It is the bottom of the third inning in Game Four of the 2013 NLCS. The Cardinals are leading Dodgers two games to one and looking to take a decisive advantage by taking Game Five in LA. Lance Lynn takes the mound for his third inning of work after his team has given him a three run cushion in the top half of the frame. At this point, most people probably feel like the Cardinals are completely in control. TBS announcer Ron Darling is not one of those people. He reminds millions of viewers that Lynn has a National League-worst 6.67 ERA in all-important “shutdown innings.” But, is he right? Is the shutdown inning really that important? Does the shutdown inning even exist?
In the age of sabermetrics, many people in baseball would probably argue that a shutdown inning is no more important than any other inning at that given point in the game. You won’t find any win expectancy or leverage index statistics to support the shutdown inning’s existence; believe me I tried. While sabermatricians may be correct given the average regular season game, I argue that they are wrong when it comes to the playoffs.
To begin to analyze shutdown innings, we first need to define them. This can prove to be easier said than done, as every situation is slightly different, and different people place a different amount of importance on a given situation. However, for the purposes of this article, I am defining a shutdown inning as the half inning immediately after a team scores to tie the game, take the lead, or cut a deficit to three runs or fewer.
Once we establish this definition, we can begin to quantify and evaluate shutdown innings. In the 2013 Postseason there were a total of 84 shutdown innings. Out of those innings, pitchers were successful in shutting down the other team’s offense 69 times, and they failed just 15 times. Of the 15 times that a team failed in a shutdown inning, 11 of them went on to lose the game. In the 2 of the 4 games where a team failed in a shutdown inning and when on to win the game, the opposing team also failed in a shutdown inning. Although it is not the largest sample size, these statistics clearly show that while succeeding in a shutdown inning does not guarantee a win, not succeeding in those innings certainly hurts a team’s chances.
The reason behind this? I say it’s mental. As a player myself, I know that guys don’t think about shutdown innings when they are out on the field or up at the plate, but in baseball, it is easier to play from ahead. You can take more risks and be more aggressive when your team has the lead, and in doing so a lot more pressure is placed on the opponent to execute and play fundamentally sound baseball. Additionally, in the playoffs especially, once a team falls behind they begin to put extra pressure on themselves. This combination of pressures creates a mental environment for the trailing team that is not conducive to success.
Yasiel Puig’s NLCS performance is a perfect example of how a team’s position on the scoreboard can affect a player’s performance. In the first two games of the series, the Dodgers did not lead a single inning. Puig was 0-10 with six strikeouts in those two games after putting together a very successful division series against the Braves. It appeared as if he had a relapse of the problems that plagued him mid-season: taking unnecessarily long and hard swings and chasing pitches way out of the zone. After Adrian Gonzales gave the Dodgers the lead in Game 3, Puig proceeded to get hits in his next two at bats including a two-strike opposite field triple. It appeared that once they got the lead, Puig relaxed and stopped trying to do too much.
Shutdown innings are what allow teams to play from ahead. If a pitcher doesn’t have a shutdown inning, then his team will never come to bat with the lead, and will never benefit from the mental advantage that that gives them. In the playoffs, every inning, every at bat, and every pitch is magnified, so it is even more important to have every advantage you can get.
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