By In Baseball

A few words on closers

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A few years ago — OK, maybe more than a few years ago — Margo and I got married, and we got these really nice crystal glasses. I guess they’re called “stemware.” We like these glasses. They’re pretty. When we bring them out, people will inevitably say, “Oh, I love your glasses.”

We, like more or less every person who gets stemware for their wedding, bring out these glasses once a year. Maybe.

Traditional closers like Jonathan Papelbon — that is to say, closers who managers only use in save situations — are like wedding stemware. They are nice. They are considered valuable. If you ever broke one, you would feel really bad. And they have almost nothing to do with daily life.

Jonathan Papelbon has pitched 11 innings since the Washington Nationals turned their team upside down by trading for him. Eleven innings. He has had five save opportunities and he has saved all five — protecting a one-run lead, two two-run leads and two three-run leads. You tell me: What do you think that’s worth?

I’ve written before: Teams on average win 95% of the games they lead going into the ninth inning. That has been true for decades. It’s possible, if you happen to have a charmed year, to beat that number (the Nationals this year have won all 55 games they led going into the ninth) but there really isn’t much potential growth in ninth-inning efficiency. Closers you can’t or won’t use in tie games, when losing by a run or when the team REALLY needs to get out of jam, are luxury items. They are cruise control. They are first class seats. General managers should know that.

Of course, the Nationals expected to give him more than five save opportunities in a month, just like we expected to use our stemware for all sorts of dinner parties, fun lunches, deep book club conversations and, I don’t know, afternoon teas? Instead, we dust them off at Thanksgiving and complain afterward about what a pain they are to clean.

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82 Responses to A few words on closers

  1. Jake says:

    Wasn’t there a stat from a previous Joe column where he figured out that the Yankees won 96% of the games Mariano Rivera pitched in, and the ML average was 95% when winning in the 9th? It was something like that.

    • Bpdelia says:

      There are three things that make Rivera different.

      1) he was, more than any other closer, used for 4+ out saves. Rivera was brought in in the 8th inning. He was used in your games in extra innings etc. He was certainly not only used as a 9th inning guy.

      2) the post season.

      3) Rivera was a luxury for 15 years. Yes teams average 95%. But teams with mediocre closers do worse. Those with better ones do better. Year to year good closers become bad and give versa. For fifteen years the Yankees knew they were going to convert 95%. And that Rivera was going to save a bunch of 4+ out games. And that they’d use him for two innings in tie games if needed.

      Rivera was definitely not used like a fireman. But he also wasn’t exclusively used like a 3 out 9th only reliever either.

      • Tom says:

        Actually, I’m not sure the stats bear you out. Mariano’s save percentage for his career was 89% (652 saves, 80 blown saves). From the time he became full time closer in 1997, he had 194 games of more than 3 outs (out of 1035 appearances), with 87 games of less than three outs. (The rest, presumably were exactly 3 outs.)

        • cindypan says:

          Tom and Jake could both be correct.

          The 89% save percentage is correct, but then add in the blown leads that turn to wins plus the games that Rivera entered tied (used to do that all the time in the top of the 9th). Rivera had 82 wins.

      • KHAZAD says:

        I”ll give you the post season.

        But the rest of this is hyperbole. Mariano was not used “more than any other closer” for 4 out saves. Certainly historically this is incorrect – despite having the most saves by far, he is only 11th in 4+ out saves. Granted many of those were 70s and early 80s closers, when closers were more valuable. (66% of Dan Quisenberry’s saves were 4+ outs, 18% of Mariano’s)

        There was only one year that there weren’t other pitchers who had the same or greater number of 4+ out saves than Rivera (2001, a year he also had the most total saves to work with.) Over his career, 15% of all MLB saves were 4+ outs. Mariano was at 18%, so slightly above average for the league.

