Getting Geeky Part 1: Sabrmetrics vs Money
Image courtesy of © David Richard-USA TODAY Sports.jpgFORT MYERS - It used to be so simple. Starting in the 80s, fans knew who the best reliever was based on how near the end of the game the player pitched in a close game. The best got paid big bucks and pitched the ninth. The 8th inning setup man was next on the hierarchy. The 7th inning person ranked third. As a fan, you could watch when they pitched, and debate with your friends who should be pitching which inning, based on trust.
There is a general logic behind this. Pitching the ninth inning in a close game is more important than pitching the seventh inning. Why? Because if your team gives up the lead in the bottom of the ninth, your team loses, whereas if you give up a lead in the top of the seventh, your team still has nine outs to try and regain it. You want your best reliever at the end of the game for the same reason you want your best salesperson on your biggest accounts: the stakes are higher, you have more to lose. No wonder they’re both called closers.
But about 10-15 year after this advancement, sabrmetricians started wondering if it wasn’t time to look a little deeper. Some very specific questions started being asked. Was the hierarchy really necessary when leading by three runs? Why was a closer being saved (i.e. not used) during critical extra innings? Was it really more valuable to face the bottom of the order in the ninth than the middle of the order in the eighth?
The sabrmetricians had numbers on their side, but the system had something far more valuable: a lot of people entrenched and making money from the existing system. Closers were handsomely paid, sometimes three or four times as much as their teammates. Managers who strayed from the formula were chum if didn’t work, and close games can be fickle mistresses. Managers weren’t necessarily much better if it did work, as egos (and paychecks) could be at risk if the all-important “save” statistic was challenged.
But it is changing, and Twins fans are seeing it up close since Rocco Baldelli started managing the team. “I think focusing more on going out there and how to get the outs is significantly more important than the conversation of role,” Baldelli said this week, talking about his bullpen. “We're focused on the first part of that. We are focused on the wins and how to get the outs.”
Of course, that’s the sort of thing every manager says, but the last couple seasons of usage suggest it’s not just words. Taylor Rogers has mostly been the closer, but in 2019, he was often brought into games in the eighth inning, to face a more left-handed lineup. Towards the end of last year, he and Sergio Romo tag-teamed the ninth innings.
But neither of them was the most valuable Twins reliever, and in fact neither of them was particularly close. That title belongs to Tyler Duffey, who never pitched a ninth inning, and only pitched in the eighth inning three times, only twice in a close game. But he came into games in equally critical situations, and it can be shown using an advanced statistic called Leverage Index (LI).
It’s a statistic that I was surprised to find out that Duffey knows when he mentioned in his introductory interview this week. When asked about being satisfied with his earlier-inning fireman roll in the bullpen, Duffey replied “When you realize that an inning’s an inning, and how there’s a leverage index and all these things that really put more value into pitchers, you realize that inning you come in in the seventh and get the ‘three’ hitter out to finish an inning, that out may be so much more valuable than the eighth inning facing seven-eight-nine.”
He’s right, of course, but that’s a new school of thought in MLB. And a new statistic. If Tyler Duffey and the Twins are talking about Leverage Index, then we certainly should be. We’ll remedy that tomorrow.
Next - Part 2: Leverage Index and Your Blood Pressure
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