Managers who use their closers in tie games on the road

The Tigers took home a big win against the Royals on Sunday after Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a walkoff blast in the bottom of the ninth inning in a 2-2 game. Just a half-inning prior, in the top of the ninth, Brad Ausmus turned to his closer Francisco Rodriguez to keep the game tied, while visiting manager Ned Yost opted not to use his closer Wade Davis in the bottom of the ninth -- he went with Joakim Soria instead, who gave up the Salty-bomb.

Both Brad Ausmus and Ned Yost were playing the bullpen game by the books. I saw several people in the Internet world praising Ausmus for finally using his closer in a tie game in the ninth inning, but I hate to break it to you: that's not Ausmus thinking outside the box, that's Ausmus playing by the established rules.

You go to your closer in the ninth inning of a tie game at home.

You never go to your closer in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road.

Why? Because the rules of strategy surrounding this made-up "closer" position have never made sense, not since they were introduced in the late 1980's and early 1990's. I suppose the logic is something like this: if I use my closer in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game on the road, I still need a reliever to close out the bottom of the next inning if my team scores.

Burn your closer too early and then you'll be without a closer when it matters most.

Of course, the counter-argument is that you're saving your best pitcher for a hypothetical situation. If you're throwing lower-quality arms out there in the ninth inning or later, on the road, you're practically begging the other team to walk it off.

Ned Yost foolishly chose to keep Wade Davis on ice during that ninth inning on Sunday, and his team lost because of it. Brad Ausmus has done the exact same thing. Remember the game in Anaheim on May 31? The Tigers battled back from a 9-2 deficit on the backs of home runs by JD Martinez, Ian Kinsler (a grand slam), and Victor Martinez. 

Tied up in the top of the ninth, home manager Mike Scioscia went to his closer, Huston Street, because that's what the book says you're supposed to do. Ausmus went with anyone but his closer, choosing Mark Lowe for the bottom of the ninth instead of K-Rod, because that's what the book says you're supposed to do.

Lowe walked the first batter, then gave up a walkoff home run to the second batter he faced, all while the Tigers' best relief pitcher watched from the bullpen bench.

Here's the thing, though: it seems there are some managers who are showing a willingness to experiment with this philosophy. Of the twelve closers in the American League who have finished more than 25 games this season, seven of them have pitched in tie games on the road in either the ninth inning or later.

Who are these closers, and who are these hero managers who are willing to bend the conventional rules? In reverse order of lunacy (as indicated by the number of times they've defied the tradition):

Robin Ventura/David Robertson: four tie games, three on the road

On June 1, facing the Mets in New York and tied 1-1, Nate Jones got the ninth inning (facing 8-9-1), and closer David Robertson got the tenth and the eleventh innings. The White Sox scored in the thirteenth, and Matt Albers faced 6-7-8 to close the game.

On June 19, in Cleveland, the White Sox faced a similar situation with game tied 2-2 and the 7-8-9 batters coming up in the ninth. Nate Jones got that inning, and then Robertson took on the 1-2-3 batters in the tenth. The leadoff batter doubled and eventually came around the score the walkoff run.

On June 23 at Fenway Park, Nate Jones once again faced the 8-9-1 batters in a 7-7 tie, except that this time they came up in the eighth inning, which meant closer David Robertson appeared in the bottom of the ninth to face the 4-5-6 batters. Matt Purke pitched the tenth and lost the game.

Terry Francona/Cody Allen: eight tie games, four on the road

On April 26, facing the Twins at Target Field, the Indians tied the game in the top of the ninth. Closer Cody Allen took the mound in the bottom of the ninth and lost the game without recording an out.

Three days later, April 29, the Indians were in Philadelphia and tied 3-3. Francona went with Zach McAllister in the ninth this time, and used Jeff Manship for the tenth. Manship put the winning run on third base, so Cody Allen came into this high leverage situation to get the final two outs of the inning. He came back out for the eleventh but gave up a walkoff home run to the leadoff batter, Ryan Howard.

