Conventional wisdom in baseball today states that closers should only be used in save situations. Practically speaking, this means that, if a game is tied in the bottom of the ninth inning—or in extra innings—the road team should avoid bringing in its closer, instead saving him to close out the game once his team has taken the lead. Many teams, including the Mets, apparently subscribe to this philosophy. The problem is that this strategy is totally counterproductive, and the Mets’ loss to the Braves on Saturday illustrates why.
The Mets and Braves were tied at three heading into the bottom of the ninth. Instead of bringing in his closer and best available pitcher, Jeurys Familia, manager Terry Collins called on Hansel Robles and Jerry Blevins to work the inning. The move worked, as the two pitchers recorded a 1-2-3 inning.
When the game moved to the bottom of the tenth, still tied, Collins opted again to bypass Familia. This time, the manager brought in Erik Goeddel and Josh Smoker. Neither has been very effective this year: Goeddel had a 4.55 ERA and a 4.23 FIP heading into the game, while Smoker had a 5.59 ERA and 4.70 FIP. Familia, by contrast, had posted an excellent 2.41 ERA and 2.26 FIP.
Goeddel gave up a single to start the inning, allowed the runner to reach second on a wild pitch, and then surrendered another base hit. After Goeddel struck out Tyler Flowers, Collins brought Smoker into the game with runners on first and third, and one out. Smoker got Ender Inciarte to fly out, but he then gave up a walk-off RBI single to Adonis Garcia. This whole time, Familia was sitting in the bullpen, waiting for a save situation in which to enter the game. Unfortunately, that save situation never occurred. The Mets chose to use weaker pitchers than Familia, those pitchers gave up a run, the team lost, and Familia never appeared in the game.
It’s a good illustration of why “saving” a team’s closer is poor strategy. For the road team, the bottom of every inning starting with the ninth is a do-or-die situation. The team’s primary concern needs to be doing everything it can to prevent a run from scoring. The Mets did not do that on Saturday, and they were punished for it.
The other obvious problem with saving one’s closer is that, by doing so, the team is asking weaker pitchers to do a tougher job. In the bottom of the tenth inning of a tie game, the pitcher’s job is to not give up a run. If he does give up a run, the game ends. One would think that a team would want its best available pitcher to take on this difficult assignment.
On the other hand, suppose the team takes a one-run lead in the top of the tenth. In that scenario, the team’s pitcher can give up a run in the bottom of the inning without losing the game. If the team takes a lead of two runs or more, its pitcher can surrender at least one run and still preserve the win for his team. It would seem that one would want a lesser pitcher—like Erik Goeddel—to perform this less-difficult task.
Of course, we don’t know things would have played out had the Mets used Familia in Saturday’s game. He may or may not have given up the game-winning run, and the Mets may or may not have scored had he kept the game tied.
We do know that, by keeping Familia off the field, Terry Collins did not put his team in the best position to win. The Mets lost that game and, with it, they temporarily lost their lead for the second Wild Card spot. At this point in the season, every game is crucial, and the Mets cannot afford to sacrifice games based on “old-school” baseball theories that are simply counterproductive and outdated.