule, a Save goes to the individual who is the last player to pitch in a winning game as long as he is not the player earning a Win. So, by definition, only one player can earn a save in a given game. Saves are awarded when the player pitches for at least one inning with his team leading by no more than three runs; or if the pitcher enters the game with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck (producing the possibility of a 4-run save); or if he pitches the last three innings.
The Save has been an official MLB rule only since 1969. That’s right, somehow Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax managed to play Major League Baseball even though the sport didn’t award saves to a closer. Pete Rose played for six years before the first Save was recorded.
Closers are brought into games with three run leads, but not those with four run leads. That dichotomy certainly isn’t dictated by strategy. Teams entering the ninth with a 4-run lead win 99 percent of their games over the past 50 years. Teams that enter the ninth with a 3-run lead win 97.5 percent of the time. (FYI, teamsÃ‚Â win about 93 percent of the games starting the ninth with a Ã‚Â 2-run lead and 85 percent with 1-run edges.)
AnÃ‚Â individual player’s statistic, not the strategic well being of the team, dictates how closers are used.
Aroldis Chapman pitched in 54 games last year. In 18 of those, the Reds were either 3 or more runs ahead or behind. Read those last two sentences again. Remember all those one-run losses?
Does anyone doubt that if the Save Rule were amended to award Saves only when teams have leads of one or two runs (not three) that managers would quit using their closers in games with three-run leads? After all, those would be non-Save situations.
Why doesn’t a smart manager buck these counter-productive norms and use his best relief pitchers in the most important situations? Because good closers want to get paid. And their currency is the Save. If a manager didn’t promise all the Saves to his closer, good closers wouldn’t want to pitch for his team. It’s a strategy based on a bargain that is geared toward financial reward for individual players. Or maybe it’s just that managers are averse to standing out as being unconventional. If you follow the Rules and something goes wrong, hey, you were just following the rules.
Anyhow, that long set-up brings us to this weekend at Great American Ball Park.
On Saturday, Mike Matheny brought his closer Trevor Rosenthal into the game in the eighth inning to record the final five outs. This violated Closer Rules because one-inning stints are necessary so that your designated closer, and only the designated closer, is available to pitch the next game and the next game should Save situations arise.
On Sunday, Matheny brought Rosenthal in to pitch the ninth inning with the game tied. That violated Closer Rules because it meant some other pitcher could get the Save should the Cardinals get the lead. Closer Rules dictate that the manager reserve the closer in a tied game on the road until (if) the team gets a lead that needs Saved.
In each case, the Cardinals manager put the team’s need to win ahead of maximizing save opportunities for his closer. Those choices may or may not have been the reason Matheny’s team won Saturday and Sunday. But all 25 of the Cardinals players were awarded Wins, both days.