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Sacrifical lambs: The art of wearing one

There are poor outings, there are ugly outings, and then there are sacrificial lambs.

Scott Baker, the quintessential sacrificial lamb this season
Scott Baker, the quintessential sacrificial lamb this season
Tom Pennington

Thanks to the myriad of statistics and historical data available, there are many fun, unusual, and interesting things to watch for in today’s game. In this article, I’d like to introduce you to another one, known to me as the sacrificial lamb.

The sacrificial lamb, in baseball terms, refers to the following scenario: a relief pitcher, often the worst pitcher in the pen, being tasked with eating innings in a game that has been lost long ago. The manager, not wanting to use any other relief pitchers, often lets this pitcher stay in the game no matter the result. These outings have a tendency to go very poorly, and it is not uncommon for such a pitcher to throw multiple innings with terrible results.

If the situation gets bad enough and it is clear that the pitcher is being left out there to die, then that pitcher becomes a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered for the sake of resting the rest of the pitching staff. There is no objective way to quantify this, as it is a concept rather than a statistical phenomenon, but for the sake of objectivity let's set the criteria for an outing of such sacrifice as follows:

  1. The pitcher must enter in relief.
  2. The pitcher must throw more than one inning.
  3. The pitcher must surrender at least five earned runs.
  4. This must occur in a losing effort, and the bigger the blowout the better.
  5. The pitcher must not factor into the decision (i.e. not enter with and subsequently blow the lead)

Types of Lambs

There are two main categories to sacrificial lambs, which I will call the "give me all you got" lamb and the "get us out of here" lamb.

The "give me all you got" lamb typically occurs when the starting pitcher implodes and doesn’t last more than a few innings. With the team facing a steep early deficit that they are unlikely to overcome, the manager is tasked with finding someone to make up for the innings previously allotted to the starting pitcher. Enter an opportunity for a lamb.

In this situation, the manager chooses a pitcher, slaps him on the back and says "Come on Johnny, give me all you got." The "give me all you got" lamb isn't likely to be tasked with finishing the game, but he is often left in the game as long as he is able to pitch, no matter how many runs he surrenders. The "give me all you got" lamb has a bit of a safety net in a pitch count, but he will nevertheless be allowed to work through many jams and rough innings.

The second type of lamb, and my personal favorite, is the "get us out of here" lamb. This type of lamb occurs near the end of a game when a team is facing an insurmountable deficit and the manager tasks a certain pitcher with finishing the game. In this situation, the manager has already made up his mind that he is not going to use any more pitchers, so he tells his pitcher "you're finishing this, now get us out of here."

The "get us out of here" lamb is fun because if the pitcher implodes, he has no safely net. A manager might choose to leave him in even if he walks six batters in a row. Back to back to back home runs? Who cares, we don’t want to use another arm tonight. It should be noted that a manager could opt to use a position player to pitch if the pitcher gets into too much trouble, but even that method of escape is quite humorous and perhaps more embarrassing for a pitcher than giving up lots of runs.

There are some instances of lambs not fitting into either category, so perhaps these should be extremes on a spectrum instead of categories, but either way, the concepts remain the same.

The Best Lambs of 2014

1. Scott Baker

Team: Texas Rangers

Date: June 9

Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Final Score17-7

Inning Entered: 3

Pitching line: 5 IP, 11 H, 9 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 3 HR

Type of Lamb: "give me all you got"

Synopsis: Perhaps most famous for Lonnie Chisenhall’s 5-5 day with 9 RBI, this 17-7 demolition resulted in a perfect "give me all you got" lamb of Scott Baker. The long man out of the Texas pen, Baker entered in the third after starter Nick Martinez only lasted two plus innings while surrendering eight earned runs. Baker, who had been a starter in the past and has the ability to eat multiple innings, did just that by throwing five complete innings (and four batters into a sixth) on 91 pitches.

His seven-strikeout, zero-walk combination is nice, but balls put in play against Baker were often destroyed. He generated just three ground balls while surrendering eight line drives and a whopping 16 fly balls. That’s a terrible recipe for success in Arlington, and it is no surprise that Baker was taken deep multiple times. Still, despite the nine earned runs (the 2014 leader for most earned runs allowed by a lamb!), Baker ultimately did his job by eating innings and saving the rest of the pen, which only had to account for two additional innings.

