Thursday, October 18, 2007

Playoff Reliever Usage

As regular readers know, I'm an outspoken critic of reliever usage in the majors. Each MLB team could gain an extra win every season--the same win they'll willingly spend $20 million for--by telling its ace reliever that he will now pitch in tie games rather than protecting three-run leads.

But I digress. The playoffs present some unique applications for reliever leverage, because they feature frequent off days and "must-win" games. Since this lowers the costs associated with giving additional innings to your top relievers, it makes sense that we actually see teams frequently using their closers for multiple innings in October, while never going to their mop-up men except in complete blowouts.

If it's Game 7 of the World Series, there's really nothing to lose if your top reliever's arm falls off. Thus, if you have the choice between having your closer pitch either the ninth inning or innings 5 and 6, it's not even close; you take the higher workload and smile. In fact, if Terry Francona announces Jonathan Papelbon as his Game 7 starter, it will be one of the greatest moments in baseball history, at least for me.

Any elimination game is a similar situation. When the Cubs went to Carlos Marmol early in Game 3 of the NLDS, some friends asked me if the team made a mistake by not waiting for a better spot. Lou Piniella did the right thing. With your back up against the wall, it doesn't matter in what order you use your relievers; the key is to make sure your best arms are throwing as many innings as possible. If an inferior reliever is going to blow the game, it doesn't matter whether he does it in the fourth or ninth inning.

Getting Marmol in right away was the best way to maximize his output for the game, even though the leverage index in that situation wasn't especially high in a vacuum. For the same reason, Boston should have been willing to use Papelbon in the sixth inning tonight if Josh Beckett wasn't pitching like a super-stud. Why have him wait for a save opportunity that may never come if Eric Gagne blows the lead?

Of course, that doesn't mean you use Papelbon to protect a six-run lead in Game 5, as the Red Sox did tonight. But the Red Sox know Paps better than I do, and maybe he needs an inning here or there to keep his arm fresh. If, however, this represents one less inning he can pitch in Fenway this weekend, the Sox fully deserve to lose.

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Random terrible announcing of the day: Tim McCarver has spent the entire game pushing for Jacoby Ellsbury to start Game 6 over Coco Crisp. After Ellsbury replaced Manny Ramirez for defensive purposes tonight, McCarver said (and I'm paraphrasing): "If you can come in for defense up by six runs in the eighth, you can certainly start a Game 6 in Boston."

Um, what?

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