        The other point is that when Joe lists 95% of games won, he is including all eras – not just the closer era. Going back over several decades in an article a few years ago, he found that it hadn’t changed at all over the decades from when starters finished games to all the way to the era of the one inning closer. “Save situations” remain steady over the decades as well, about 97% for a three run lead, 93% for a two run lead, and 85% for a 1 run lead.

        Rivera was a great pitcher. But what Joe is taking issue with is what kind of value using a pitcher like that actually has. In a previous article a couple of years ago, He noted that the Yankees had won 6 more games with a 1 run lead in the ninth than an average team in the last 50 years would have won over the same amount of games – for Rivera’s entire career!

        This holds especially true in the case of the Nats in the article. They gave up prospects, spent more money, and upset the existing structure of the team for two months of a one inning closer when they already had a guy in that role, and hadn’t lost a game they had led in the ninth all year.

    • Yea, I personally think (I have no evidence; it’s just my opinion) that closers become much more valuable in the playoffs/World Series. Rivera has the reputation he has because of what he’s done in the playoffs, not the regular season. Torre and Girardi had no problems bringing him in games in the 7th or 8th inning in the playoffs but would never do that in a regular season game.

      I think part of the problem is pitchers are creatures of habit. When Rivera pitched, he KNEW he was coming in the 9th inning. So he’s able to mentally prepare. For example, in the 6th inning, he might start warming up on an exercise bike. In the 7th, he starts stretching. In the 8th, he’s warming up in the bullpen and then he comes out to pitch the 9th. It was his routine. But it’s hard for someone to just be ready in the 6th inning one game, the 9th the next, the 8th after that, and then the 6th again.

      You rarely know when the critical out is needed until that out is needed. It’s easy for us sitting at home to say “Just be ready!” It’s not that simple though. It’s not like telling a pinch hitter to go up and swing. A pitcher can get hurt if the body is under sudden stress which would be the case if a 4-0 game in the 8th inning all of a sudden is 4-2 w/ bases loaded 2 outs.

      • Bpdelia says:

        Rivera actually had a routine that included using weighted balls in the 7th etc. But, like i said, he almost every year led the league in 4+ out saves.

        Paplebon may be a jerk. Certainly he is more concerned with being a closer.

        The Yankees this year has a great situation where both Bettances and Miller seemingly and honestly just didn’t give a crap who closed.

        Miller because he’s analytically inclined. Bettances because he’s already quite well respected.

        The Yankees, made Miller closer, perhaps looking to hold down arbitration awards for bettances.

        Bettances arbitration will be a very telling thing.

        Elite, non closing RP are making all star teams now. The mystique of the “closer who has done it” is waning.

        It’s inevitable that the game stops paying more for saves soon.

        Paplebon may end up being the last of a breed.

      • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

        Excluding the years he served as John Wetteland’s setup man, Rivera never once appeared in the 7th inning during the playoffs.

  2. chlsmith says:

    Know of any writeups on the value of middle relievers? They seem, to me, to be undervalued in terms of their contribution, but I don’t know how you’d quantify it. I’m thinking if a manager took a top-notch pitcher, who could reliably churn out 3 innings every other day, it would work out as a serious weapon for the team.

  3. Owen says:

    I called in to the show this morning after Williams gave that incredibly uninformative, defensive interview. It’s okay, I suppose, to manage by the book in May and June. When you’re six and a half games out in September and trying to make the playoffs, take a page from Bruce Bochy’s “book” and use your best guys in the highest-leverage situations, and your lesser guys in lower-leverage situations. Williams seems to think of Janssen, Storen, and Papelbon as Herrera, Davis, and Holland by different names, despite the fact that Janssen has never been and never will be as good as any of those guys are now. Perhaps part of his issue in using Papelbon in a tie game is that Papelbon only wants to close, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

    The Nationals aren’t going to miss the postseason specifically because of Matt Williams’ poor managing, but the fact is that he leaves a lot to be desired as a tactical manager. He’s been rigid and inflexible with the bullpen for two seasons. Last night he also didn’t bring in Espinosa for Escobar to help preserve a two-run lead against a team that has had the Nats’ number for three solid years. But I’m sure he’ll be back next year, because he’s Rizzo’s guy, and Rizzo is the Lerners’ guy.

