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.