Though it’s a relatively new development in baseball’s long timeline, the role of closer is still firmly entrenched in tradition. Closers are generally considered at least a quarter-turn looser than their screwy bullpen brethren and, even with increased emphasis on matchups and metrics, many managers are wont to use their stopper in a non-save situation. It’s apparent at times that some pitchers, conditioned to the adrenaline and routine of the final inning, struggle when asked to enter the game earlier or later.
You’d think that the Cubs, a team with a plethora of high-leverage relievers and an organizational bent toward statistical analysis, would be at the forefront of reshaping staid convention. Which is to say that they’d choose to deploy their bullpen arms based on situation rather than inning. After all, facing the heart of the order in the seventh inning of a one-run game presents much higher leverage than taking on the 7-8-9 hitters in the eighth or ninth.
The roles would still be similar, mind you, it’s just that you’d prioritize your pitchers in order to maximize their usage in the most pivotal moments of games. Sounds simple enough, particularly when you’re talking about a team that really doesn’t have what you might consider a lock-down, no-doubt closer.
But, believe it or not, that isn’t how Theo Epstein views things. Though he’s a vocal practitioner of all manner of advanced analysis, including the use of baseball simulation software to map a hitter’s neural pathways, the curse-busting exec echoed old school tenets when he talked to The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg about using Brandon Morrow as a closer this season.
While Epstein discussed several other topics in great detail (you’ll need to subscribe to read the whole thing), I think his take on the closer’s role best exemplifies the holistic approach of the Cubs front office. They understand how to balance advanced metrics with the eye test and how to temper risk with caution.
“When we signed [Morrow], we told him, in our minds, he was our closer unless somehow, we were able to bring back Wade Davis,” Epstein said. “It’s the best role for him.”
“With Wade going exclusively in the ninth, that structure allowed him to stay healthy and thrive,” Epstein said. “That should serve Morrow well also. This is one of the areas where optimal analytical usage butts against reality. The best way to play someone like Morrow is matching up against different parts of the order in different innings. That’s where you can get the greatest impact from a shutdown guy. But in reality, using him the way we used Davis should allow him to thrive over what we expect is a seven-month season. I’ll take suboptimal usage on a nightly basis for a better chance to stay healthy over the course of seven months.”
I gave the emphasis to that last sentence because it’s almost shocking in its simplicity and obviousness. The proliferation of more and more detailed numbers to analyze baseball has served to reduce or even remove the sport’s inherent humanity. As such, it’s become all too easy to believe we can simply cut and paste data-driven projected outcomes and call it a day.
Epstein acknowledges that Morrow would provide the most incremental impact as a situational reliever, but that’s not necessarily best for his aggregate performance. The best pitcher in the world is no use to his team on the DL, so the ultimate goal is to keep him on the active roster. And I may even be sensing an undercurrent of leaving Morrow’s future role somewhat malleable should the Cubs eventually find that lights-out closer. Remember, Epstein isn’t saying that a closer should only pitch the final frame, only that Morrow is best served doing so for now.
In the event that Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Wilson, or even Dillon Maples ascends into that role, Morrow could perhaps flex to accommodate that “optimal analytical usage.” Or maybe Morrow’s health remains the governing force and the rest of the pitchers fall in line ahead of him based on leverage.
However it all works out, it’s comforting to be reassured that the Cubs are well aware of both the metrics and the men and that they understand how those forces work in concert.