By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Some managerial and coaching decisions inspire typical hot-take second-guessing, and some begin to raise concern in real time, slowly coming into sharp focus until the event occurs that crystallizes it, that makes it matter.
Say, for example, Edwin Encarnacion’s massive blast off Ubaldo Jimenez that powered the Blue Jays past the Orioles, 5-2, in 11 innings Tuesday night. It was an exclamation point of a walk-off that punctuated one of the most inexplicable managerial choices in recent memory:
Buck Showalter never used Zach Britton!
By the time you read this, you may have already consumed many similar groupings of words expressing exactly the same thought. Perhaps they present multiple charts and graphs citing win expectancy and comparable pitching statistics of Baltimore relievers. Or perhaps they simply express the disbelief so widely shared by anybody who follows baseball.
Part of the reason is Showalter’s fundamental miscalculation in pigeon-holing baseball’s best closer for a specific role that never came. As modern analysts have been screaming from the rooftops for years, rigid bullpen assignments are illogical when outs are at a premium and high-leverage situations present themselves earlier than the ninth inning or, as was the case Tuesday, well after that. If the idea was to preserve Britton to protect a lead, such presumptuousness was punished by the fact that such a lead never arrived. The game was over.
It was a distilled example of senseless, frustrating old-school thinking exposed on the national stage, in a single, winner-take-all affair. All of the other variables were stripped away — no concern about Britton’s recent usage, fatigue or injury and no other scenarios with more games in the series looming on the horizon. This was it. And Showalter allowed his team to lose without ever deploying his best option to get the other team out, for reasons that can’t be argued.
Many now feel smart baseball was hurt by the creation of the “save” statistic. It accelerated the evolution of the specialized — and highly paid — game finishers, preventing the understanding and proper recognition of leverage in actual games, the deciding inflection points that call for the most effective pitchers at the most critical times. In a single-elimination playoff scenario, that’s multiplied many times and should be obvious even to someone as set in his ways as Showalter.
It can be human nature to want to preserve assets or to not admit desperation in a unique situation. To Showalter, it may have felt like panic to deploy Britton for something other than preserving a victory. Maybe he envisioned getting to a save opportunity and then having to explain why he had already used his closer. But that’s just fearing the stupid, no excuse for a detail-oriented decision-maker whose specific job is to know better than that. A team can’t be allowed to go down without giving itself the best possible chance to advance, and Britton would have represented that at several points.
The irony is that Showalter made his reputation for years as a micro-manager, sweating every last detail every day, down to the material makeup of the ketchup bottles in the clubhouse. Only glass, no plastic — per a story from his Yankees days. A 2014 piece in Sports On Earth noted that he bristles at being called a “control freak,” however, preferring instead the descriptive term “overly alert.”
But with everything at stake, apparently he’s just not alert enough.