Wilner: Was holding back Janssen the right call?

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays left the Tampa Bay area without having lost a series to the Rays for the first time in over six years, but the split didn’t feel all that good given the fact that the Jays won the first two games before dropping the next two and, of course, the way the finale was lost.

The Blue Jays had a one-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh when Yunel Escobar greeted Steve Delabar with a solo home run to tie things up, and it stayed that way until the 10th when with two out and nobody on Evan Longoria doubled off Aaron Loup. Loup then issued an intentional walk to left-handed hitter James Loney and handed things over to Brad Lincoln, who walked Ryan Roberts to load the bases then walked Luke Scott to force in the winning run.

Casey Janssen, who has been the best reliever in baseball this season (three baserunners and 13 strikeouts in 12 innings), never got into the game.

This sparked debate on both The BlueJaysTalk and Twitter as to closer usage and whether managers should run a game based on a statistic. That is, is it better to save your closer for a potential save situation that may never arise or to use him in a high-leverage situation earlier in the game?

The answer, at home, is simple. In a tie game, your closer pitches the ninth inning, period. That’s because once you get past the eighth inning in a tie game and you’re the home team, there can never be a save situation for your team in that game. There will never be a lead to protect, because once your team takes a lead, the game is over.

Anyway, that’s why there should never be any hesitation for the home team to use its closer (presuming, of course, that the closer is the team’s best reliever — or at least the manager believes he is) in the ninth inning of a tie game. But it’s different on the road. On the road, you hope that at some point you might have a lead to protect, and there’s a temptation to save your closer for that spot. Of course, it would be easier to extend the game to the point at which you’d be able to take the lead if you were to use your closer early, getting the shutout inning (or two) you hope he would provide. Hence the dilemma for the road manager.

In the two extra-inning games the Blue Jays have played on the road this season, John Gibbons has chosen to hold back Janssen for a potential save situation. The first time, it worked, the second time, we watched Lincoln issue back-to-back walks to hand the Rays a win.

The problem is that even if Gibbons had used Janssen in the highest-leverage situation Thursday night — space-time continuum considerations aside — the result of the game would have been the same. That’s because the highest-leverage situation is the bottom of the ninth of a tie game. You give up a run, you lose. No higher leverage than that. And the ninth is the highest leverage, because there’s no guarantee the game will get beyond it. Once you get past the ninth, the tenth becomes the highest-leverage inning, and so on, but if the point is to avoid managing for a situation that might never arise, the ninth inning is when you use your best guy.

So in the world in which the best reliever is used in the biggest spot in a road game, Janssen pitches the ninth, Loup comes out for the 10th (there’s no chance Janssen will pitch more than one inning, given the Blue Jays’ desire to be careful with him coming off off-season shoulder surgery), and the game ends the same way.

It was pointed out to me that the ninth inning wasn’t as high-leverage a spot as the 10th would have been, since the Rays had the 8-9-1 hitters due up in that inning, but honestly, you can’t have it both ways. Don’t forget that the ninth-place hitter had homered in his previous at-bat, and if one of those three reach base, you’re moving into the Johnson/Zobrist/Longoria meat of the Tampa Bay order. There was no bigger spot in the game than the bottom of the ninth, and if the closer pitches there, nothing changes as far as the ultimate result is concerned.

Given that he’s already done it twice, it seems reasonably safe to assume that Gibbons will continue to hold Janssen back for a potential save situation in tie games late on the road, and I’m looking forward to picking his brain about that. For me, I’m not sure I wouldn’t do the same. It’s sort of a pick your poison thing — use a less-trustworthy reliever to maintain a tie so that your more-trustworthy reliever can nail down a win, or use your more-trustworthy reliever to maintain the tie and hope that your less-trustworthy reliever can hold the lead you hope to eventually get him.

Of course, the most important thing to do is to get to the situation where you can take the lead — that is, keep an extra-inning game going — but if you’re not going to be able to hold that lead once you get it, then what’s the point of getting it? Then again, it’s probably better to give your less-trustworthy reliever some margin for error. Then again, you’d hate to use your best reliever in a game that still might have lots of innings left in it. Then again … I’m not sure. The more I think about it, the more I would lean towards using the best reliever in the highest-leverage spot, and that spot is a tie game in the ninth inning — top or bottom. But I can’t fault a manager for wanting to have his closer on hand to lock down a win.


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