Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.
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Playoff Reset: The NL Wild Card Game

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The Game: San Francisco Giants @ New York Mets, NL Wild Card game
The Time: 8:00 PM EDT
The Place: Citi Field, New York
The Channel: ESPN
The Starters: Madison Bumgarner (Giants) vs. Noah Syndergaard (Mets)

The Upshot:

  • This one is all about the starting pitching. You may not much like one-and-done baseball, but Madison Bumgarner vs. Noah Syndergaard is as good as it comes.  Bumgarner needs no postseason introduction. And, it should be noted, he has had his greatest postseason moments on the road. Think about his 10K, complete game shutout of the Pirates in the 2014 Wild Card Game. Think about his performance against Kansas City in the World Series that year in which he won Games 1 and 5 and then came back on two days rest, on the road, to throw five innings in relief for the save in Game 7. There is not much pressure like Wild Card Game pressure, but Bumgarner has been there and he has done that.
  • If Bumgarner can’t go the distance, or at least most of it, Giants fans are gonna be nervous: the Giants blew nine ninth-inning leads in the second half, including five in September. The once-reliable San Francisco bullpen has been a liability for months. The Mets bullpen, meanwhile, has been much more steady, possessing the sixth-best bullpen ERA in baseball this season.
  • Syndergaard is, by default, the Mets ace. But he may have nonetheless been their best pitcher anyway, even if Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom didn’t go down to injuries. Syndergaard led the league in FIP and was the stingiest starter in the National League when it came to allowing home runs. The Mets have all sorts of injuries and concerns when it comes to playing a five or seven game series, but in one game, with Thor on the mound, they match up with anyone. And while Syndergaard may not yet be a postseason legend like Bumgarner, he came out of the bullpen to pitch a scoreless seventh inning in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers last year and won Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cubs and Game 3 of the World Series against the Royals. He’s got the chops to handle the pressure.
  • The offenses are a study in contrasts. The Mets hit more home runs than the Giants (218 to 130) yet the Giants scored more runs than the Mets (671 to 715). The Mets don’t strike out as much as a lot of power-dependent teams do, though, so it’s not like it’s all-or-nothing for them. The biggest concern for New York: their best power threat, Yoenis Cespedes, enters the postseason on a bit of a cold streak. The Giants’ offense is more varied and their defense is superior. But again, this whole game is going to come down to Bumgarner vs. Syndergaard. The first team to have their starter knocked out is probably gonna lose this one.
  • These teams enter the postseason on distinctly different trajectories. The Giants owned baseball’s best record at the All-Star break but stumbled badly in the second half, losing a large division lead to the Dodgers and then just barely winning the Wild Card on the final day of the season. The Mets, in contrast, were nearly six games out of the Wild Card in late August, and were under .500 as late as August 20. They caught fire after that, however, going 26-13 in the final 39 games of the season.  Late season momentum has been shown to be a poor predictor of playoff success in the past, but that’s how things ended for them.

This is a really even matchup and predictions are probably beside the point. I’ll say, however, that if you’ve made a habit of betting against Madison Bumgarner in the postseason, you’ve probably lost a lot of money.

Buck Showalter wasn’t dumb. He was scared.

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Buck Showalter is being crucified for not using closer Zach Britton in last night’s Wild Card game. It’s a pretty straightforward indictment: he refused to use his best pitcher and, instead, put in a series of inferior pitchers until one, eventually and perhaps inevitably, blew the game and ended the Orioles’ season.

It doesn’t take math or spreadsheets to explain why this was a bad move and no amount of argument from authority can spin it to have made sense. The only possible reason Showalter could’ve given for his decision that would’ve absolved him was if Britton was injured or somehow unavailable, and both Showalter and Britton himself said after the game that Britton was fine. Showalter and others on the Orioles were pressed — pressed hard — but they could not come up with any answer other than the old bit of baseball “wisdom” about how it is wrong to use one’s closer in a tie game on the road.

