In Defense of Buck Showalter

Ed. note: I don’t generally have a need or desire to publish non-Cubs pieces, but when Ben Schultz reached out to me via Twitter and asked for the opportunity to defend Buck Showalter I figured it couldn’t hurt. For the record, I think Showalter is a fine manager but that his decision to hold Zach Britton out of the Orioles’ 5-2 Wild Card loss in Toronto was one of the most boneheaded moves I’ve ever seen.

You’ve surely heard the questions and catcalls resounding through the echo chamber of social media by now: How could Buck Showalter not use Zach Britton, the best pitcher on either roster, with the whole season on the line? You can’t lose that game without using your best pitcher, right? What an idiot! What a LOSER!

While I agree with the principle that you don’t want to lose the Wild Card game without using a relief pitcher who’s had a historic season, holding Showalter accountable for the Orioles’ loss based on that principle alone seems a little myopic and unfair. Maybe it’s a consequence of living in a 140-character society.

Twitter is calling for Buck Showalter’s head and no one has defended him, so I feel compelled by sense of…I don’t know, call it charity. Showalter made great decision after great decision all night. And while the choice to stick with Ubaldo Jimenez probably cost the Orioles the game, the call to bring him in instead of Britton fits a broader, well-thought-out narrative. Also, the Blue Jays bullpen pitched five scoreless innings and deserves a great deal of credit.

Successfully managing a baseball game requires multi-level thinking, balancing many interests and options with their effects, risks, and rewards, and making a decision most likely to yield the best outcome. Simply mandating that Britton enter the game doesn’t necessarily fit that mold.

I’d venture to guess the Orioles correctly decided “we’d better not lose this game without using him.” But they also had a plan based on how they expected the game to develop, and planned their bullpen accordingly. And for good reason:

I believe the Orioles thought if their bullpen could put up zeros, their opponents’ mediocre bullpen would eventually yield a run, and at that point they would bring in Mr. Britton with the lead. In essence, they thought they would win the battle of attrition. Based on the data, I believe this was a correct assumption. Therefore, they also planned their bullpen moves accordingly, and it worked for ten innings.

In the 5th inning, Showalter pulled starter Chris Tillman and brought in Mychal Gibbons, who induced a double play off the bat of Devon Travis to end a threat. One pitch, two outs, the skipper looks like a genius.

The 7th and 8th innings were benign from the Orioles’ perspective. Donnie Hart and Brad Brach took care of business, yielding only an innocuous single that was erased by another Devon Travis double play.

The 9th inning was precarious. Josh Donaldson lead off the inning with a double and Edwin Encarnacion was intentionally walked to set up the force and Jose Bautista struck out. Then, Showalter made a pitching change and correctly pushed another button. Darren O’Day came in and induced Russell Martin to ground into a double play, also on one pitch. Again, Buck Showalter looked as though he was ready to change his last name to Houdini.

Based on the bullpen performance from innings 5-10, I believe Showalter had a well-executed plan, which again was based on the assumption that they would score off the Jays’ bullpen.

But in the 11th , the wheels fell off. Showalter brought in Jimenez, who had a 5.44 regular-season ERA. Once Jimenez entered the game, that’s all she wrote. “No one has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo,” Showalter said after the game. Really? Better than Zach “Cy Young” Britton? Here are Jimenez’s numbers for September appearances:

Sept. 5 @ TB: 9 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 ER

Sept. 10 @ DET: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER

Sept. 16 vs. TB: 7 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER

Sept. 21 vs. BOS: 5.1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 ER

Sept. 29 @ TOR: 6.2 IP, 1H, 0 R

All told, Jimenez finished September with a 3-1 record and an ERA of 2.31 in 35 innings. If you put those numbers along with the expectation that the Orioles were overdue to score off the opposing relievers, turning to Jimenez makes more sense.

Obviously, that 2.31-ERA Jimenez didn’t show up. He threw five pitches, all up in the zone. Three were “cookies.” After two consecutive singles, Showalter came out for a visit and talked strategy. At this point, I believe he should have brought Britton into the game. Heck, he should have called for anyone other than Jimenez. The veteran righty clearly didn’t have it and in a wild card game, there is no leash. Especially in that situation.

Like an angry pastry chef, Jimenez threw another cookie and the Jays won.

As I reminisce about the game, I remember Cal Ripken saying right before the first pitch that the ballgame would be decided by one mistake. He was right. The game was decided by one mistake, but it wasn’t made by a player. I believe the Orioles’ game plan was well planned and well executed, but Jimenez didn’t have it Tuesday night and Showalter should have pulled him when he went out for a visit. Had he done so, I think the Orioles probably would have won the war of attrition and the game.

But the takeaway here shouldn’t be solely that Showalter didn’t bring in Britton. It should be that he had a thorough plan, brought in a pitcher in the 11th who’d had plenty of recent success, that pitcher struggled, and Showalter didn’t take him out. Furthermore, the narrative should be that the Jays’ bullpen with an ERA more than three runs higher than the Orioles’ pitched five scoreless innings, outdueling their superior counterpart.

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