Yesterday, Bob R., TTNorm, Rome, LJK, and I had an interesting discussion in the comments section about the value of “closers.”
This morning, through either luck or divine providence, Baseball Prospectus adds meat to the bones of our speculation. In this piece, Colin Wyers breaks down the value of using a team’s best pitcher as its “closer” in great detail.
It is a detailed, dense piece (he references Archimedes…seriously…that is intense math) that I will summarize with two major conclusions:
1) While using your best pitcher to close games does increase your chances of protecting 1-run 9th inning leads, the increase is so minimal that it amounts to about 1 win every two years (because you are going to win a huge percentage of games when you lead in the 9th inning no matter who is pitching); and
2) Waiting to use your best pitcher until the 9th inning of a 1-run game reduces the chances that you will have a 1-run lead in the 9th inning.
The first point is surprising but the second, I think, is the most overlooked part of this whole discussion. Upon further review, however, it makes perfect sense. Our starter is tired and we are winning by <3 runs, let’s use pitchers that are not that good until we get to the 9th when we will use our best pitcher. Under this scenario, your other relievers (we will call them the bridge since I like that term) need to get 6-9 guys out, and your best pitcher only needs to get 3 guys out. If you flip the logic, and use your best pitchers in the 6-7-8 innings, then your best pitcher is responsible for 6-9 outs at a point in the game when the other team still has some hope (because they aren’t down to their last 3 outs) and the bridge are only responsible for 3 outs when the other team’s back is all but broken.
Devil Ray fans have some experience with this phenomenon. From 1998-2000 Roberto Hernandez was our best pitcher. He earned 101 saves in 103 save situations in those three seasons while the team only won a total of 201 games. (Let’s just agree, again, that Hernandez was incredibly good for incredibly bad teams.)
Before Devil Ray fans got to see Rubber-toe protect a lead, they had to suffer through relief appearances from future Hall of Famers Esteban Yan, Travis Harper, Rick White, Doug Creek, and others.
What if Larry Rotshchild and Hal McRae had the confidence to break the mold? What if they didn’t save Hernandez for “save” situations and used him earlier in games to protect mid-late inning leads? Based on the research above, those Devil Ray teams were going to win a huge portion of the 101 games Roberto earned saves in anyway. Let’s estimate conservatively, based on BP, that those 101 wins are 90 wins. But, the Devil Rays certainly would get those 11 wins back by using Roberto in the 285 games they lost without getting him the ball. Even if Roberto’s contribution helps them win 30% of those games, that is 85.5 more wins (which is a total win increase of 74.5 after subtracting the 11 wins we took away from Hernandez’s save total). That is 28.5 more wins per season turning some 60-win teams into 80 win teams. Even half that effect would have been monumental.
This kind of logic is right down Joe Maddon’s alley but, it isn’t clear that the Rays are ready to totally dynamite the mold. If they do, we’ll be comfortable even if the bandwagon starts getting light.