In Monday’s American League Wild Card game between the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, Orioles manager Buck Showalter made the biggest blunder of the new wild card era.
As the one-game playoff went to extra innings, Showalter trotted out a series of relievers after starter Chris Tillman exited after 4 1/3 innings, leaving star closer Zach Britton on the bench as Edwin Encarnacion hit a walk-off three-run home run off Ubaldo Jimenez to advance to the Division Series.
Leaving the best pitcher in baseball out of the team’s most important game of the season is really bad. Putting in Jimenez while a pitcher like Britton is available should be punishable by law. The best players need to be in the game in the biggest moments, especially when the season is on the line. The playoffs can be weird sometimes, but this is still true.
Calling Britton the best pitcher in baseball is not a joke, nor is it an exaggeration. While he is a closer, Britton has put together the best season of his career in 2016 thanks to a sinker with ridiculous movement that consistently clocks in around 95 miles per hour. This season, Britton was a perfect 47-47 in save opportunities, posting a 0.54 ERA, an ERA- of 12 and striking out just over 29 percent of the batters he faced. He’s used his sinker to generate a groundball rate of 80 percent, becoming the first pitcher to ever reach an 80 percent groundball rate since FanGraphs began tracking statistics in 2002. He’s a legitimate Cy Young candidate even as a closer due to these video-game numbers.
With runners on first and third, with one out and one of the best power hitters in baseball (Encarnacion) at bat in the bottom of the 11th with the season on the line, it seems like that’s the perfect time for a groundball. So naturally, Showalter went with his best pitcher: Jimenez.
Jimenez, who owned a 5.44 ERA this season and a 126 ERA-, came in and was promptly knocked around the park. After his first pitch nearly hit Devon Travis in the head, Jimenez threw a strike. His next three pitches went like this: single, single and home run. Game over.
After the game, Showalter defended his decision, saying nobody has been pitching better than Jimenez down the stretch. He’s not totally wrong. Jimenez finished the season on a hot streak, but still was never as dominant as Britton was at any point this season.
Buck just said nobody has been pitching better than Ubaldo…
Umm ZACH BRITTON HAS
— Matt Zampini (@Matt_Zamp) October 5, 2016
Jimenez posted a 2.31 ERA and was striking out nearly eight batters per nine innings over the last 30 days of the regular season. Pretty good. Britton posted a 0.00 ERA, with a left on base percentage of 100 percent, the same 80 percent groundball rate and nine strikeouts per nine innings in that same span. Even better.
Having relievers like Mychal Givens, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day pitch more than an inning each makes sense. They have all been quality relievers this season with good numbers against right-handed hitters, which make up most of the Blue Jays lineup. Having two mediocre at best pitchers like Brian Duensing and Jimenez enter before Britton with the game on the line is unacceptable. The reason why Showalter did it was simple: he wanted Britton available for the save, and wouldn’t throw him in a non-save situation on the road.
Saves are cool. They’re what get relievers paid big bucks. But they aren’t important at all, especially when the season is on the line. More often than not, closers are the best pitchers in the bullpen, suited best for high-leverage situations. Those situations are not always in the ninth inning or when it is a save opportunity. More sabermetric-inclined teams like the Indians have deployed elite relievers like Andrew Miller whenever it was needed and had the least blown saves in baseball (three) since acquiring Miller around the trade deadline.
Saving Britton for the save wasn’t just dumb from a usage standpoint. According to FanGraphs, Britton has been even better in non-save situations, holding opposing batters to .167/.223/.227 compared to .194/.254/.260 in save scenarios. Not to mention, with runners on the corners and one out, a groundball is the perfect way to escape the jam. Why not use the pitcher who is literally the best in the history of the modern statistical era in doing so?
Lastly, not using Britton was certainly bad managing on Showalter’s part, not just from a tactical standpoint but a logical one as well. Putting Britton in practically any of the late-inning scenarios would have saved him from the media firestorm that’s occurred since his blunder. If Britton comes in instead of Jimenez, for example, and the Orioles lose, there’s not much more you could ask for. If the team’s best player gets beat and the O’s lose, Showalter’s post-game press conference is a lot easier. They threw their best player and lost. Instead, Showalter won’t be able to show his face in Baltimore for a while, and people are calling for his firing after a relatively successful season.
Orioles fans, and those of baseball in general, will struggle for years to figure out why Britton never got the call in the loss to the Blue Jays. Showalter very well may too, and now he has the whole offseason to think it over.