2. Brad Mills

Team: Toronto Blue Jays

Date: August 11

Opponent: Seattle Mariners

Final Score11-1

Inning entered: 6

Pitching line: 2.1 IP, 3 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 0 HR

Type of Lamb: "get us out of here"

Synopsis: I pick Mills not because this lamb is anything special, but because Mills and Baker are the only players with more than one lamb this season (he also had a 2 IP, 8 ER outing less than a month earlier in a "give me all you got" lamb). In this lamb, Blue Jays’ starter Drew Hutchison departed in the sixth inning down 4-1, with Felix Hernandez still in the game for Seattle. The win expectancy for Toronto was already low at 4%, so there was little reason for John Gibbons to use any of his best arms. Mills, therefore, was tasked with finishing this one out.

Mills entered in the sixth and immediately surrendered a triple, a walk, a steal, a single, and a double before recording the final out, which left the Blue Jays in a 9-1 hole. Gibbons opted to stick with Mills to finish the game, which he did while surrendering two more runs. It didn’t get as ugly as it could have, but Gibbons still treated Mills as a lamb as he prioritized rest for the pen over putting the lamb in a position to succeed.

Best Lambs of All Time

1. Nelson Greene

Team: Brooklyn Robins

Date: June 20, 1925

Opponent: Pittsburgh Pirates

Final Score21-5

Inning entered: 2

Pitching line: 6.2 IP, 18 H, 15 ER, 3 BB, 0 K, 3 HR

Type of Lamb: Both

Synopsis: My choice for the greatest lamb of all time, Nelson Greene was left to die on the mound that day. Brooklyn starter Jesse Petty only recorded two outs, while reliever Bill Petty did the same, leaving Greene with 20 outs to record. Greene recorded the 20 outs necessary to complete the game, but this was a miserable showing by all accounts as he surrendered multiple runs in every inning but the fourth and the eighth.

There are two things that I love about this lamb. First, Robins’ manager Wilbert Robinson showed an incredibly quick hook with the first two pitchers, then left Greene out to die. If Greene really was the only other pitcher he was willing to use in defeat, it is odd that he would remove the first two pitchers so quickly. Second, this lamb fits into both categories of lamb. Greene entered in the second inning with the intent to give it all he had, but ended up being left out in a painful situation long enough that it turned into a "get us out of here" lamb as well. Greene was going to finish the game no matter what, and the manager seemingly did not much care that 15 earned runs came along with it.

2. Vin Mazzaro

Team: Kansas City Royals

Date: May 16, 2011

Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Final Score19-1

Inning entered: 3

Pitching line: 2.1 IP, 11 H, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR

Type of Lamb: "give me all you got"

Synopsis: My choice for the modern winner of best sacrificial lamb, Vin Mazzaro entered in the third inning as the third pitcher of the day for the Royals. Starter Kyle Davis recorded just one out and reliever Nathan Adcock got five, so it was up to Mazzaro to record some outs while keeping a 3-0 game intact. Mazzaro did this in the third, setting down the side in order, but the fourth inning was nothing short of disaster.

With men on first and third, two outs and a run already home, all hell broke loose for Mazzaro. The sequence of events from this point was steal, walk, double, single, single, double, single, home run, and finally, a strikeout. That’s miserable and he clearly wasn’t having any success that day, but Mazzaro was stil sent out to the mound for the fifth inning! Coming off of a ten run inning and having allowed seven of the last eight batters to reach (and all score), Mazzaro was still the guy for Ned Yost. Things didn’t improve for him, as he recorded an out then surrendered a double, a walk, and two singles before being mercifully removed from the contest. This is a sacrificial lamb at its worst, as a pitcher would never be allowed to continue after surrendering ten runs the inning before under normal circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Baseball survives on the delicate balance between hitters and pitchers, but when one side of the balance becomes inept, things can get very ugly, and when a manager has little reason to pull a pitcher, things can get even uglier. I’m not sure if sacrificial lambs are something that I root for, but they are something that I can appreciate. In these situations, a pitcher either isn’t very good or isn’t having a good day, but still must continue to throw (and give up runs) because it is in the best interest of the team in the long run.

I appreciate the work of the sacrificial lamb, especially once things are well out of hand. It is a humiliating task for a pitcher to continue to throw once he has already surrendered lots of runs and everyone in the stadium (including the pitcher himself) knows that he just isn't getting it done today. The work of a lamb is a different type of work, one that is not based on winning the game but rather shouldering the load, which is an admirable silver lining in the face of an ugly outing and defeat.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Dan Weigel, who hopes he is never a sacrificial lamb, is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and an Author of Minor League Ball. You can read his tweets at @DanWiggles38.