By In Stuff

You Made Me Do It

The point of my previous post about relief pitchers was not to look at specific players but to look at the strategy of the ninth inning closer. I’m not saying that I made any breakthrough — in fact, let me be clear, I am saying that I DID NOT make any breakthrough — but I do find it fascinating that the closer, as a basic strategy, has not made teams more likely to win games they are leading going into the ninth.

And, even when you break it down to close games, to one-run leads entering the ninth, teams in general are STILL not more likely to win games going into the ninth because of the closer.

Well, of course — because you are brilliant readers — you ask about the specifics. What about the Yankees, for instance? Certainly Mariano Rivera makes the Yankees much more likely to win games they lead going into the ninth inning.

So, yeah, I tried to figure it out. What you find is that it’s a pretty small sample size — even for a long career like Mariano Rivera’s. I went through a painstaking and probably incorrect process — but doing that (and remember I was ONLY looking for this specific situation) I found that 158 times, the Yankees went into the ninth inning called on Mariano Rivera to protect a one-run lead. How many times did he protect that lead? Answer: 140.

What does that mean? Some quick calculations:

Baseball on Baseball Prospectus’ expected win matrix, teams going into the ninth inning should win about 85% of the time. In the 2000s, which is when Mariano mostly pitched, the win percentage was .848.

And the Yankees with Mariano? They won almost 89% of the time. Win percentage .886.

So, the average team, with that lead would have been expected to hold the lead in 134 of those 158 games. With Mariano, the Yankees held the lead six more times over 16 seasons.

Just another thing to think about.

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45 Responses to You Made Me Do It

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Schlom says:

    Does that mean that Rivera shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame? He’s the greatest reliever of all-time but apparently didn’t really help his team win anymore games than they would have with any other closer.

    It’s too bad they never tried to make him a starter.

  3. anon says:

    If I do my math right, the difference between Mo and everyone else is not statistically significant.

  4. You’re comparing Mariano to other closers in the league, which are also usually great relievers. Mariano is 5% better than the average closer at closing out a 1 run game. How much better is the average closer than the average reliever at closing out 1 run games? My guess is about 20%, but that’d take some research.

  5. Schlom says:

    What I’d really like to see is the comparison between Rivera and Trevor Hoffman as their careers almost completely overlap.

  6. Andrew Park says:

    schlom, the Yankees did try Rivera as a starter:

    10 starts, 5.94 ERA over 50 innings

    • Schlom says:

      True, but that was when he was younger and probably not as good.

    • blovy8 says:

      Rivera didn’t have the cutter when he was starting. That’s kind of a big deal. You also have to consider that for guys like he and Hoffman, you don’t have to put up with the trial and error of the four or five blown saves in a row before changing to the next guy who can maybe do it 85 percent of the time until THEY blow several saves in a row or get hurt, become a free agent, etc.

  7. Rivera’s greatness comes from being among the top closers every year from 1997-2011. That is 15 full seasons. Most closers burn out after 2 or 3 seasons. What really seperates Rivera from the other great closers like Hoffman, Wagner, etc. is what he did in the playoffs from 1995-2011.

  8. Ian R. says:

    Both of these points have been made above, but I think taken together they really illuminate Mariano’s greatness. If he’s consistently been better in terms of one-run leads than the average closer (who, remember, is a really really good pitcher), even if it’s a difference of half a win per year, that’s still amazing. And remember that Mariano has historically been pretty automatic in two- and three-run saves.

    Furthermore, it’s incredible that Rivera had such a lengthy run of success at a position where most players flame out quickly. The last ten years are littered with examples of closers who were brilliant for 1-3 years and then crashed and burned.

  9. Thanks Joe, good questions. Maybe, as Rhapsodizing Eclectically speculated in the last post’s comments, the answer is not in the middle, but around the edges. For instance, not every team has had a good closer every year. If the question is “Are elite closers worth the money?” maybe looking only at elite closers vs everybody else would illuminate that.

