Monday, August 18, 2008

How important are closers and saves?

I meant to post this great article by Jim Caple a while back, but I forgot to do so.

His piece dissects the use of closers in baseball and even goes so far as to say the closer is "the most overrated position in sports." I don't know if I agree with that, but the article is extremely interesting nonetheless. And his description of how certain closers act or are welcomed into the game is spot on.

We have hyped the closer into a ridiculously over-the-top role. They enter games to fanfare normally reserved for Oprah and pro wrestlers -- heavy metal entrance music is such a clich├ęd prerequisite that controversies arise over who has the more legitimate claim to a particular song (see Mariano Rivera v. Billy Wagner). When J.J. Putz still was regularly closing games for Seattle, the Mariners played AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" over the loudspeakers while the scoreboard flashed menacing lightning graphics and displayed the current time as "10:03 PDT, Putz Domination Time."

First of all, he's right. Second, I had no idea about the whole "Putz Domination Time" thing, and that makes the Mariners' collapse this season a little funnier.

Besides pointing out the obvious humor when some closers enter the game, Caple, in my view, brought up two other strong points.

[#1] The save is the only situation in which a manager makes his decisions based on a statistic rather than what makes the most competitive sense for his team. ...

[And #2] The restricted role of closers not only is an inefficient use of their talent, it renders them useless during a prolonged losing streak because the team never has a lead in the ninth inning to protect. Putz "saved" 40 games last year with a 1.38 ERA, was named the team's best pitcher by the local writers and the reliever of the year by the league. Yet when Seattle was in the midst of losing 13 of 14 games in late August and early September to tumble from the wild-card lead to hopelessly out of playoff contention, Putz pitched only twice. So when the team was floundering at a make-or-break point of the season, its supposed best pitcher -- the league's alleged best reliever -- was of no help because the Mariners were not in official and proper "save situations."

The article brings up very valid questions. Should the closer be the best reliever on the team? Shouldn't a team's best reliever pitch the most? Should a team's best reliever be brought in when his team needs him the most, even if it happens to be the sixth or seventh inning? And, possibly most importantly, does having a dominant closer give a team a better chance to win the World Series?

Some of those questions may not have definitive answers, but I did look at the last 10 World Series champions and the stats of their closers in the regular season and the World Series.

First, here are the teams that won and their closer's numbers during the season.

1998 New York Yankees (4-0) -- Mariano Rivera (1.91 ERA, 36 saves)
1999 New York Yankees (4-0) -- Mariano Rivera (1.83 ERA, 45 saves)
2000 New York Yankees (4-1) -- Mariano Rivera (2.85 ERA, 36 saves)
2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (4-3) -- Byung-Hyun Kim (2.94 ERA, 19 saves)
2002 Anaheim Angels (4-3) -- Troy Percival (1.92 ERA, 40 saves)
2003 Florida Marlins (4-2) -- Braden Looper (3.68 ERA, 28 saves)
2004 Boston Red Sox (4-0) -- Keith Foulke (2.17 ERA, 32 saves)
2005 Chicago White Sox (4-0) -- Dustin Hermanson (2.04 ERA, 34 saves)
2006 St. Louis Cardinals (4-1) -- Jason Isringhausen (3.55 ERA, 33 saves)
2007 Boston Red Sox (4-0) -- Jonathan Papelbon (1.85 ERA, 37 saves)

Out of these 10, no reliever really had a bad season. Again, if the closer is supposed to be a team's best reliever, then all of these guys got plenty of chances to save games for their teams. Also, it's important to note that only 2 of the last 10 WS have gone 7 games. Seven out of the 10 have also been decided in 4 or 5 games, which is pretty bad.

Now, here are the same stats for these closers in the World Series in their own respective years.

1998, Rivera -- 4.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 3 saves
1999, Rivera -- 4.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2 saves
2000, Rivera -- 6.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 2 saves
2001, Kim -- 3.1 IP, 13.50 ERA, 0 saves
2002, Percival -- 3.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, 3 saves
2003, Looper -- 3.2 IP, 9.82 ERA, 0 saves
2004, Foulke -- 5.0 IP, 1.80 ERA, 1 save
2005, Hermanson -- 0.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 saves
2006, Isringhausen -- 2.0 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 saves
2007, Papelbon -- 4.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 3 saves

The most glaring number in there is the one-third inning pitched by Hermanson in 2005, even if the White Sox did sweep the Astros. Hermanson was trusted to save 34 games that season, and in four games, he was used to retire just one batter? Also, Kim and Looper were bombed in their WS appearances (both against the Yankees), but their teams still went on to win.

In the end, even though the debate is far from over, having a solid closer like Rivera or Papelbon is certainly a big lift for a bullpen and an entire team; however, having a "dominant" closer may not really be necessary. Kim, Looper, and Hermanson didn't have extended roles as closers for very long in their careers, but they were still able to rack up a bunch of saves in those seasons.

How overrated is the save? I guess each fan has to decide that for his or her own self.


  1. wasn't bobby jenks used as the closer for the white sox playoff run? i seem to remember ozzie calling for him in a world series game by gesturing with his hands, "i want the tall, fat one"

  2. Yeah, the White Sox relied upon Jenks in the playoffs, and he had 2 saves and a blown save in the World Series against the Astros. I guess it just shows you that almost any reliever (Hermanson) can pile up saves during the season.

    Also, I have no idea what Jenks was thinking with this on his face --