Debunking the Myth – Closers

Before I get started I just want to mention that fellow blogger (and Yankee fan) Jane Heller wrote a book about her love for the Yankees called Confessions of a She-Fan that was released today.  I got my copy and am looking forward to reading it.  If you’ve never seen her blog, you can see it here:  http://janeheller.mlblogs.com .  Her blog is extremely entertaining and her book promises to be even more entertaining. 

 

OK, the commercial is over.

 

I am often amazed at some of the things that some very intelligent, and in some cases brilliant people can say.  I’ve heard it time and time again from those who analyze and write about baseball for a living:  “The closer is the most overrated position in baseball, and the save is the most overrated statistic in baseball.”  Recently, one writer even went as far as to say that he would never vote for a closer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  I can’t imagine anyone not voting for Mariano Rivera, but I couldn’t imagine anyone not voting for Rickey Henderson either. 

 

I decided to do a little more research on the subject.  The table below shows the World Series winners of the last 20 years, since Dennis Eckersley changed the closer position, along with the team’s league rank in saves, ERA, and OBP.  I chose to show ERA because it most closely relates to a team’s ability to prevent runs, and I chose to show OBP because it is the most important simple statistic in terms of scoring runs.

Year        Team                 Saves       ERA       OBP

’89           A’s                         1            1            3

’90           Reds                      1            2            4

’91           Twins                     2            2            1

’92           Blue Jays               4            9            6

’93           Blue Jays               1            5            3

’95           Braves                  10            1           10

’96           Yankees                 1            5            3

’97            Marlins                  7            4            2

’98            Yankees                3            1            1

’99            Yankees                1            2            2

’00            Yankees                7            6            5

’01            Diamondbacks      12            2            4

’02            Angels                    1           2            4

’03            Marlins                  12           7            8

’04            Red Sox                  6           3            1

’05            White Sox               1            1          11

’06            Cardinals                 9            9           5

’07            Red Sox                  2            1           2

’08            Phillies                    2            4           7

 

There are few anomolies that warrant explanations.  The ’95 Braves were ranked 10th in saves, but they led the league with 18 complete games (Greg Maddux had 10) which limited save opportunities.  It’s conceivable that Mark Wohlers would have gotten a lot more saves if he had more opportunities.  The 2001 Diamondbacks also led the league in complete games.  The ’98 Yankees have been considered the greatest team ever by many, yet they did not lead the league in saves.  That’s because they led the league with 22 complete games.

 

I have no explanations for the Marlins or Cardinals, except to say that a great closer isn’t the only reason that a team wins the World Series.  Nonetheless, 7 of the last 20 teams to win the World Series have led their leagues in saves, and 10 of the last 20 have been either 1st or 2nd.  We can go back even further to the ’70s.  Of the 10 World Series winners from 1970 through 1979, 6 of them led their league in saves, and 3 of the other 4 were ranked 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

 

Why are closers valuable?  They can help a team in 3 different ways.  Bill James’ Pythagorean theorem uses runs scored and runs allowed to fairly accurately predict a team’s expected won-loss record.  The first way a closer can help a team is obviously by preventing runs from being scored, thereby increasing the number of expected wins.  Secondly, it’s been noticed that having a great closer can actually help your team outperform their expected won-loss record, by as many as 3 games.  This is because they are preventing the most important runs.  Many teams win their divisions by less than 3 games, so those can be very valuable games.  The third way a closer can help has to do with the current playoff format.  I’ve often heard players and managers state that the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, but if you think about it, it’s really a marathon followed by a series of sprints.  Having a great closer during a short series is invaluable.

 

I realize that a closer these days only needs to go one inning, but they are pitching in the most pressure-packed inning of the game, night after night.  Most closers do not have long careers where they are consistently effective.  That’s why guys like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera amaze me.

12 Comments

I can’t say enough about the importance of a good closer. They shorten games, period. If your starter can get through 7 and you’ve got a good set-up guy, the closer shuts the door. Game over. It was the area where I thought the Rays were weakest in the postseason. Once Percival went down, they were vulnerable. Hope Mo lives forever.

http://janeheller.mlblogs.com

Jane, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I am with you on hoping for the perpetuity of Mo’s baseball career.

I don’t know what I’ll do the day he retires. Can’t even imagine it.

http://janeheller.mlblogs.com

Jane, You got through Mantle’s retirement – or did you? I’d love to hear about how you got through that day.

I agree that the closer position is a little overrated. But having a lights out closer can change the entire game. Closers like Rivera, Papelbon, K-Rod and Brad Lidge can shut down a teams rally and “save” the game. Having a great closer isn’t really necessary but it is really good to have.
http://downonstrikes.blogspot.com/

Hey, pinstripepride3 …

The Yankees have always had great “closers” out of the bullpen througout the years, and these great relievers were a major reason why the Yankees won their many Championships in those seasons; especially, since 1976, when the Yankees had Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage closing out Yankee victories during their ’76 AL Championsip year, and World Champinship seasons of 1977 and ’78 … And, of course, where would the Yankees be without Mariano Rivera during all their Championship years during the Joe Tore era ??? … Yes, all winning teams need to have a “great” closer in the bullpen !!! … Nice research on this very important baseball subject !!! … Jimmy [27NYY] http://baseballtheyankeesandlife.mlblogs.com/

I am on the Keith Law way of thinking when it comes to relievers, build the rest of the team first, then address the bullpen.

