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"The Closer is the Closer Because He's the Closer"

How to avoid rigid thinking in response to pressure situations

· Baseball,Mental Skills,Sport Psychology

Recently, I read the book The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, a fun read that details the experiences of statistically minded baseball writers Ben Lindbergh (who currently writes for Bill Simmons' The Ringer website) and Sam Miller (who recently started writing for ESPN). In the book, Lindbergh and Miller are given the chance to put their passion for advanced baseball statistics to work in a real life situation as the newest members of the front office of the Sonoma Stompers of the Independent Pacific Association. As they work within one of the lowest rungs of professional baseball, Lindbergh and Miller have the opportunity to put their sabermetric knowledge into action, challenging the "conventional wisdom" of standard baseball strategy.

In the book, the Stompers' player-manager Fehlandt Lentini becomes the perfect foil for our protagonists as they attempt to bring objective statistical methods into the clubhouse and onto the baseball diamond. Lentini, an aging veteran tasked with serving as both Centerfielder and Manager, hews to the many rules of baseball's traditions. Based on his years of experience, which includes several seasons in the Houston Astros' minor league system, Lentini bristles against the suggestions and ideas of two "nerds in hoodies" who have never played the game past Little League.

In particular, Lindbergh and Miller suggest using ace relief pitcher Sean Conroy in a new and different role. Their idea: bring Conroy, the team's "closer", in as a Bruce Sutter-style "stopper" when other pitchers start to struggle, regardless of the inning. Their logic: why keep Conroy in the bullpen for a 9th inning save situation in favor of less talented pitchers when the result of the game is very much in doubt? Lentini, stuck in the rigidity of baseball convention, refuses to use Conroy as anything but the 9th inning save specialist that closes out the game. In the midst of the conflict, the reader is delivered what is quite possibly the best quote of the book as a defense: "The Closer is the Closer because he's the Closer". As the season wears on, Lentini is revealed to be in over his head as Player-Manager and his lack of emotional control results in confrontations with umpires and multiple ejections. He is fired during the season and leaves to play in the Independent Atlantic League.

Stress affects the thought processes of all of us. As our stress level rises, the primitive structures of our brain that have been tasked with our basic survival are engaged. The amygdala, our brain's "alarm system" begins to fire, activating the Acute Stress Response, also known as "Fight or Flight" or, more accurately "Fight/Flight/Freeze". This response increases our blood pressure and heart rate, quickens our breathing, and tenses our muscles. The raw emotional impulses that kept us alive when confronted with angry bears or hungry saber-tooth tigers begin to take over. However, when these raw impulses come into play within the context of sports performance, this response works against athletes and coaches. The intensity of the "alarm bell" overwhelms us, interfering with the muscle memory built up over time and fueling unhelpful emotions such as anxiety and anger. Examples in the sporting arena are many: the football player who "loses his cool" and is charged with a costly penalty, the golfer who misses the "easy" putt under pressure, the basketball team with the big lead that "tightens up" and "chokes" the game away. When it comes to strategy within sports, decision-making is affected as well. The thought process of players and coaches become more rigid, and "tunnel vision" takes over. Our mind "freezes" as the primitive impulses that encouraged us to hide from dangerous predators take control. 

This week the Major League Baseball Playoffs started, commencing with two beautiful gems in the single-game "do or die" American League and National League Wild Card games and followed up with the start of the divisional series in each league. In the AL Wild Card game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles, masterful pitching on both sides resulted in a game that remained tied at 2-2 through the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th innings. In the bullpen through these innings sat Zach Britton, the Orioles' Closer. However, to refer to Britton as the Orioles' closer probably doesn't do him justice. Britton finished the season with an ERA of 0.54, which was nearly a run lower than the next lowest ERA amongst pitchers with 60+ innings pitched. And he led all Major League pitchers in the advanced statistic of Win Probability Added, which focuses on how each player impacts his team's probability of winning with each at-bat. Baseball writer Michael Baumann made the case for Zach Britton to win the American League Cy Young Award, which recently has been awarded exclusively to starting pitchers. And none other than Ben Lindbergh has advocated for Britton to not just be named the Cy Young Award winner, but to be considered for the American League Most Valuable Player Award. (side note: The Ringer writers seem to love to write articles that go strongly against sportswriting convention. For examples, see Shea Serrano's recent articles on Keanu Reeves' coaching decisions in the movie "Hardball" and a thorough examination of Antonio Brown's "twerking" touchdown celebration).

