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Huston Street and Ryan Howard Illustrate The Closer Fallacy

Oct 12, 2009 – 10:41 PM
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Pat Lackey

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Let's start by looking at two stat lines. Some of you have probably already guessed where I'm going with this, but bear with me.

Player A: .319/.395/.691, 1 HR/11.56 plate appearances
Player B: .207/.298/.356, 1 HR/37 plate appearances

If you haven't already figured it out, both of those players are Ryan Howard. "Player A" is Howard against righties in 2009 and "Player B" is Howard against lefties in 2009. To simplify, Ryan Howard is Albert Pujols against righties and David Eckstein against lefties. So why does no one question Jim Tracy's decision to leave right-hander Huston Street in the game to face Howard with the Rockies' season on the line?

The answer, of course, is that Street is Colorado's "closer." The Rockies were winning 4-2, so Street had to be on the mound. It was Tracy that made the decision to not bring Joe Beimel (the only remaining lefty in the Rockies' bullpen) in to face Howard, but I'm willing to bet you could count on one hand (or maybe even no hands), the managers in baseball that would've made that move.

Watching the post-game coverage tonight, not one on-air analyst or reporter is questioning Tracy's decision to stick with Street. He probably won't take much heat for the move in the Denver papers tomorrow. That's all because sticking with your "closer" is what's done in baseball.

Now flip the situation around; imagine that Tracy had brought Beimel in to face Howard. Beimel's a decent but not great reliever with a slight platoon split. If he had given up the hit to Howard, everyone would be frothing at the mouth over Tracy's decision without even mentioning Howard's platoon split. In fact, people would probably be questioning the move even if Beimel had gotten Howard out, because that's how out of place the move would've seemed.

Maybe using Beimel against Howard isn't a slam dunk move given the history between the two (Howard is 3-for-10 with a double, a triple, and a homer), but Howard's platoon split is still about as big as it gets and if it's not an easy decision, it's one at least worth thinking about. It's telling that no one has even mentioned the thought of pulling Street for a lefty against Howard. It's not even part of the discussion.

Closers are an ingrained part of baseball, but the Rockies and Red Sox were eliminated by blown saves and the Twins and Cardinals both had their chances to win crippled by them. Why is it so crazy to rethink this model a little bit?
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