First let me say how nice to is to find another sabrmetrically inclined Yankee fan. I’ve just started blogging here and haven’t gotten too much into number crunching yet but I hope to soon. I wanted to address your comment that closers pitch in the most “pressure-packed” inning. I have to disagree with you here. Most closers do not pitch in the most pressure packed inning. Most of the time the most pressure-packed innings are in the 6th 7th and 8th innings when the game is close. If the closer is being called in chances are it’s the 9th inning with a two or three run cushion. Most major league pitchers are able to record 3 outs before giving up 3 runs.

The problem I have with the “closer” is that he is often the best pitcher in the bullpen. Managers will only use him in the 9th instead of when he is needed most. This leads to many lost games. The overrated save stat has changed the game for the worse.

I obviously think Mo should get into the HOF but because of his sick career 199 ERA+ and 1.02 WHIP not to mention his .77 postseason ERA, and NOT his saves.

I talk about this a little more in a recent blog about why Joba should be a starter and not in the pen. Very nice blog btw! http://bronxzoo.mlblogs.com

Hardball, if look at the teams that have won the World Series, most have a good closer. I think it might be a bigger necessity than most people think.

Jimmy, without Sparky in ’77 or or Gossage in ’78, the Yankees probably wouldn’t have won. I know that winning is about a team, and the Yankees have had many contributors, but if you had to name the single most important player on the Yankees during the late ’90s, it would have to be Mo.

Joe, history suggests otherwise. I have a lot of respect for Keith Law, but you can’t ignore the fact that most teams who win the World Series have good closers. The Red Sox World Series wins in the last few years are mainly due to an improved bullpen. If they hadn’t traded Sparky Lyle to the Yankees (thank you, by the way) they probably would have won in ’77 and ’78.

Andrew, Bill James held this belief when he first went to work with the Red Sox. He had them implement a bullpen by committe, using the best pitcher for each situation. It didn’t work out so well, and he quickly realized that he was wrong. The Red Sox improved their bullpen, got a closer for the 9th, and won two World Series in four years.

The ninth inning isn’t the only pressure inning, and frequently isn’t the highest-pressure inning. Having an elite “closer”-caliber relief pitcher is important, of course. But having a pitcher that is more or less shelved unless a high-pressure ninth inning happens along doesn’t make baseball sense.

It stands to reason that successful teams have successful closers, because they win more games than other teams do, which creates “save” situations. A save is earned in one of three ways: A pitcher enters the game with a lead, pitches at least three innings, and ends the game without relinquishing the lead; a pitcher enters a game with a lead of three runs or fewer, pitches at least a full inning, and ends the game without relinquishing the lead; a pitcher enters the game with a lead and the go-ahead or tying run on base, at bat, or on deck, and finishes the game without relinquishing the lead.

Simply put, a pitcher can almost completely fail and record a save. It’s not over-rated because it’s not important. Like RBI, it’s over-rated because it’s situational. Troy Percival, despite being fairly lackluster, garnered 28 saves last season. Trevor Hoffman, a significantly better pitcher, only managed 2 more. Francisco Rodriguez, who had a WHIP at a relatively-fat 1.288, set the record for saves.

They’re over-valued in that theoretically, any relief pitcher with a razor-thin WHIP can be made into a closer. The Astros cranked them out — Wagner, Dotel, Lidge, Wheeler. The Athletics did the same. They all went elsewhere for a lot more money; meanwhile, we kept promoting from within. Great closers are vital. When the ninth is the pressure inning, a great “closer” is vital. But the save is most definitely an overrated stat.

http://houston.mlblogs.com

Simply put, it’s easier to dominate for one inning than it is for an extended number of innings. And most major league pitchers, given a three run cushion and only three outs to earn, should be successful more often than not. There are better ways to look at this success, though, such as WPA and WHIP.

Anyone who says they would never vote for a closer to get into the HOF is an idiot, IMO. Mariano Rivera is a great pitcher. Trevor Hoffman is a great pitcher. These are HOF-caliber relievers who were unfortunately relegated for most of their careers to only pitching one inning at a time, and only when their team held a lead of 1-3 runs.

http://houston.mlblogs.com

Roundrock, the fact that teams that win a lot create more saves is kind of a chicken and the egg type of issue. Do they end up with a lot of saves because they win a lot, or do they win a lot because their closer saved a lot of their games? I believe it’s a little of both. I don’t think you should ever look at any one statistic and make a decision about that player’s ability based on that one stat. You can’t look at saves in a vaccuum. There are definitely players who rack up saves who are not as good as they are portrayed to be. K-Rod is a perfect example. He’s a really good pitcher, but not the lights out closer Rivera is. A save conversion rate where you look at the percentage of save situations that were successful would be a better metric to look at.

I disagree that anyone can be made into a good closer. I think it depends on the makeup of the pitcher. Some guys run marathons, others are sprinters. There have been many good middle relievers that have failed as closers. I also disagree that it is unfortunate that Rivera and Hoffman were relegated to pitching one inning at a time. They will both be HOFers because they pitched one inning at a time. The Yankees tried Rivera as a starter early in his career. It was a disaster. If a reliever is capable of being an effective starter, then he would definitely be more valuable in that role, since he would be pitching more innings, but if he’s not – like Rivera – he’d be lucky that baseball has developed the closer role.

Looking at the data, there’s no denying that a good bullpen is important to winning a championship. No offense to the A’s and Astros, but they haven’t won a single championship in those years they were promoting from within and cranking out closers. The A’s haven’t won since they had Dennis Eckersly in the bullpen. I think closers used to be overrated, but everyone spoke out so much about how overrated they were that they became underrated.

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