On May 11, in Houston, Francona followed a similar pattern, using Joba Chamberlain for the bottom of the ninth in a 3-3 game, then turning to Manship for two outs in the tenth. Cody Allen recorded the final out, and also pitched the eleventh. The Atros finally walked off in the sixteenth inning.

On May 18, playing the Reds in Cincinnati, it was Bryan Shaw who got the bottom of the ninth in a 7-7 game, while Cody Allen pitched the tenth and the eleventh (facing 3-4-5, and 6-7-8). Keyvius Sampson hit a pinch hit home run for the Indians in the twelfth, and Dan Otero closed the game.

Scott Servais/Steve Cishek: five tie games, two on the road

On June 15, playing in Tampa Bay, Scott Servais opted to use Nick Vincent in a 2-2 tie in the ninth inning. Vincent also pitched the tenth inning and the first two outs of the eleventh. But Vincent put the winning run on base, and so closer Steve Cishek came into the game to pitch the final out of the inning, as well as the bottom of the twelfth. Mike Montgomery finally gave up the walkoff in the bottom of the thirteenth.

On June 23, the Mariners were in Detroit, tied 4-4 when Cishek entered the game in the bottom of the ninth. He also pitched the bottom of the tenth, where he loaded the bases and gave up a walkoff wild pitch.

Joe Girardi/Aroldis Chapman: three tie games, one on the road

On July 9, Joe Girardi tried to avoid using his closer during a tie game on the road, but when your next available option is Andrew Miller, that's a decent decision as well -- even if he is slated to face the 3-4-5 hitters. Chapman was brought in for the final out of the ninth against the Indians in Clevelad, and then also pitched the tenth. The Yankees scored in the top of the eleventh, so Chapman also pitched the bottom of that inning as well. All in all, it was a seven-out save.

John Gibbons/Roberto Osuna: five tie games, one on the road

On May 19, the Blue Jays faced the Twins at Target Field, tied 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth. Roberto Osuna came into the game (facing the 2-3-4 hitters), and also came back out to pitch the tenth inning. Troy Tulowitzki hit a home run in the eleventh inning, and Joe Biagini closed the game in the bottom of the inning.

And then there are the stubborn ...

Sam Dyson (Texas, Jeff Bannister) has pitched in one tie game on the road this season, but he entered in the eighth inning and pitched part of the ninth. Ryan Madson (Oakland, Bob Melvin) has also seen two appearances in tie games on the road, once in the eigth inning, and once in the twelfth inning.

But apart from these pitchers and their managers, there are four hold-outs. Four managers who have used their closers in tie ballgames, but never, ever on the road.

Not surprisingly, Brad Ausmus and Ned Yost are two of those four. Craig Kimbrel is the perfect image of the very type of closer for whom The Book of Closer Strategy was written in the first place, and so Red Sox manager John Farrell has never dared to use him in a tie game on the road, even though he has pitched in six tie games at home.

Perhaps more on the surprising side of things, Orioles closer Zach Britton has pitched in four tie games this year, but Buck Showalter has never used him in a tie game on the road. Now, that may be because Showalter, like Girardi with Andrew Miller, has a reliever in Brad Brach who is every bit as good as most closers in the game.

Brach has pitched in seven tie games this year, and five of them have been on the road. In a couple of those games, Showalter has let Brach pitch multiple innings with the score still tied, so he's clearly familiar with the advanced concepts of letting your best pitchers get the most and highest-leverage innings, even in tie games on the road.

For managers like Brad Ausmus, these concepts will probably never find a home until they become mainstream. And for guys like Ned Yost -- who is every bit as foolish as Ausmus, but often has his shortcomings masked by a very talented, very deep bullpen -- it takes games like Sunday's walkoff loss to the Tigers to expose him, but expose him they do. 

Even with his much-feared, barely-hittable bullpen, Ned Yost found a way to lose a game, and it's the same way Brad Ausmus has lost several of his "bullpen games" with a slightly worse pool of talent: all he had to do was turn off his brain and push the pre-selected buttons.
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