The pressure was on for the Yankees Thursday afternoon in Detroit. In one of the most pivotal games of the season so far - because let's face it, they're all pivotal from here on out - they were tied 2-2 going into the bottom of the ninth with a team they trailed by just two games in the race for the American League's second wildcard. Stepping to the plate were the Tigers' 4-5-6 hitters led by Victor Martinez and his third-best-in-baseball .949 OPS. Taking the mound to get those three crucial outs for the Yankees was...Shawn Kelley, their third best reliever. While Martinez doubled and eventually scored the game-winning run on an Alex Avila single off the right field wall, David Robertson and I had something in common. We were both watching.
It's a rarely strayed from tradition for MLB managers to not use their closers, aka usually their best bullpen arms, in tie games on the road. The standard logic is simple - but not so simple that Michael Kay doesn't feel the need to rehash it every time a YES game is even in the ninth. Since you can't win away games via walk-off, there will at some point be a lead that needs protecting for a victory to be possible. The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that you can't get a save while the other team is dancing on the field. For some reason, managers insist on placing themselves at a distinct disadvantage for the sake of a save opportunity that may never happen.
The most notorious Yankee example of this sort of flawed logic came at the hands of recent Monument Park entrant Joe Torre in game four of the 2003 World Series. In search of a 3-1 series lead, the Yankees entered the bottom of the ninth in a 3-3 deadlock after Ruben Sierra's two-run triple evened things up off Marlins closer Ugueth Urbina. With Mariano Rivera ready and willing, Torre instead opted for Jose Contreras, who had a 6.52 ERA in fifteen relief outings between the regular season and the playoffs to that point. That move actually worked out - Contreras fanned four over two near-perfect frames, but the Yankees left runners in scoring position in the tenth and eleventh forcing Torre to make the same decision a second time. This time it was Jeff Weaver, who'd posted a 9.26 ERA and 1.97 WHIP in eight bullpen appearances in 2003, pitching on twenty-seven days' rest who got the call over Rivera. To this day I can't help but wonder what Mo must have been thinking as he watched Alex Gonzalez's twelfth-inning game-ender sail over the left field wall at Sun Life Stadium - or whatever it was called back then.
Beyond the need to wait for save chances, the "closers don't pitch well in tie games" narrative is another angle that drives the "save the closer" mentality. Managers do use their closers with the score even at home because there can never be a lead to hold after the ninth, but part of the reason they hold them back on the road may be the assumption that they'll do better in their more natural habitat. For the Yankees - yes, Robertson does seem to be a bit sharper this year when going for a save, as did Rivera before him. Opposing batters hit .248/.312/.343 off Mo in tie games versus .204/.249/.280 when the Yankees held the lead. In 2014, Robertson's opponents hit .226/.314/.355 when games are tied (in an extremely small sampling of 35 plate appearances) and .181/.253/.299 when he's guarding a lead. But the whole thing reeks of a post-hoc fallacy. There's no cogent reason why closers should be any less effective in tie games than with leads except maybe for some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which might be defeated if they were used in ties more often. Regardless of game situation, if there's a choice between Robertson and Kelley, or Rivera and one of the Scott Proctors and Tanyon Sturtzes who'd sometimes pitch before him, I'll take the bullpen ace every time.
Using Robertson Thursday wouldn't have guaranteed a win just like using Rivera wouldn't have in '03. The Yankees would still have needed to score a run at some point, which hasn't always been the easiest task for them this season. If they're going to lose, though, they should do so with their top options playing, not sitting and waiting. By leaving a well-rested Robertson in the bullpen with the game on the line, Girardi didn't give his team its best chance to win.