    • Bpdelia says:

      To be fair Rizzo has done a fantastic job. The team is having a down year. It happens. The 1997 Yankees had bad year and that was a fantastic team that won in 96 and then won 3 straight championships.

      Rizzo has built a great team for years. He just got Turner for Souza. We don’t know what Williams is like in the clubhouse.

      Management in any job is more about creating a productive environment. The best manager in MLB gets, what?, 2 extra wins?

      Much ado about very very little.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        The Yankees won 96 games in 1997 and finished two games behind the Orioles. They won 92 in 1996 when they won the World Series. They lost the LDS to Cleveland when Rivera blew a save. So, it’s sort of incorrect to say the Yankees had a down year in 1997; the O’s just had a slightly better won. It’s certainly not comparable to the Nats this year, although I agree that Rizzo has done a great job. I also agree that a manager’s in-game tactics are overrated. But the team has been sloppy and undisciplined for several years under different managers so perhaps Rizzo has to take some of the blame for that.

        It’s also interesting that, with all the talk about how great Rivera was-and, certainly he was great-he did blow two big saves in 1997 and GAme 7 of the 2001 WS. I’m not convinced there is that much difference between the best closer-say, Rivera-and just a very good closer. The Cardinals and Giants have both won WS without star closers.

        • The ironic thing is Rivera blew the save in 2001 with his fielding, not his pitching.

        • Dave says:

          FYI—Gonzo in the 7th game was the only batter he faced twice in the same appearance all season. Gonzo said he saw the break and velocity that Rivera had that day and adjusted his placement in the batter’s box and stance.

          • And Gonzo hit a broken bat blooper that bounced on the infield dirt over a drawn in infield. An out if the infield is back. I wouldn’t call that an epic adjustment if that’s all it generated. It was enough and goes in the scorebook the same as a line drive, but I’m surprised a professional hitter would be bragging, in any way, about that chunk hit. Usually they kind of smirk and say “it counts”, “I’ll take it” or “sometimes a line drive gets caught too” or some other bromide. But bragging about it in any way is crazy.

          • Dave says:

            Reply to the entry below: He didn’t “brag”–he stated a fact along the lines of “If I hadn’t adjusted, I couldn’t have done even that.” There’s a detailed write-up of it in Okrent’s book “9 Innings.”

        • Richard says:

          Rivera also blew the save in Game 4 of the 2004 AL Championship Series – when a win in the game would have given the Yankees the pennant

      • jalabar says:

        Yeah, the criticisms of Rizzo are unfounded. I personally think he made a mistake in the Papelbon deal, but his mistakes have been few and far between and he’s had a few more coups than mistakes. He can not play the game for the players, all he can do is supply the players and to that end, he has done his job well. He can’t account for all the injuries. If you look at the way Zimmerman, Rendon, and Werth are playing now that they have gotten a little warmed up after spending most of the season on the shelf, it’s hard not to imagine what this team might have done if they had had everyone healthy all season. I still believe that healthy they are the best team in baseball, but they may be healthy (Span excepted) too late. Although, looking at their last few Septembers, I believe they still have a run in them.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I find it astonishing-but not surprising-that managers insist that it’s impossible to use the “closer” in non-save situations on the road because what would happen if you got the lead and you didn’t have the closer available? Apparently, by law, you could not use a non-closer and you would automatically lose. Of course, you may lose the game before ever getting to the closer, as happened last night, but I suppose managers think its worse to lose after getting a lead than to just lose before. It’s the only thing I can think of. Williams is even worse than most managers; I can just see him on the day after the Nats are eliminated saying we have to play them one game at a time. I think it’s unfair to hit on Rizzo; he took a team that was terrible and made it into a power, although not this year. And to say he is “the Lerners’ guy”? Would it be better that the Lerners were like Dan Snyder?

