Craig Calcaterra

Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.

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.

Tim Tebow to play in the Arizona Fall League

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The Mets just announced that Tim Tebow will report to the Arizona Fall League on Sunday. Tebow is 4-for-14 with a homer and two walks in three Instructional League games. The Mets say they want Tebow to play more against advanced competition.

The Fall League will definitely be that, as a better class of prospects tend to participate in it than in the instructs. Indeed, it tends to be reserved for top prospects, not aging projects like Tebow, but on to the desert he goes.

Will the Mets look really, really smart by the time he’s done? Or will their experiment be shown to be a failure?