People have long discussed the reasons closer conventions, including the tie-game-on-the-road thing, the one-inning-only thing and the ninth-inning-only thing, even came to be. Among the explanations are the belief that pitchers prefer certain, defined roles or that managers and pitchers foolishly believe that “save situations” are more important or entail higher leverage than non-save situations. Sometimes it’s just chalked up to mindless stubbornness and adherence to habits without examining them.

The long-held conventions of closer use have been criticized and debunked as sound over and over again by analysts, but they still hold pretty firm. For some managers, they are gospel. As a result, when critics take aim at these conventions, their fire often implicitly or explicitly contains a criticism of the manager’s intellect. Think about all that has been said about Ned Yost, Mike Matheny or Brad Ausmus and their bullpen decisions over the years. It’s all, on some level, “wow, that guy is dumb!”

Buck Showalter has not, however, been criticized in this way historically. His intellect and his bullpen decisions have, in fact, been long considered his strongest skills as a manager and he has long been considered superior to his peers in these respects. In practice he has not been as devoted to closer use orthodoxy as many others. Indeed, this year he used Britton in more high-leverage situations than any of his other relievers. He used Britton eleven times in the eighth inning, actually. Yet his answers and the answers of every Oriole asked at least nodded to “being on the road” as an explanation for Britton not coming in. He was being saved for a save, even if it meant that save would never come. Why?

One of the answers Showalter gave to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times may be more revealing than any of the others:

“You can use Zach Britton in the seventh and eighth inning and not have anybody to pitch the last inning,” he said. “So there’s a lot of risk taken every inning, every pitch.”

On the surface that seems like standard nod to the conventional wisdom: gotta get that save! But note the way Showalter couches it as a risk. As loss (i.e. you won’t have anyone to pitch the last inning). To me, this reveals not just that Showalter was following the conventional wisdom. It reveals why that conventional wisdom holds in the first place. And it’s much deeper than merely catering to relievers preference of a set role or the importance of the save statistic.

Human beings are inherently risk-averse. It’s evolutionary, really. If you’re out on the savannah, competing with other Australopithecines for food and fending off predators, what you have now matters far more than what you might gain later. You protect your in-hand resources like crazy and don’t work quite as hard to increase your stores for tomorrow or next week if there is any risk that you might drop a hunk of meat or piece of fruit you already have. The long run is important, but the short run means the difference between life and death.

While we’re no longer fighting for our very survival on a day-to-day basis, we’ve continued, generally, to follow those patterns into modernity. In the 1970s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated it scientifically and gave it a name: Loss Aversion Theory. The short version of it: people have a strong tendency to prefer avoiding the loss of something to acquiring equivalent gains. Studies have suggested that, mathematically speaking, the pain of loss to people is, in fact, twice as powerful a motivating force as the possibility of a gain. Whether it’s money, or opportunities or shiny objects of any stripe, study after study has revealed that human beings are willing to leave a lot on the table if it means holding on to something we already have.

As a result of loss aversion, people hesitate to deviate from a standard practice because it means exercising agency. It means making a decision that is their responsibility. And with every decision comes the very real possibility that we’ll make the wrong one causing us to lose something. We feel much better not losing something even if we it means we may not gain something greater. We fear that loss and are comforted by what we have in hand.

Which brings us back to Showalter. Who is being accused today of having a brain lock. Of mindlessly adhering to some old conventional wisdom. Of behaving way too recklessly — using inferior pitchers when one hit could end the game — for any number of reasons, in a manner which unreasonably put the loss of the game at risk.

This, I believe, is the wrong way to look at it. Showalter was not dumb. He was not consciously taking a risk or acting like some riverboat gambler. He was not worried about losing the game, at least not as such, and was not worried about being questioned if he strayed from the conventional wisdom.