      • McKingford says:

        You hit on the right point.

        I swear when I’m watching baseball managers at work I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Tie game, late – you have zero margin for error…so you bring in your 4th or maybe 5th best reliever? Because you’re saving your best reliever for when you have a margin for error – sometimes a large margin for error (3 runs!)? How crazy is that?

      • “Apparently, by law, you could not use a non-closer and you would automatically lose.”
        Hey, I’m an M’s fan. By law, you must use the closer AND you automatically lose.

  4. Bpdelia says:

    And everybody in every job prefers to know what is expected of them. To cultivate a routine.

    There needs to be firm analysis actually putting a win number per season on optimal bullpen usage.

    Until then management is going to rightly default to making their star employees as comfortable as is possible.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      It makes sense that people want to know what is expected, but these expectations can vary according to need. Goose Gossage, for example, “expected” to be used for several innings in different kinds of situations. You can prepare people to operate in uncertain environments. You don’t have to maintain overly rigid usage patterns for relievers. It’s like saying a pilot can only fly in perfect conditions; in fact, they are trained to respond to emergencies and uncertain conditions (although, as we have unfortunately seen, some respond better than others). I think the real benefit of having rigid usage patterns for relievers is that it makes it easier for managers when they don’t have to really think about what they are doing.

      • Paint By Numbers Williams says:

        Agreed. People do perform better understanding the expectations, but the expectation is, “get outs until I come to get you.” I’m struggling to think of another profession where it would be okay to excuse failure based on not being put in precisely the same situation every single day. I think it’s fair to say most of us work in jobs where we are expected to show at least some degree of flexibility, adaptability and resilience. Why should relievers be different? And, honestly, if a relief pitcher is so fragile and has such a delicate psyche that he’ll be unable to perform if he doesn’t know what inning he’s pitching in ahead of time, why would you even trust that guy to pitch, like, ever? “Roles” for relievers are an excuse for lazy thinking by managers. Matt Williams might not be the reason the Nats are going to miss the playoffs this year, but he’d definitely be one of the reasons they would flame out in the first round.

    • McKingford says:

      This logic falls apart though when you consider that basically every reliever *other* than the closer is used in disparate fashion from one game to the next. It’s not clear then why the supposed best reliever – the closer – is incapable of being as flexible as the rest of the bullpen.

  5. Jay Olsen says:

    Joe has criticized the Papelbon trade a number of times (“turned their team upside down”) but I just don’t see it. On paper, you’re clearly improving the bullpen by replacing Storen with Papelbon in the 9th inning, and Jansen with Storen in the 8th. So you’re left with Joe’s argument that the trade disrupted team “chemistry,” or somehow made Storen worse by undermining his confidence.
    1) If a “demotion” to the 8th inning was bad for Storen’s confidence, it wasn’t apparent in his performance in the week following the trade: July 29th through August 6th (5 G, 5 IP, 6 SO, 1 BB, 0 H, 0 R).
    2) I don’t think Storen’s psyche is so fragile that Papelbon’s acquisition was enough to send him into a tailspin, but if it is, then maybe he’s not cut out to be a closer on a major league team.

    • Brian says:

      Yep, Papelbon has done a great job and all the Nationals gave up to get him was a low-level prospect who has an ERA above 7 in AA both now and at the time of the trade. He’s not as valuable as a star position player or starting pitcher but adding one of the best closers in baseball certainly has some value. The Nationals have made plenty of mistakes this year but I fail to see any reason why adding Papelbon is one of them.

  6. Carlos Barros says:

    Maybe we should give more value to those very unlikely two-innings save: “The Rivera save”

  7. Actually, there was a classic example of Williams’ inability to understand how to use a bullpen on Monday. The Reds took a 7-5 lead into the eighth against the Cubs. The Cubs got men on first and second with one out. Price brought in HIS CLOSER — Aroldis Chapman — to deal with the situation because waiting until the ninth might have been too late. Chapman pitched out of the jam and the Reds then blew the game open in the top of the ninth.

