|How valuable are closers?|
Written by Daniel Paulling (Contact & Archive) on May 10, 2009
Cliff Corcoran of SI.com writes of how closers are being overpaid.
Closer, stopper, fireman -- call it what you will. The role of the relief ace has changed greatly over the years, but despite the different ways in which managers have deployed their best relievers, the rate at which teams convert save opportunities has remained constant since the save rule took its current form prior to the 1975 season.
Since 1975, major-league teams have converted 67.8 percent of their save chances. Year-to-year, that rate has never gone above 71.5 percent (1988) nor below 64 percent (2008), and within that narrow range of fluctuation there has been just one discernable peak (70.7 percent from 1988 to 1992) and no multiyear valleys. One might argue that the expansions in 1977, 1993, and 1998 as well as the surge in run-scoring in the late 1990s undermined the gains made by management, but the recent slowdown in run-scoring has not seen a corresponding increase in league-wide save percentage, suggesting that whatever gains might have been counterbalanced were either negligible, transitory, or simply non-existent.
That might seem contradictory for anyone looking at the all-time saves leader lists. Of the top 46 single-season saves totals, only three were recorded prior to 1988, and of the three that occurred between 1988 and 1990, two were by Dennis Eckersley. That's significant because Eckersley and his manager, Tony La Russa, ushered in the era of the modern, one-inning closer in 1988. As this chart by Baseball Musings' David Pinto shows, prior to 1988, more than half of all saves lasted more than three outs. But by 1991, three-out saves were the norm, and their frequency has only increased since, surpassing 80 percent of all saves in 2007.
La Russa's revolution did increase the rate at which closers converted their save opportunities. Eckersley converted 89 percent of his save chances during his five-year peak from 1988 to 1992, compared to Bruce Sutter's 80 percent conversion rate in the five seasons in which he led the National League in saves (1979 to 1982 and 1984). The one-inning save, however, did not improve teams' ability to convert saves, as it left the extra outs to lesser relievers who would blow just enough save opportunities before the ninth inning to bring the league average back down to its established level. Even the LaRussa/Eckersley A's were susceptible to a bad year from their setup men. In 1991, they finished 20th in the majors in save percentage with a 65 percent rate despite Eckersley's typically strong 84 percent in the ninth inning. What the one-inning save actually did was reduce the impact of the closer, despite the inflated saves totals it ushered in. Compare Francisco Rodriguez's record-setting 62-save season from last year to Sutter's then-record-tying 45-save season in 1984. Using Baseball Prospectus' win-probability-based WXRL, which measures a reliever's cumulative impact on his team's chances of winning the games in which he pitches, K-Rod's season was worth 5.167 wins compared to Sutter's 7.647 wins, or just 67.5 percent as much despite Rodriguez's saving 17 more games, in large part because Rodriguez threw just 56 percent as many innings as Sutter.
As Pinto wrote in the article that accompanies the above-linked chart, "teams score less than three runs in an inning 93.6 percent of the time, and shutout innings are thrown 70 percent of the time." That's the average result with a league-average pitcher on the mound. Because getting three outs before giving up three runs is a task most major-league quality pitchers can handle, teams have slowly begun to realize that they needn't invest in elite "proven" closers and can easily convert a solid in-house arm or low-cost pickup into a sufficiently reliable closer. Indeed, a full third of the teams in the majors entered the 2009 season with their closing duties in the hands of a pitcher who had never spent a full season in the role in the major leagues.
The rest of the piece is worth a thorough read. Check it out if you have an opportunity.
It seems as if Corcoran argues (logically, I might add) that closers are being overvalued in this market. Guys who only throw 60 great innings a season aren't worth as much as an average starting pitcher who throws 200. Someone like Francisco Rodriguez, who throws a good but not great 60 innings per season definitely isn't worth that much.
However, teams are reluctant to not have some sort of ninth inning guy out there. A few years back, the Red Sox braintrust, led by Bill James, attempted to go with a closer-by-committee. The plan failed miserably, but that was because the Red Sox did not have the right personnel in place to implement it properly.
But it also could've failed because relief pitchers are so used to the relief role that exists today that they couldn't adapt. Baseball players are nothing if they're not creatures of habit. Guys probably didn't respond well to coming in to the seventh inning one day and then being asked to close the game the next night. They have routines they follow from getting on the stationary bike in the early part of the game, watching video later in the game and stretching in the bullpen.
There's probably a bit of truth to both of those thoughts.
But perhaps the biggest reason teams are reluctant to forego having a closer is because of the media. Should a manager bring in his closer in the seventh inning to secure a rough situation and then the guy who comes in the ninth inning blows the save, the manager will have about 12 questions concerning his move. In this age of hyper media coverage, managers have to protect their jobs.
One interesting point I want to bring up about Corcoran's piece. There are shutout innings thrown 70 percent of the time. That means the average pitcher should be able to save at least that many opportunities, more considering there are save opportunities of more than one run.
So why overspend for the "proven" closer? I don't know. It doesn't make baseball sense.