To a baseball manager, players are the only actual tangible resources. Managers want to win games and hate to lose them, but game outcomes are more abstract concepts than bodies right in front of them or names not yet crossed off of a lineup card. To Showalter, Zach Britton was a hunk of meat he had, and the fear of losing him in the eighth, ninth or tenth inning, was a far greater motivating factor than the possibility of winning the game in the 11th or 12th inning was. A possibility, like some of that fruit out there on the savannah, that was there for the taking but which was uncertain and might cost him something. Maybe, as studies about such things have born out, he was twice as afraid.

Showalter is going to be called a lot of things today and in the coming days. He’ll be called dumb. He’ll be called stubborn. But even if the thought process he employed ended up being the clearly wrong one and one which was, in effect, dumb, it wasn’t Showalter’s inherit stupidity or stubbornness that caused last night’s debacle. It was human nature. A force which even a major league baseball manager cannot escape most of the time.

Let us now enjoy two nights of weird baseball

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In a few short hours, the Orioles and Blue Jays will play an elimination game. Tomorrow the Giants and Mets will do the same. It’ll be tense. It’ll be exciting. And, as it has often been since the second Wild Card and its attendant one-and-done format were introduced in 2012 . . . it’ll be weird.

Weird because it’ll be radically different than what most of us think of when we think about baseball. A game of series. A game where depth matters a whole lot. A game where there is almost always a new day tomorrow. A game where starters don’t get yanked in the second inning and the intensity doesn’t start at 11 only to get cranked higher as the game goes on.

I’m not complaining about that. I used to. If anything I’d rather see a series expanded to nine or ten games rather than shrunk down to one, so when the Wild Card format was changed four years ago, it was jarring to say the least. I’m not such a purest that, like some, I considered it an abomination or anything, but it has been hard to get my brain around it. Temperamentally speaking I’m a regular season guy, not a playoffs guy. I like my baseball a little on the lazy side and the dramatic arcs to have a bit more continuity. As I wrote when the new format was announced five years ago, switching from a long, 162-game season into a one-game playoff is akin to having marathon runners stop at 26.1 miles and then decide the winner of the race with a double-dutch competition.

But if we’ve learned anything from the past four years of some pretty exciting Wild Card games — as well as the crazy game-163s and final day games that led up to the Wild Card game’s creation — it’s OK to just go nuts sometimes. To let go of what your ideal of a given situation might be and go with things the way they are. No, a one-game Wild Card is not the way I’d prefer to set up the playoffs, but it has some good points, such as making winning the division matter more and keeping the playoff schedule more compact. And, as I said, it’s often super exciting in its own right. At the same time it’s wholly unrealistic to suggest going backwards and making fewer playoff teams, because Major League Baseball is never, ever going to do that, so what’s the point of complaining?

On an even more basic level, arguing that the Wild Card somehow sullies some notion of “pure baseball” is beside the point. Baseball already knows this. When the expanded playoff format was first announced in 2011, Bud Selig admitted that baseball’s “partners” had asked for this, meaning that the decision had a lot to do with an exciting TV event and hype and commercialism. The ability to sell a winner-takes-all game with 100% certainty is important to TV, which has never been great at selling baseball. And lest you think this is my usual brand of anti-corporate complaining, it’s not. It’s a valid goal for baseball to have. It’s a business and generating interest in the playoffs and making its broadcast partners happy are things that business should be doing, at least within reason.

A one-game Wild Card is not ideal, but it has been a reasonable addition to the playoff schedule. It has been exciting far more than it hasn’t been and it’s good for baseball overall, even if it’s a bit unfair for the two teams involved and somewhat jarring for a guy with my temperament. When the starter is removed in the second inning tonight or tomorrow, the bullpen gets emptied, starters begin warming up to come in in relief and teams are pursuing all-or-nothing strategies way, way earlier than they normally would, I’ll just have to take another sip of whatever beverage I’m enjoying and remind myself that this is how we do things now and that the world is not ending because of it.