    And the Reds are just playing out the string.

    • jroth95 says:

      Of course, Price then left Chapman in for the meaningless ninth, having him throw a bunch more pitches and rendering him unavailable for a game or two where he also might be needed.

      Which doesn’t counter your point, it just shows how hard ML managers find it to use closers in what, on paper at least, would seem to be the optimal manner.

      • Again, although the Reds are playing out the string, Managers SHOULD be managing their bullpen differently in Sept & Oct. Certainly there a lot more off days in October to rest up bullpens. But, in September, if you need a win. Use your best when you need them. There is no guarantee that there will be another save situation tomorrow. If there is, then put your next best pitcher in. Paint by numbers is not the way to go.

  8. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    I think people in general are being a bit rough on Papelbon. He didn’t create the system in which closers get paid a lot more than middle relievers. Why shouldn’t he insist on preserving his market value? For the good of the team? Sure, but how many of us would willingly accept a transfer at work that we knew was likely to reduce our income? Of course players want to win, but they also want to be paid–just like the rest of us. Few would admit it, but I’m sure most players would rather go .300/.370/.450 for a bad team than go .220/.290/.400 and play on a world champion. The first guy makes millions, while the second guy gets a ring and an unconditional release. Sometimes selfishness is just standing up for yourself in a cruel game that will show you the door as soon as you lose 10 mph off your fastball.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I understand your point, but c’mon, Papelbon is making, what $15 million. He has probably made, what, $50-$100 million in his career? At some point, money should free you to think about other things than just making more money. In Papelbon’s case, it doesn’t even seem to be about money, but about catching Rivera. I’m not saying players shouldn’t have personal goals-I’m rather suspicious of guys that say they only care about winning and not about their numbers-but they are getting paid, at least in part, to contribute to a winning team. Analogizing between Papelbon and a marginal player doesn’t really make much sense because he already is set for life. (And, I know it’s all relative, but still . . .). But I don’t really have a problem with Papelbon wanting to go to a team where he would close; I’m just objecting to the idea that, for men who are already in the top 1% of income, winning never be secondary to making a few million more.

      • invitro says:

        They’re a lot higher than top 1%. I’d bet that most BR’s are top 1%. Baseball players are more like top 0.01%.

        • David says:

          It takes an income of $400,000 to be in the top 1%. Minimum major league salary is $507,000.
          If you make $1.9 million, you’re in the top 0.1%
          If you make $10.2 million, you’re in the top 0.01%.

          Average major league salary is a little bit more than $4 million, so only a minority of baseball players are in the top 0.01%.

          • invitro says:

            Well OK, maybe not most BR’s. And it looks like 0.01% is closer than 1%, especially logarithmically.

          • invitro says:

            Oh, I believe that’s household income, not individual income. I thought $400k looked awfully high.

          • invitro says:

            And third thing… you’re not counting endorsements.

          • Marc Schneider says:

            How can they put food on the table? I will say this; in a lot of cases, ballplayers are more deserving of their salaries than many others in the top echelons. At least they don’t screw up the economy.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        According to BR, he’s making $11 million this year, and he’s earned about $80 million over his career. So, yeah, he’s doing all right. Still, plenty of retired athletes have gone broke, and there are probably things you can do with $150 million that you can’t do with $80 million (not that I would know). Besides, he probably honestly believes that any team would be better off with him closing. I guess my point is that Papelbon seems to be getting a lot of criticism for choices that most of us would make if we had the chance.

        Also, I wonder if he really believes he has a shot at overtaking Rivera. He’s 34 now. If he averages 40 saves per season for the next seven years, he’ll still fall short. And he’s only hit the 40 save mark once in his entire career.

      • Brian says:

        When Papelbon accepted the trade, he was going from one of the worst teams in baseball to a first place team. How is that putting winning second to money? Indeed, his main complaint about pitching for the Phillies was that he wanted to pitch for a winning team.

