"Closer" should be a dirty word

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Joakim Soria save.jpgI and many others wondered why Trey Hillman never called Joakim Soria from the pen during the team’s seventh inning meltdown on Tuesday. He tried to explain himself yesterday:

“There’s a thought there, but, No. 1, it’s a very
unusual time for Joakim Soria to pitch in a ballgame. No. 2, you’ve
still got those same bats coming up in the ninth in a higher-leverage
situation — because it is the ninth, even if there are no runners on
base.”

How on Earth is the ninth inning — with no runners on base, mind you — a “higher-leverage situation” than an inning in which the other team is running laps around the bases and your pitcher is bleeding like he took five to the chest? I read this quote from Hillman and I honestly think that he doesn’t understand baseball. That he believes games can only be won or lost in the ninth inning, because it’s after that inning that the official scorer technically declares one team the winner.

And so what if the seventh is “an unusual time” for Soria to pitch? He’s your closer! You just said you keep him around for the highest leverage situations!  If you’re paying the guy to handle the worst of the worst certainly he can be expected to adjust to appearing in the seventh instead of the ninth.  Anything else, Trey?

“I’m not saying that’s so far-fetched that we might not have to try
that. But . . . I don’t blame any frustration among our fans in watching our
games. I don’t blame them at all. Smoke is coming out of my ears, and
my hat is blowing off, too.”

That smoke is coming out of his ears shocks me, because there’s certainly no evidence that the Victorian-era diesel generator that is apparently Trey Hillman’s baseball mind is operating at all.

Look, I’m picking on Hillman here because he’s the most recent example of this, but the fact is that no one in baseball optimizes their bullpen. The Mets could have and should have had K-Rod in the game in the tenth last night instead of Mejia, but they didn’t, because some sort of orthodoxy has developed that you can’t possibly use your closer in a non-save situation. Instead, Jerry Manuel had a 20 year-old kid pitching in extra innings at altitude instead of his relief ace.

And that’s the key, really: the names we call them. Relief pitchers used to actually be called “relief” pitchers because they’d provide relief when needed. Sometimes they were called “firemen” because they put out fires.  Now? We call them “closers,” and “setup men.” This nomenclature, which designates when they pitch temporally rather than situationally is evidence of the problem. Just like that stuff about the contract walk years a few minutes ago, our brains — managers’ brains — have grown comfortable with the way they use their reliever because, gosh, we already have names that tell us when to use them. It’s lazy and gives them the right not to think about how to win games.

The fact is, games are won and lost at any number of times. If you keep your best relief pitcher — and every manager will tell you that his closer is his best relief pitcher — on his butt, waiting around for that ninth inning save, you’re quite often going to find that there is nothing left to save. Trey Hillman showed us this the other day. Most managers screw this up several times a year.

At some point someone is going to win a division title they otherwise wouldn’t have because they actually deployed their bullpen in a manner which best serves the team’s chances of winning baseball games as opposed to a manner which best serves the rather arbitrary labels we’ve applied to the guys who sit down there. 

Video: Jason Kipnis jokes around after Rougned Odor slides hard into second base

DETROIT, MI - JUNE 24:  Jason Kipnis #22 of the Cleveland Indians takes to the field for the ninth inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on June 24, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. Kipnis hit two triples and drove in three runs in a 7-4 win over the Tigers. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Duane Burleson/Getty Images
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You may recall that, back in May, Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor got into a fight with Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. Bautista slid late into second base, with which Odor took issue, so he punched Bautista in the face. That earned him a seven-game suspension.

With one out in the fifth inning of Thursday’s game against the Indians, Odor reached on a fielding error by first baseman Mike Napoli. Jonathan Lucroy then hit into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. Odor slid hard into Jason Kipnis covering second base.

Kipnis, hearkening back to the Bautista fight, backed up as if he were afraid Odor would punch him. Odor got a good chuckle out of it, but it was the Rangers’ bench which perhaps enjoyed the joke most. The Rangers’ broadcast showing Adrian Beltre cracking up and telling his other teammates what had happened.

Carlos Gomez homered in his first at-bat as a Ranger

Carlos Gomez
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
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Rangers outfielder Carlos Gomez made his debut with his new team on Thursday night after a brief stint with Triple-A Round Rock. He started in left field and was inserted into the number eight spot in the Rangers’ batting order.

The Rangers made two quick outs in the bottom of the second inning, with Adrian Beltre grounding out and Rougned Odor striking out. But the inning was kept alive as Jonathan Lucroy singled and advanced to second base on a wild pitch, and then Mitch Moreland walked to bring up Gomez.

Gomez took a first-pitch cutter from Josh Tomlin for a ball, then jumped on another cut fastball, drilling it for a no-doubt three-run home run into the seats in left field at Globe Life Park in Arlington (#29 out of 30 in Craig’s ballpark name rankings).

Here’s the video.