One debate that often comes up between the traditional fan and those who employ sabermetrics is the role of the closer, and late inning relievers in general. Sabermetricians would argue that runs in the 8th and 9th innings count no more and no less than those in the 1st, suggesting that having a cold-blooded closer is a bit overrated. The traditional fan will counter by claiming that there are certain people who can handle big spots in the late innings, and those who cannot, and teams should take advantage of a player who has proven that he can deal with the pressure.
Yankees fans will recognize this debate from the Joba Chamberlain situation, in which fans constantly battle over where he may be more valuable. An interesting bit of data from the NY Times Freakonomics blog suggests that it may make sense to use your best pitchers in the late innings:
Here’s my favorite new fact about N.C.A.A. basketball: teams that are behind by one point at halftime are actually more likely to win than teams that are one point ahead. This striking finding comes courtesy of a terrific new paper by my Wharton colleagues, Jonah Berger and Devin Pope…..
Berger and Pope are two of the brightest young behavioral economists around, and they posit a behavioral explanation. Losing can lead to winning because of the strong motivating effects of being close to your goal. You can link some of this to Prospect Theory — loss aversion suggests that you may be willing to work harder to avoid a negative outcome (a loss); the leading teams, by contrast, aren’t focused on the losing domain.
As baseball fans, we can extrapolate from this data a simple observation about the 9th inning. A team losing by one run entering the 9th may actually be giving more effort to avoid a loss than the team leading the game, who is thinking less about losing due to their being ahead at the time. This would suggest that a manager may want to head off disaster by pitching his best hurlers in the late innings, as the opposition may actually be trying harder in the 8th than the 1st.
This does not mean that Joba Chamberlain belongs in the 8th inning. A run is much harder to score than 2 points in basketball, such that a team would prefer to be leading heading into the 8th inning, and Joba gives the Yankees a better chance of achieving that end by being a starter. However, it does suggest that there may actually be an art to closing, as players who succeed in that role must contend with the greater effort of the opposition as compared to earlier innings. Just because someone can handle the 7th or 8th, does not mean he can handle the closer role. On that note, let us just marvel at the continued greatness of Mariano Rivera, as he seems to have no trouble shutting down the opposition, no matter how hard they are trying.
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