  9. Tom says:

    Can anyone tell me what current managers frequently use their relief pitchers out of their prescribed roles in the regular season? What current manager will bring in his best relief pitcher as early as the seventh inning to put out a fire? I am asking this question because I believe that most managers these days are as inflexible in their use of their relief pitchers as Matt Williams. If anyone follows another team close enough,
    I would be interested to know.

    • Anon says:

      Familia has 18 appearances this year where he gave up no runs and did not get either a W, L, S or BS and another 2 games where he gave up 0 runs and got a W. I don’t have the time, but it would be interesting to see the Mets’ record in those games.

    • Brent says:

      Ned Yost has been using his best relief in the 8th inning for the last couple years. But, I don’t think that is exactly what you are asking. πŸ™‚

    • McKingford says:

      Girardi is actually pretty unconventional in his bullpen use. He uses Betances all over the place in a fireman role. He’s normally the 8th inning guy, but Girardi routinely brings him in in the 7th if the Yankees get in trouble, and he’ll sometimes get 5 or 6 outs as a result. He’ll also bring in Miller in the 8th in a fireman capacity.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Slightly off point, but Mike Matheny did some of the worst managing I have seen this side of Matt Williams. On Monday, through some screw up, he ended up leaving a lefty in to pitch to Ryan Zimmerman, who promptly hit a three-run homer. But the Cards won anyway. Last night, he pitched to Zimmerman with a runner in scoring position and Zimmerman got the game winning hit. That’s an arguably decision, I guess, but Zimmerman has been very hot; I would have rather pitched to Yunel Escobar, who has had a pretty good year but is not as good as Zimmerman. This time they lost, but the point is, the manager can be a complete nitwit as far as game management, but if the players are good enough, it doesn’t matter.

      So, in partial answer to your question, I think most managers are very conventional and are unwilling to get out of their traditional usage patterns. In particular, the idea that you cannot use the closer in a non-save situation on the road seems to be written in stone for most managers.

      • Brent says:

        should have pinch hit Yadi for Pham in the 9th too. I haven’t seen the stats to back this up, but I expect Yadi’s percentage of putting the ball in play with runner on 3rd and less than 2 out is very, very high. Pham, of course, struck out.

        • I love it how the nitpickers are out and yet no one remembers when matheny got it right. His team has won a lot of close games this year, he’s not doing a bad job at all of keeping things the cardinal way

  10. Nubb says:

    Papelbon is like wedding stemware but only if you fill them with Bud Light Lime instead of champagne.

    • I like that. My best memory of Papelbon is ironically from three years ago today exactly. I know this because Facebook reminded me of my post and picture today. I was at the game where Papelbon, three years ago today, gave up a three-run walk off jack (and we’re talking a 450’+ bomb) to Chipper Jones as the Braves came from 4 or 5 down in the 9th to win. My memory of Papelbon is that he never looked back at the ball. As soon as it was hit, he just walked to the dugout and into the clubhouse. Never turned around once. I love when that happens. He had to be fuming (or in shock). Chipper actually twitched after he hit it as the fans and his teammates went bananas. It was one final glory moment in the last month of his career.

  11. chlsmith says:

    Some manager is going to go this route someday and make a ton of money. Or it will flop completely. I don’t know how easily a high-end starter would adjust to moving to middle relief. I would think that would be a really tough sell to a young gun, since he would probably be missing out on some money. Then again, if you’re willing to pay starter salaries to middle relievers, maybe they’ll jump on it.

    I think middle relief has to be the best job in baseball. Go out every day or so, throw the ball for a couple innings, and go to the next game. No starting pitcher media beatings, no closer beatings. Just do your job and make a helluva salary. πŸ™‚

    • invitro says:

      And have to fight to get a job every year? No thanks. The best job is certainly a 2B/SS/CF the minute they become a “proven regular”. They’re in no danger of losing their job, and can play until age 40 or longer, making $8 million a year for most of that time.