  10. parinella says:

    Joe, the Yankees still won some of those games where Mariano failed to hold the lead, so your calculations might be off.

  11. And a question on the poll. How does one go back and see just one player from the Negro Leagues play?

    • clashfan says:

      This is probably overthinking it, but possibly one could bribe a white team to let the guy play on their side for one game.

      Either a small-town club team, or maybe even a ML team would agree to it in spring training or something.

    • vtmike says:

      You only get to see one of the 10 listed. They’d still be playing with their regular teams, Negro Leagues players, just not one of the 10 superstars.

      Then again, its hypothetical, so maybe they are playing with the Montreal Expos on the moon base while Shakespeare watches from the stands. You guys are definitely overthinking this.

  12. I did some retrosheet queries which may be incorrect. I looked at all pitchers who start the 9th with a 1 run lead, independent of whether they pitched in the 8th or not. Historically, I have 19911 wins out of 23674 opportunites or 84.1%

    Rivera is at 181/204 ~ 88.7%

    This is 5th all time among pitchers with at least 70 opportunites, behind,

    Gagne 97.3%
    Quiz 93.1%
    Gossage 92.4%
    J. Nathan 90.8%

    Yes, Gossage came out #3.

    Jim Bunning and Neil Allen each pitched 22 such games and their teams lost 0.

    • Ian R. says:

      That’s a pretty impressive gap between #1 and #2. Don’t know what to say except that peak-level Eric Gagne was really freaking good.

    • Mark A says:

      Peak level Eric Gagne also had a pretty low sample size.

    • David says:

      Closer = Punter. You can’t afford a bad one, but it’s easy to find an adequate one. Teams are overpaying wildly for a fist pump.

      Which is not to diminish the role of relievers, just closers. As Mike Marshall has said for years, getting three outs in the ninth with a lead is easy. Try getting out of 8th inning jams or tie games in extra innings, which are far more demanding jobs. Yet managers use their lesser-paid pitchers instead.

    • that 97.3% for Gagne is 73/75. so roughly speaking the 1 sigma statistical uncertainty is 2%.

      for the others,
      Quiz 67/72
      Gossage 97/103
      Nathan 79/87
      Rivera 181/204

    • Does this mean Quisenberry should be in the HOF?

    • Mark A says:

      David, as to whether teams are overpaying, that assumes that what you are paying for is strictly the impact of the performance.

      Whether they matter all that much, closers are celebrated by fans and media. And that means they sell tickets and they sell jerseys and they get people to watch. Baseball is a sport, but its also a business. And if fans think you are a star and you matter, that increases what you are worth.

      Its the same reason NFL draft pick salaries got so out of control until they were capped. Its not strictly about that person’s value as a player. Its also about hope and hype and all the money the team makes off of that.

    • David says:

      I’m afraid I can’t buy your argument. People buy tickets to see Verlander. People buy jerseys that say Jeter. People DON’T plan on ignoring the first 8 innings of games just to watch someone get 3 outs with a 4-run lead.

      This is a moneyball money. Spend the money on big hitters or great starters, and there are far more “hope and hype” opportunities.

  13. blovy8 says:

    Peak level Gagne was on the juice too.

  14. Ross Holden says:

    Makes me wonder what Mariano’s WAR should really be. Obviously, the devil is in the details of what you define as “replacement”, and you shouldn’t use the average closer in the league because most teams put their best relief pitcher in that role these days, and so I’m not saying that his WAR should average 0.375 (6/16) per season over his career, but I do think that his value is overrated, which is Joe’s point and the point of many commenters here.

