Baseball Penalty Kicks

At the end of a soccer game in which a winner must be decided, there are usually a couple overtimes. If the game is still tied, the dreaded shootout becomes the only way to settle it. It’s a horrible way to end a game, but you can’t have players running around endlessly in a 0-0 match. People would die. Shootout strategy is pretty basic. Use your best guys first. Best out of 5, you don’t want your best penalty takers sitting on the bench when you’re eliminated 3-0.

So, why don’t baseball managers treat a “shootout” the same way when a starting pitcher is removed? Let’s say that both starting pitchers leave the game after 6 innings and the game is within a run or two. It now becomes a “shootout” of bullpens.

Soccer wisdom says to send your best pitcher in first. Don’t leave your stud on the bench. Traditional baseball wisdom says to send in your 3rd, 4th, or 5th best guy.

If your lesser pitcher gives up runs and your closer (your #1 penalty taker) is left sitting on the bench where does that leave you? You’re paying a major talent to do nothing other than be available should the exact circumstances of a “save” arise sometime later in the game. Total waste of resources.

Use your “closer” first. Use your 2nd best guy next, and so on (an alternate, similar theory is to use your best guy when the other team’s best hitters are coming up… the heart of the order… regardless of what inning that might be). I realize this argument is nothing new and baseball analytic experts have proposed this before. So, why doesn’t it happen? I really don’t know. Please tell me. I’m honestly asking. These are the best arguments I can muster.

1. Baseball managers are conventional, they cannot conceive of alternate forms of baseball strategy other than what has been done for the last 150 years.

2. You cannot send your best reliever to start every shootout because his arm will disintegrate and you will feel sad about it.

3. The ‘Save’ is an official baseball statistic. ‘Saves’ are used in arbitration hearings and free agent negotiations. ‘Saves’ are only earned in the 9th inning or later.

My responses:
1. Grow up. Hire someone new. Brad Pitt thought of a different baseball strategy and now he’s a famous Hollywood actor. It CAN be done.

2. OK, this one is a legitimate argument, which I will address.

3. Let’s steal from Brian Kenny (Kill the win = kill the save). Modern baseball statistics have long since provided alternate forms of negotiating power.

The only legitimate argument is #2, and I agree, you will destroy your best reliever if you send him into every close game in the 7th inning. The only way you could do this is if you had 2 legitimate “closers” that could split the work of being the first penalty taker. Then use your other guys accordingly.

The Padres have 2 closers: Huston Street and Joaquin Benoit. The Padres also have a fairly strong bullpen behind these two in Alex Torres, Nick Vincent, Dale Thayer, Tim Stauffer, Kevin Quackenbush, Burch Smith (maybe), etc. Also, with strong starting pitching and so-so hitting, the Padres figure to be in a lot of close, low scoring games in the 7th/8th innings. If there was ever a team that could try this, the 2014 Padres are pretty close.

Obviously the Padres will not employ this strategy this year. Bud Black is a quasi-effective manager, but not capable of such far-reaching craziness. However, someone is going to try it at some point and when the sample size is large enough, the statistics will likely confirm it as an effective strategy, provided you have the right bullpen makeup.

Follow Josh on Twitter at @SanDiegoJosh

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  • Billy Lybarger

    Last season the Padres used their best pitcher in the 7th inning. Nick Vincent led the team in fWAR at 1.1. Luke Greggerson followed at 1.0. Huston Street was the worst reliever on staff at -1.0. Buddy Black is a genius innovator.

  • ballybunion

    Now you’re messing with the managers’ unwritten book of percentages. All managers are temps, so they stick to the book to avoid criticism, even when they’re splitting hairs. I remember Tony Gwynn up with men on late in the season, and Lasorda brought in a lefty to face him. Tony was hitting .329 overall, .329 against righties, and .328 against lefties. You can’t cut it much finer than that. If a manager wants to play a hunch, he’d better be right most of the time. Guess right 3 out of 4 times and you’re a genius; less than 50% success and You Failed To Follow The Book!