      • chlsmith says:

        I don’t think a good pitcher, regardless of where they fall in the lineup, is in much fear of losing his job. Maybe getting traded or whatever, but if you are a better-than-average pitcher, you’re job security is pretty high. Like a backup quarterback. πŸ™‚

        • Backup QB is good work if you can get it. Your job: Take 10% of practice snaps with the backup team, wear a ball cap and carry a clip board during the game. Never get hit at all and collect $2-3M. Backup catcher is a pretty good gig too. Play once a week. It’s OK if you hit slightly above the Mendoza line as long as you play good defense and don’t mess anything up. Collect $2-3M. Get cut, catch on with another team & do the whole thing over again.

          • mudhen19 says:

            *THE* job is LOOGY. Exhibit A – Randy Choate. 3 yrs @ $7.5M to face 392 batters over 96 innings. No foul tips to the mask. No linebackers trying to dismember you. A few pitches per week and cash the checks. Wait a second….*I’M* left-handed….. Anyone have Matheny’s number?

    • Lincecum probably would’ve transitioned to middle relief at some point; in fact a strong argument could’ve been made that he should’ve been switched there after 2012. Then again, he did throw no-hitters in ’13 & ’14 and started off this season fairly strong.

    • chlsmith says:

      I know this is old now, but Kansas City has basically done just this with their bullpen being better than their starters (minus Cueto).

  12. :-) says:

    The article talks about the success that MLB teams have when leading going into the 9th and implies that it is “automatic” and that Papelbon doesn’t add much value because of that. What the article fails to recognize is that clubs are so successful precisely because they have made a point of going out and hiring effective pitchers to throw the 9th inning…it’s not automatic.

    • Mark says:

      Umm…no. Joe’s point is that this percentage was true in the 50s, in the 70s, in the 00s. It is true with the “modern closer”, the “firemen” like Gossage/Sutter in the 70s, and before there were any designated “pitchers to throw the 9th inning.”

    • kurt says:

      Except that you are incorrect. Joe had an article a while ago, which has already been mentioned in this comment stream, where he looked at win percentage when entering the ninth with a lead. It has always been right around 95%, the advent of the one inning closer didn’t change it.

  13. I remember Yankee fans claiming they won their 5 World Series since 1996 BECA– USE of Mariano Riviera. I laughed then and I laugh now. The other 24 players had to be doing something right in order to get the lead to Riviera in the 9th (or on the occasional game he came into the 8th). But, still, they insist they won BECA– USE of him!

  14. Brent says:

    The point that Joe doesn’t make that is lost on most people and that is the key to understanding why 1) the modern usage of relief pitchers is not optimal and 2) no manager will ever switch from the current system is this:

    If you bring in your best relief pitcher with the bases loaded in the 7th, you may be increasing your chances of winning from 50% to 60% and if you only use him in the 9th inning you are only increasing your chances from 95% to 96%, but that 9% difference is invisible to the viewer in the short term. Instead the viewer in the short term only sees that one of the strategies was successful (i.e. the team won) 96% of the time and the other was “only” successful 60% of the time.

    It takes a broader, year long view, to understand that the 10% increase is better than the 1% increase. And it may take a real in depth study of the box scores to find it.

    And there bring up the second point, no manager is ever going to be able to take the heat it would generate to try to optimally use his bullpen, because he could never explain the 40% “fail” rate his bullpen use would have to the average math challenged sportswriter, let alone the average math challenged fan.

    • Ultimately it is fear. Fear of looking foolish by doing something against the grain. Ironically there are only so many “innovative” things you can do in baseball. There isn’t much “scheme” like there is in other sports. You line players up in their position, yes shifting them depending on the batter (which we did to some extent even in little league 40 years ago). You can tinker with the lineup a little with platoons. You can alter the batting order some (this is largely unexplored with few exceptions). You can use your starters a little differently (though most operate with 100-pitch counts these days), and you can manage your bullpen differently.

