Death To The Closer: Why Kimbrel Should Be Facing The Heart Of The Order, Regardless Of The Inning!

By Jeremy Schilling – @BostonSchill20

We as fans of the Boston Red Sox, and likely not fans of John Farrell, have seen the scenario many times: Sox up two runs with six outs to get, two-hitter due up for the opposition in the eighth inning.  Here comes Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, or Addison Reed, right? Wrong.  

For so long baseball has agreed that the best guy, with the character to pitch in the biggest moments, gets the ninth.  We have all heard the narrative: It takes a certain mindset to get the last three outs of a big league baseball game.  However, what if you have a chance to win a ball game, but your best bullpen arm never gets to play a factor in the outcome despite having a lead in the late innings.

The Boston Red Sox have lived this scenario in the 2017 season many times and no more devastating than the loss to the Cleveland Indians on August 22, 2017.  Sox up by a run in the eighth with Francisco Lindor (lead-off hitter), Austin Jackson, and Jose Ramirez due up.   As is typical Barnes, not Kimbrel, is called upon.  Barnes does what he does on the road (plus five ERA) and walks the first guy, followed by a single.  Heath Hembree, instead of Kimbrel, is brought in and gives up the tying run.  Although Robby Scott kept the game tied by striking out two lefties to get out of the eighth, Kimbrel never pitched as Brandon Workman was called upon in the bottom of the ninth because the Sox did not have a lead.  After Brock Holt made a throwing error the game was lost, a game in which the Sox had a lead with six outs to go, and Kimbrel never had a say in the outcome.

Is Manager John solely responsible; no, baseball has it wrong.  Only Tito Francona of the Cleveland Indians gets it and that is, in part, due to the lack of ego in his best guy.  Andrew Miller is getting paid ($9 million in 2017 in the third year of a 4 year $36 million deal) and does not seem to have an ego or, alternatively, he gets it.  

Kimbrel’s desire to pitch in only a save situation is well documented. In 2016 his earned run average in games that were not save situations was significantly higher than save situations.  This season he had early success getting four outs, but it became clear that he had voiced his displeasure.  Last month, Jared Carrabis of barstoolsports.com authored a blog stating Kimbrel had not been pitching in multiple innings because he had told Farrell and management he no longer wanted the added workload.  When Dave Dombrowski was asked about Carrabis’ blog he reacted in a deny, deny, counter-accuse fashion by questioning the legitimacy of barstool. By taking such a defensive stance it became clear: Kimbrel wanted to pitch in only save situations.

It is an easy to understand concept, the guys who pitch the ninth get the big contracts. According to http://www.spotrac.com, players that were designated the closer prior to the start of the 2017 season are making well over $10,000,000 million per average year of their current deals:

Pitcher: 2017 Salary: Contract:

Aroldis Chapman $21,000,000 5 years, $86,000,000

Craig Kimbrel $13,250,000 4 years, $42,000,000

Zach Britton $11,400,000 1 year, $11,400,000

Kenley Jansen $10,800,000 5 years, $80,000,000

Mark Melancon $7,000,000 4 years, $62,000,000

It is unquestionable, saves equal dollars and lots of them.  With Kimbrel’s deal expiring after next season it is understandable why he is looking to save another 35-40 games by next October.  While some disagree, most understand that the athlete wants and should seek top dollar.

That being the case it is going to take the right manager (i.e. Francona) and the right player (i.e. Miller) for a team to buck the trend in baseball.  Farrell and Kimbrel are clearly not the right combination of manager and athlete.  The reason for Kimbrel’s early season saves of four outs or more was due to Farrell managing for his job on a nightly basis.  Kimbrel ultimately complained, and despite Farrell’s desire to use Kimbrel in high leverage situations, Kimbrel has been pitching mostly in the ninth for traditional three out saves.

With the exception of the Indians, Major League Baseball is unable to see the value of pitching the best arm against the heart of the lineup and, for that reason; it would take a change in baseball, generally, to force teams away from rewarding their best arm with a save.  Baseball is likely years away, if ever, from making the change.  However, if a change is going to happen then teams are going to have to start paying the best arm top dollar regardless of role.  Additionally, the save stat will likely have to be diminished in value at contract time.  It seems counter-intuitive to look at wins and saves over earned run average (ERA), walks plus hits per inning (WHIP), strikeouts and walks per nine innings, and inherited runners scored, but that seems to be what is happening.

There is an additional factor to consider in having the best arm pitch the eighth inning with the heart of the order due up: Having another guy who has the mental acumen to pitch in the ninth, likely against the bottom of the lineup.  For example, Dirty Craig pitches the eighth inning and gets out of the inning with one hit/walk leaving the sixth, seven, and eight hitters due up in the ninth.  Reed has experience pitching in the ninth and is more than capable of getting the bottom of the lineup out.  If he wasn’t then why would you feel comfortable letting him face the middle of the lineup in the eighth inning?

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