So as the Orioles-Blue Jays contest remained tied in the 10th inning and the decisive 11th inning, Britton remained on the bench. Orioles Manager Buck Showalter, in his 18th year as a Major League Manager, brought in other relief pitchers from the bullpen. As Orioles reliever Ubaldo Jimenez proceeded to give up back to back singles, Showalter kept Britton on the bench. And when Edwin Encarnacion plastered a 3 run walk off homer to left field, the Orioles' season ended. One of baseball's best pitchers never entered the game, waiting for the traditional "closer" game situation that never came. From a distance we are left to guess at Showalter's thought process and wonder if the tension and pressure of the situation led to rigidity in his bullpen strategy. At the postgame press conference, Showalter would only say that Britton was healthy and available and that "you could (regret) afterwards, but we went 4 innings trying to get that spot" of using Britton in the traditional "closer" situation. The Closer is the Closer because he's the Closer.

So what can a Manager (or player or coach) do when faced with these high pressure situations? What can they do when the Fight/Flight/Freeze response is firing? How can they stay flexible in their strategy and avoid poor decisions that hinder their team's chances of success? Here are four steps to stay strategic and flexible:

  1. Self-Assessment - What are your current feelings and thoughts? Are you experiencing signs that your "Alarm Bell" is going off such as tightness and muscle tension, increased heart rate, and feeling "shaky" or "edgy"?
  2. Breathe - And not just a token "deep breath", but even and slow diaphragmatic breathing that helps your system to calm and settle down.  Breathing in slowly for 5 seconds.  And out even slower for 6 seconds to help regain a sense of feeling loose and calm.
  3. Reset - Have a "reset ritual" that brings you back to your base of focus and mental strength as pressure increases or mistakes are made.  A manager may take off his hat and wipe his brow.  An infielder may use his cleats to wipe away his footprints from the previous play.  A quarterback may wipe his hands on his towel.  Or a coach may visualize the last play getting flushed down the toilet to get his focus back on the current moment.
  4. Focus on the Present - Bring your focus back to "right now".  This pitch.  This play.  This swing.  Enact your strategy for the current challenge, rather than a future situation that may or may not arrive.

On Thursday night, Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona faced a quandary in Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series against the Boston Red Sox. His starting pitcher, Trevor Bauer had already given up 3 runs, including a home run to Sandy Leon in the 5th that narrowed the Indians lead to one run. With Bauer nearing 80 pitches with a Game 4 start looming, Francona made the decision to insert Andrew Miller, a dominant reliever, whose 1.45 ERA was second only to Zach Britton this season. Miller, whose abilities and profile fit the classic closer role, came in and threw 40 pitches over 2 innings of work in "middle relief". He struck out 4 batters and stymied the hot bats of the Boston Red Sox. The experienced Francona, winner of 2 World Series Championships as manager or the Boston Red Sox, looked loose and confident in the dugout as his young team rode their bullpen to a 5-4 game one victory. Andrew Miller was credited with the win. And Terry Francona should be credited for his decision. Because sometimes the pitcher you need in middle relief is the closer.

I think that bullpens are kind of being adjusted right now . . . Maybe as more and more stats come out, we realize there's bigger moments in the game than the eighth and ninth inning, and that can be appreciated.

- Andrew Miller, ALDS Game 1 Winning Pitcher

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