By now, if you are a Braves fan, or even if you’re not, you’ve read or heard that Fredi Gonzalez should have brought his closer, Kimbrel, into the game either, at the start of the 8th inning, or, after Puig reached second on a lead-off double.
The reasons are, one, he should be able to pitch 6 outs in a post-season elimination game, the batters in the 8th are better than the batters in the 9th, or just very good in general, and a runner on 2nd with no outs in 8th inning with a 1-run lead is a high leverage situation.
Let’s look at these one at a time to see if they have any merit, and if so, how much (on this site, we like to quantify merit!).
Could Kimbrel have pitched 6 outs and if so, should he have? Unfortunately, we have no way of answering that question. Most closers don’t, a few do, and a few more do during the post season. I don’t have any numbers handy, but we know that Mariano was often called on by Torre to do just that, and he seemed to fare just fine. Kimbrel was not overworked, in the post-season you don’t play every day, and of course, he has the entire off-season to recover no matter what happens. That still doesn’t mean that it is correct for him to go 6 outs, and that doesn’t tell us how much that increases the Braves’ chances of winning even if he can go 2 innings at full strength, although we can estimate the latter.
Fredi was quoted as saying that he was planning to use Kimbrel for 4 outs. As many people have pointed out, that seems kind of arbitrary, and if 4, why not 6? Well, by that logic, if 6, why not 7? Etc. So, I am not crazy about that “argument” in and of itself.
Now, the pitcher he did use, his set-up man, Carpenter, is no slouch. He allows 79% of league average runs (all numbers I am quoting are my projections), which is equivalent to a little better than a league average closer. Then again, Kimbrel is other-wordly. He is Mo before Mo was Mo. He is Eck when Eck was unhittable. He is as unhittable as I think a human pitcher can be. I have him as 47.25% of league average, which is more than a half run better than Clayton Kershaw, the best starter in the world.
It really doesn’t matter how good Carpenter is. What counts is how much better Kimbrel is than the next best pitchers in terms of whom to bring in when. And despite Carpenter being excellent, Kimbrel is 1.28 runs per 9 better, which is enormous. That is like the difference between a regular closer and a really bad long reliever. So, using Kimbrel rather than Carpenter in appropriate situations is definitely a large advantage. The argument that, “Carpenter is a very good reliever in his own right,” is not really relevant to this discission.
Anyway, let’s take a look at what kind of advantage there is to pitching Kimbrel in the 8th and 9th rather than Carpenter and then Kimbrel. We’ll assume that they both pitch exactly one inning in one case, that Kimbrel pitches exactly 2 innings in the other case (obviously if Atlanta were to take a big lead, they could sit him in the 9th, or pitch Carpenter in the 9th). We’ll also try out Kimbrel in the 8th and Carpenter in the 9th.
For that, I am going to use my game simulator. The sim is particularly suited to these kinds of 1 or 2 inning scenarios where we assume that we know the talent level of the pitcher, and that of the batters (although that is not that important), and we don’t have to worry about any possible pitching changes.
Here is what we get:
With Kimbrel in the 8th and Carpenter the 9th: WE=.7819
With Carp in the 8th and Kimbrel the 9th: WE=.7857
With Kimbrel pitching the 8th and 9th: WE=.8258
Those numbers appear to make complete sense. It is better to pitch Kimbrel in the 9th than the 8th, if he only pitches an inning, but not by much. And it is very advantageous to pitch him for 2 innings, assuming that he is able to pitch at full strength for 6 outs. Apparently Fredi does not think that he can. I don’t know that we can argue against that. We have nothing to really hang our hat on. Obviously if he is affected, he may be no better than if he pitches an inning and Carpenter pitches an inning. In that sense, Carpenter’s talent is important. It may be that a stretched-out Kimbrel for 2 innings is no better that a full-on Kimbrel for 1 and Carpenter for 1. For what it is worth, in tonight’s Detroit/Oakland game, Leyland said that he is reluctant to use his closer, Benoit, for more than 1 inning. Of course Leyland is definitely cut from the conventional manager cloth.
How much is gained by bringing in Kimbrel with 2 outs in the 8th, as Fredi was planning, and how much would have been gained had he brought in Kimbrel after Puig reached?
Kimbrel entering with 2 outs in the 8th: WE=.7971
So that adds a little over 1% to Atlanta’s WE, as expected. Of course, we don’t know that by coming in for a 4 out save, that Kimbrel is not less effective than for a 3 out save. So maybe there is no gain.
Kimbrel entering with Puig on 2nd, no outs in the 8th: WE=.6674
Kimbrel not entering with Puig on 2nd, but he comes in with 2 outs if the Braves still have the lead (Fredi’s strategy):WE=.6227
By not bringing in Kimbrel at this point, we lose 4.5% in WE rather than 4%, which is the gain by bringing him in to start the inning (as opposed to waiting until the 9th). There is only a 2.8% gain when allowing him to pitch the 8th and 9th (.8258) compared to 2 outs in the 8th (.7971). I hope you are able to follow all that.
Remember that the 4.5% gain when Puig reaches second is still predicated on Kimbrel being just as effective for 6 outs as for 4 or 3 outs, and again, we don’t know that to be true. We almost have to assume that there is some penalty, no? Sure, if he throws 11 pitches in the 8th, he is probably fine. But, part of the equation are those rare times when he throws 20 or 30 pitches in the 8th and either can’t pitch the 9th or can’t pitch as effectively in the 9th.
Now what about these claims of, “In the 8th, the 5, 6, and 7 batters are due, and in the 9th, 8, 9, and 1 (of course, it is around 50/50 that the 8th will go 1,2,3 no matter who is pitching), so the 9th could just as easily be 9, 1, and 2, or worse (for Atlanta), and you want your better pitcher against your opponent’s better batters?”
Is that one of those things that makes sense if you don’t think about it too much? I’m not sure I am convinced of that argument. I’m not even sure what it means. It’s not like your better pitcher gets the good batters out all the time but the worse pitcher doesn’t. The better pitcher reduces the production of both the good and bad hitters. I am not even sure what to test.
I am going to try this: Have the good and bad part of the order come up in the 9th and see what the difference is between the closer and set-up guy.
I am looking at the bottom of the 9th inning, protecting a 1 run lead, with the leadoff batter up. Let’s see the difference between using a closer like Kimbrel and a pitcher like Carpenter.
We=.8681 with Kimbrel and top of the order in the 9th.
We=.8065 with Carpenter and top of the order in the 9th.
That is a huge difference. 6.2% of WE (which is why Kimbrel is so valuable!). But what about with the bottom of the order in the 9th? Under this theory, we should see less of a difference, since to some extent we don’t need Kimbrel.
WE=.9003 with Kimbrel and bottom of the order in the 9th.
WE=.8547 with Carpenter and bottom of the order in the 9th.
Here we have only a 4.5% advantage for Kimbrel over Carpenter. So at least in this situation, that theory appears to hold some water. Of course an extra 4.5% is nothing to sneeze at. If you had a 1-run lead in the 9th, even with the bottom of the order coming up, you definitely want your best pitcher!
Bottom line here is that even at its worst, not bringing in Kimbrel to start the 8th, or with Puig on second, costs on the order of 4 or 5%. That is huge for one decision, but certainly doesn’t mean that their manager cost them the game. And that is the worst (or best) case scenario. If pitching 2 innings has any negative effect on Kimbrel, which it might, then that 4 or 5% can certainly disappear quickly.