It’s the bottom of the 8th; your team is down by one run on the road. The opponent is threatening with men on the corners and one out. Your 4-5-6 hitters are due up in the top of the ninth, keep the deficit at one and you’ve got a punchers chance. A three run home run later, the game is out of reach. The Boston Red Sox faced almost this exact scenario a few nights ago while playing the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox lost that game. Julian Tavarez gave up a three run home run to Magglio Ordonez that quickly put the game on ice. But it wasn’t Julian’s fault. Or Magglios’, or Varitek’s, or anyone’s fault.
The closer is a relatively new “position” in baseball history. Someone realized that having a pitcher at the end of close games was very valuable in winning games. Eventually the save was invented to reward these end of the game specialists. Whether you agree with the save stat or not it is undeniably a huge part of the game today. When bullpens are struggling it is often because they “lack that end of the game guy” or “they’re going with the closer by committee”. The Red Sox lost that game in Detroit not because they don’t have a legit closer (Papelbon) but because they refused to use him in a “non-save situation”. Ludicrous.
Picture the same scenario as above. Men on the corners with one out, you’re down by one, and you have some power due up next inning. It is completely asinine to think that this is not a game saving situation. Your best reliever this season has been Jon Papelbon, lights out, striking out guys, getting infield pop-ups, he has been untouchable all season long. As manager it is your job to maximize your chances to win every game. Bringing in Papelbon in the *gasp* 8th inning and keeping the game within reach maximizes your chances to win. Period. Terry Francona is by no means totally responsible for this decision, or lack there of. He is just the most recent in a long line of managers following the ideology and mentality of baseball today. “This isn’t a save situation? I am not going to even think of my closer”.
Let’s look at this from a different perspective. You are the manager of a team. You are up by one in the 8th and the bases are loaded. Your team is up and it is the bottom third of your lineup. You have a very good pinch hitter sitting on the bench. This is a no brainer, you clearly pinch hit to try and score some insurance runs. This gives you the best chance to win. Why is this not true of bullpens and particularly closers? In my mind any critical late (after the 7th inning) game circumstance, leading or trailing, involving your bullpen should go to your ace closer. Maybe I am crazy and would have my closer appear in 80 games and only have 30 saves. But I do think that Papelbon would’ve kept that lead at one. Save be damned.
The game today is driven by numbers. With all the media coverage, a myriad of sports writers, and the ESPN nation, numbers are thrown at us from all directions. We all want the next home run champ, Cy Young winner, MVP, or next all time great player. In a perfect world managers should be immune to this but that is impossible. If it was possible then Francona would have put Papelbon in and who knows, maybe they go into the 9th down by only one run. The save probably needs to be re-thought and maybe even broadened. Setup men get nothing and probably face as many “game saving” situations as the closer does.
As a manager it is your job to maximize your chances of winning. If bringing in your closer in the 8th inning while trailing, to preserve your chance to win the game will do that, then you should without question do it.