Don’t Be a Slave to the Save
With the Orioles leading the Blue Jays 8-5 with two outs in the ninth inning on Friday night, Orioles manager Buck Showalter brought in his closer Jim Johnson. This being a save situation, this was a perfectly logical decision, right? The game was in the balance with the Blue Jays rallying back. The Orioles had a 3 run lead, there was a runner on 2nd base and the batter at the plate had the ability to hit the ball out of the yard. Colby Rasmus was already 3 for 4 at the plate on the day and has 16 home runs on the year. So Buck brought in Jim Johnson for the save at a point in the game when the Orioles had a 98.6% win expectancy. But was this the right move?
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I’d argue that this was the incorrect decision from Showalter. He generally makes very good decisions as the Orioles manager, but bringing in Jim Johnson as soon as the game presented a save opportunity was not one of them.
First of all, Tommy Hunter had only thrown 23 pitches. Already this season, Tommy Hunter has worked as many as two innings a total of 10 times. He has also thrown as many as 24 pitches in an outing 17 times. I don’t think the argument can be made that he was tired. He was still throwing in the upper 90’s and was throwing his curveball for strikes. Actually, the last pitch he threw to his last batter Adam Lind was the hardest pitch he threw in his entire outing. The pitch was a 99 mph fastball off the inside corner. The pitch labeled number four below was the one that Adam Lind grounded down the first base line for a double. It wasn’t a bad pitch as Lind had already fouled off and swung through fastballs in similar locations.
Adam Lind’s double was the third hit of the inning that Tommy Hunter had given up but only the single off the wall by Edwin Encarnacion was hit particularly hard. If Encarnacion had not advanced to 2nd on defensive indifference, it’s likely that only one run would’ve scored on Lind’s double.
As you can see from this graph of Hunter’s velocity, he was not tiring at all. If anything he was getting stronger as he worked to try to end the game.
So Hunter had given up two singles and a double in the inning, but only of them was a hard hit ball. He was not tired, had exhibited the ability to work multiple innings in a game 10 times this season and he was maintaining or increasing his velocity. Then why did Buck Showalter go to Jim Johnson to face Colby Rasmus?
The save rule, of course. As soon as Adam Lind doubled to knock in Reyes and Encarnacion, the tying run was on deck and the game became a save situation. A manager is forced to bring in his closer in a save situation, right? As I’m sure you can tell from the tone of this article, I don’t think he should be.
Closers get paid in arbitration and free agency often times by how many saves they are able to accrue so managers feel obligated to bring them in when a save situation presents itself. But if there is a pitcher already in the game capable of getting the last out or two of the game, why go through the trouble of bringing in the closer?
If anything Jim Johnson has been overworked this season, having already thrown 42.1 innings after throwing 68.2 all of last season. His 42.1 innings are the most in major league baseball for a full time closer. If you want to be generous and include Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers who has only closed for the past month, he falls to 2nd.
Furthermore, Johnson had worked the night before picking up a save versus the Rangers. If a save situation presents itself in today’s game, Johnson may not be at 100% as it will be the third game in a row he has worked. Yes, he only threw one pitch in Friday night’s game but when you add the pitches he threw in the bullpen to get ready to come in, it still takes a toll.
As we all know Johnson has been struggling this season, while Tommy Hunter has pitched extremely well. Even after giving up two runs last night, Hunter has a 2.26 ERA while Johnson has a 3.80 ERA. I’m not advocating taking Johnson out of the closer’s role. I still think the bullpen works best with him at the end. And Hunter’s versatility to pitch in different situations and over multiple innings is extremely valuable. But if you’re not going to let him throw multiple innings when he clearly has the ability to do so as a former starter, what’s the point?
A pitcher who is as good as Tommy Hunter should be allowed to finish a game when the ninth inning begins with an 8-3 lead. It doesn’t make any sense to put another appearance on Jim Johnson’s ledger just to get him a save. Other pitchers can get outs in the ninth inning besides the closer, especially pitchers as good as Tommy Hunter.
This is a saying that every manager should put up in the clubhouse just to remind themselves: Don’t be a slave to the save.