In Buck We (Still) Trust

Last night, the Blue Jays beat the Orioles 5-2 in a wild(card) extra-inning game that featured mammoth home runs, exceptional pitching and defense, and inexcusable fan behavior. Today, however, the internet seems to have one burning question about the game: Where was Zach Britton?

Britton, the Orioles’ lockdown closer with a microscopic era and perfect save record on the season, remained in the bullpen the entire game, and wound up watching Ubaldo Jimenez give up a game-winning home run to Edwin Encarnacion. When asked later if he regretted the decision, manager Buck Showalter answered with a vague, rambling statement:

“You could do [that] afterwards, yeah. But we went for about four innings there trying to get to that spot…It looked like if he pitches a couple innings, if he can physically, then you’re assuming, which is a pretty good assumption with the way he’s pitched this year.

No, playing on the road has a little something to do with it, too. But we have some good options that have done a great job for us all year, and Zach’s one of those.”

Baseball writers were not impressed, to say the least. Before we all break out the pitchforks and torches, however, let’s cut Showalter a little slack and take another look at his statement.

The first part sounds a little scattered, but it mentions a concern about “if he [Britton] can physically” pitch multiple innings, as it appeared would be necessary. This seems like a weak excuse, but it’s a valid concern: Britton only pitched multiple innings in a game seven times this year, and closers aren’t exactly know for extended-inning prowess. Granted, Britton did fairly well in this seven outings, and if you’re ever going to do this kind of thing, it would be when your season is on the line. Then again, Toronto’s closer had a health scare of his own in the 10th inning, which may have played into Showalter’s thinking. This team was a longshot to make the World Series (more on that later); you don’t want to do something that could limit Britton’s availability in 2017.

The second part of the statement? That’s pretty simple: Showalter basically said “Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but I felt like any of our bullpen guys could get the job done.”

You know what? He’s not wrong. Brad Brach made the All-Star team this year. Mychal Givens had developed into a solid, trustworthy bullpen arm. Darren O’Day had a rough year by his own standards, but he was still one of the better relievers in the league. Donnie Hart had a 0.49 ERA in 22 games of work. Heck, even Jimenez had gone from being a tire-fire to a respectable starter in the final months of the season. It’s not like Showalter was sticking the ballboy (or Chris Davis) or the mound!

Should the O’s have brought Britton into the game? Based on FiveThirtyEight’s “leverage index” analysis, yeah, they probably should have. But you know what? The Orioles had a cabal of high-quality arms in their bullpen, and if they were saving Britton for when their offense took back the lead, I’m cool with that. (Heck, I was happy when I saw Britton was still in the pen in the eleventh—there was still a bullet in the gun for when the O’s hit the inevitable go-ahead home run!)

Do I think this move will “haunt Showalter forever” as FiveThirtyEight claims? It shouldn’t. Even if the Orioles had won this game, they still would have had to win three more playoff series with a starting rotation held together with duct tape and bailing wire. There’s a reason their chances of winning the World Series were pegged at a measly 4 percent. (My prediction: The Cubs rip through the postseason so dominantly that they make all the arguments like this one a moot point.)

Given the success the Orioles have enjoyed under Showalter, I’m inclined to give this guy a pass. To be honest, the guy I’d like to see more out of next year is Orioles general manager Dan Duquette: As good as he has been at finding solid contributors at clearance prices (signing Nelson Cruz for $8 mil, obtaining Mark Trumbo for a racist catcher), I think Duquette needs to get his hands on owner Peter Angelos’s checkbook and acquire an A-list starting pitcher by any means necessary (well, almost any; don’t you dare trade Machado!) The offense and bullpen are fine; but a true No. 1 ace would go a long way.

In short, I hereby declare that the baseball world needs to take a chill pill with regards to Showalter’s wildcard bullpen management. It was a defensible move (albeit an ill-advised one), and the good Showalter has done far outweighs the bad that happened last night, regardless of the stakes.

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