  15. Unknown says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Unknown says:

    OK, someone correct me if I am mis-reading this but I see a fatal flaw in Joe’s argument here. He notes the times the Yankees won the game going into the 9th inning with a ONE run lead as being 140 times out of 158 but then goes on to talk about the MLB average for teams going into the 9th inning simply with A LEAD, not noting how many runs…there would, I’d suspect, be a large difference between % of times a team wins with a 1 run lead vs., say, a 3 run lead, or a 5 run lead. Did I just miss some clarification there?…

    • MCD says:

      I agree it does read that way (*any* lead going into the ninth), but based on Joe’s previous post, we know that the league wide win percentage for *all* teams leading going into the ninth is 95%, so I am going to presume that Joe meant to explicitly say one run lead.

  17. Kansas City says:

    When will a manager/organization consider this stuff and start using their relievers more effectively?

    • Mark A says:

      Several teams (especially the A’s) have been treating closers as disposable for some time, which is basically acting on this type of analysis (a closer’s impact on team wins). They trade them away and they don’t pay them.

      But of note, that doesn’t mean that they don’t use closers. They just develop a new closer and then sell high again.

      For in game strategy, Joe’s stats are interesting but not really actionable.

  18. djangoz says:

    This reminds me of Kobe as a “great” late game shot-maker for the Lakers. In fact, he’s below average, but we only remember the ones he made and we want a narrative that has a hero.

    Mariano Rivera was very good, but probably not that great. The truth is that the closer role is not nearly as hard or valuable as the starter role.

  19. istiak tuhin says:

    really great post.

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  20. Mark Daniel says:

    A 6 win difference over a decade is huge. I don’t know why everybody thinks this is insignificant. In short, in the 2000s the average team won 85% of games in which they held a 1-run lead in the 9th. When Mariano Rivera pitched, his teams won 89% of those same games, but this happened for a whole decade. Year in, year out, 89% of 1-run leads in the 9th became W’s for the Yanks.
    Most teams have a good closer for a couple years, then he morphs into a bum who can’t get anybody out. Then they try to find a new closer. Every team goes through this, except the Yankees.

    • macomeau says:

      There’s a weird thing about “a win” in baseball. Teams play 162 games, and I think we tend to think of one win as not particularly important. I mean, how can it be? There are 161 other opportunities. So many more than in any other sport. And yet, at the end of a season, so many teams are looking for ‘just’ an extra win or two to make the playoffs.

      An 81-win team won’t make the playoffs. An 85-win has a slim chance. A 90-win team almost certainly will. Nine wins between a .500 team and making the playoffs. If you’re a perennial contender like the Yankees, and your closer can get you one of those wins ‘by himself’, that is by being better than anyone else at his job, that strikes me as having tremendous value.

    • Ian R. says:

      The problem is that that’s highly context-driven. A 70-win team has no shot at making the playoffs. A 79-win team also has no shot at making the playoffs. Are those nine wins meaningless? Are the players who helped that team pick up nine extra wins without value?

      In other words, did the Yankees win because they had a great closer, or was Mariano Rivera a great closer because he had the good fortune to play for the Yankees?

    • Dodger300 says:

      Please check your math.

      Joe said it was six wins over sixteen years, not a decade. Why did you feel the need to knock off six year?

      6/16 = .375 wins per year. Isn’t the going rate for a marginal win about $3 million? So Rivera contributed about an extra $1 million per year to the Yankees.

      That is a nice contribution. But to call it “huge” smacks of nothing but hyperbole.

  21. Nick O says:

    Rivera is 2nd in Win Probability Added, just ahead of Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson. Now I think that’s overrating Rivera because starters generate far more value in being average, and none of that is captured in WPA. But I think relievers have a lot more value than these cross-era studies show.

  22. Ed McDonald says:

    I still like the idea of an opener rather than a closer since, as you pointed out before, the first inning is the toughest inning. If you got a guy with nerves of steal who you know can give you one inning a day a few times a week and come out of a season with an ERA around 1.00 why not make him your opener? Screw the Wins statistic. Make a new statistic and call it Awesome First Inning. Then you can say something like Mariano Rivera had 45 AFIs out of a possible 48 this year.

  23. That’s a pretty impressive gap between #1 and #2. Don’t know what to say except that peak-level Eric Gagne was really freaking good.


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