      The current “innovative” (not really, some teams, like the Braves, were doing this 15 years ago) trend is to try to get 6 innings out of your starter and put in power arms for the 7th-9th. That can be successful if you have enough power arms (or effective arms) to pull it off. But it does feel like there is the ability to be more flexible & look for opportunities to matchup your best pitcher in high leverage situations. It does present challenges because you have to have the right guy ready for the right batter in the right situation. So, you have to look ahead a bit & you don’t want to warm up guys and then not put them in the game. You also have guys who want to be closers & get the big contract (which might be a good thing for teams trying to keep salaries in check… save a little not having a “closer”). So, it will take a brave manager to test this out. But change does require courage & the willingness to try something that might not work. Baseball is the most fearful of change sport there is. Fans are often just as bad as the managers.

      • invitro says:

        I don’t know… baseball has had a hell of a lot of big changes in the last ten years. I don’t know if the NBA has changed much in the same time other than the obviously correct devaluation of mid-long two-point shots. What’s your evidence that baseball is more fearful of change than other sports?

  15. Kuz says:

    Mariano Rivera is the greatest relief picture of all time. It’s not even close.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      And Ray Guy is the greatest punter ever. It doesn’t mean the Raiders won Super Bowls because of Ray Guy.

    • Nobody questions that. But how valuable is the greatest closer? He was definitely valuable in the playoffs in tight games. So, he was great for the Yankees since they were really good during his era (not because of him, however). If he was on the Royals during his era, though, how valuable would he have been if he pitched exactly the same? He might have had a potted plant named after him and planted next to the Kaufman Stadium waterfall. But nobody would be waxing poetic about one inning saves against the White Sox for a 70-92 team.

      • Kuz says:

        And this diminishes Rivera’s worth in what way? Sure we one WW2……FDR, Churchill, Patton just happened to be there. Why give them any credit?

        • Marc Schneider says:

          I think that FDR, Churchill, Patton had a lot more to do with winning WW II than Rivera had with winning those World Series.

          Your analogy is more like saying so-and-so was the best gunner in the entire US Navy and that’s why we won WW II.

  16. Marc Schneider says:

    You mean Tail Gunner Joe (McCarthy)? πŸ™‚

  17. I think these are the articles where Rivera and the 95% number were discussed

  18. Dan W. says:

    IMO “closers” are a manifestation of a manager’s hope that the pitcher that goes out in the 9th inning will perform at some supernatural level, above and beyond the player’s actual talent level. This hope works in two ways. The first is the idea that by showing trust in the pitcher (“you are my closer”) the pitcher will perform better than he normally would. The second is the idea that if it turns out the pitcher is supernatural, even if for just a season or two (ala Eric Gagne 2002-2004) then the manager has the answer to his prayers.

    So on the one hand the label of “closer” is mostly an emotional aspiration. On the other hand it makes economic sense since a team can never have a supernatural “closer” if it never gives the plan a try.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think it’s just a natural human tendency to try to make things easier. If you have anointed a closer, first, you don’t have to think about how to use the bullpen; you already know who is coming in in the 9th. Second, you don’t have to worry about how to get through the last inning if the closer struggles; the typical strategy is that it’s the closer’s game and if he blows it, well, it’s not the manager’s fault. For the most part, once you have anointed someone as “the closer”, especially if it’s a top-flight guy, the manager will not get criticized for leaving him in even when he struggles. So the manager doesn’t have to worry about whether to have other pitchers warming up-which might upset the closer’s ego anyway. Even though it’s probably unconscious, I think it’s natural to want to reduce the necessary decision-making. Baseball has always been prone to this more than other sports, I think. That’s why you have “the book”, which traditionally dictated when to sacrifice and so forth. Moreover, the fact that there are so many games in a baseball season creates even more or an incentive to rely on a system rather than having to make decisions.

      • Dan W. says:

        Exactly Marc, managers are people and people like things that are simple and easy and which mitigate the risk of putting blame on themselves.

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