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Closers do nothing to help teams hold ninth inning leads

Nov 26, 2010, 4:20 PM EDT

Dennis Eckersley

Some pretty startling stuff from Joe Posnanski today, who was snooping around in the stats, looking at what percentage of games teams win when they have ninth inning leads. He figured — as I would have — that due to bullpen specialization and the advent of the fireballing closer, teams held on to such leads far more often now than they used to. Nope:

The truth is that all the bullpen advances have had ABSOLUTELY ZERO EFFECT on how much more often teams win games they’re leading in the ninth inning. Zero. Nada. Zilch. The ol’ bagel.

Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952.

Pretty astonishing. That stat has rarely changed. What’s more, Posnanski finds that even having Marinao Rivera or Dennis Eckersley doesn’t change the equation that much.

Which isn’t to say that a team could just chuck their closers right now and be done with it. The entire pitching staff has been bent over time in order to make room for one inning specialists. Teams couldn’t simply go back to 1952-style pitcher usage, because they don’t have 1952-style pitchers. And it’s possible — though I’m not sure how one would research it — that the change in pitcher usage has led to fewer pitcher injuries because more guys are carrying the load. I’m not sure that’s even knowable, actually, because of the way we classified injuries 40 and 50 years ago compared to the way we do today. Guys who just pitched poorly back then may be on the DL today because we realize, hey, torn labrum.

But this data certainly suggests that closers have accomplished basically one thing since their creation: they’ve managed to get teams to pay closers a lot of money.

  1. saints97 - Nov 26, 2010 at 6:13 PM

    His research and conclusions are based on flawed logic. Holding leads in the 9th inning is not an indication of the efficacy of bullpen specialization at all, unless you assume that only one team is using bullpen specialization. If in 1952 both pitchers give up 5 runs in the 9th, the team leading would still win. And in 2010, if both teams score no runs in the 9th, the team leading wins. Does that mean you have the same degree of success of by using specialized pitchers?

    I think you would need to know 9th inning ERA to be able to make an accurate judgment. He may still be right, but the data he used does not prove that using a top notch pitcher in the 9th has not helped.

    Otherwise, though, it was a very interesting article about how little variance there is in teams holding on to 9th inning leads.

    • Richard In Big D - Nov 26, 2010 at 6:39 PM

      Your point makes some sense, but, in theory, closers are only used in close situations (3 or fewer run lead going into the ninth). Therefore, the losing team, behind after 8, would have a fresher closer than you, tomorrow…

  2. jetersusedjersey - Nov 26, 2010 at 8:24 PM

    Tell the 91 Pirates that closers don’t make a difference.

  3. paperlions - Nov 26, 2010 at 8:31 PM

    There are many differences between 1952 baseball and 2010 baseball, not the least of which is the sacrifice of defense for offense. A 1952 lineup had many defensive specialists and was probably 4 deep at the most. A 2010 lineup is mostly offensive specialists with few holes in the lineup. If there was no specialization in pitcher usage (i.e. closers), it is quite possible that teams now would hold 9th inning leads much less often than they did in 1952; and, that the change in pitcher usage has negated the effects of poorer defense, increased offense, and smaller parks.

    • Glenn - Nov 27, 2010 at 8:44 AM

      Lower scoring games should lead to more close games and therefor more chances for ninth inning comebacks. The amazing thing is that this 9th inning stat is consistent throughout the history of baseball regardless of the era or style of play, not just for 1952 and 2010.

      • paperlions - Nov 27, 2010 at 9:03 AM

        It is not that amazing if you consider that the odds of a trailing team taking the lead during any given inning is probably era invariant because that relies on relative scoring of teams and not absolute scoring and that the probability of such an event appears to be 4.5%.

  4. frankvzappa - Nov 26, 2010 at 9:28 PM

    he must not have factored in the 2010 Red Sox…release Papelbum!

  5. coneyisler - Nov 27, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    Thank you to Joe Posnansky for helping to destroy the myth of relief pitching that has grown in recent years. My pet peeve about how baseball has evolved in recent times is all about relief pitching. Here’s the problem as I see it: To buy into the entire closer role, you have to believe that runs given up in the ninth inning are somehow worth more than runs given up in earlier innings. Clearly, this isn’t true. I know I’m not the first one to say this but…Wouldn’t it make more sense for the manager to determine the most opportune moment to use a team’s best relief pitcher and use him then?, as opposed to using him every night in the ninth inning? I’ve sat at Fenway Park many times in recent years, watching a game where the Sox are tied, or up or down by a run in the seventh, the first two runners get on, the starter’s ready to come out and…in comes the team’s fourth or fifth best relief pitcher. The game is on the line here, it’s going to be decided here…and it’s in the hands of a pitcher who, frankly, well, I’d rather not have the game in his hands. Then I’ll watch Papelbon come in time after time to cheers and music into a game in the ninth inning where the Sox have a 3 run lead and their chances of winning the game regardless of who comes in is about 98 percent! I’ve never understood how this makes sense.

  6. redwards29a - Nov 27, 2010 at 8:15 PM

    Didn’t Billy Beane tell Michael Lewis that he knew closers were useless and the A’s used to build up closers’ resumes and get them lots of saves just so they could sell them off to other teams?

    • coneyisler - Nov 28, 2010 at 1:04 PM

      I think Billy Beane also said the system makes little sense but to change it will take some team trying a different approach, having success, and then being copied. I’m curious if any managers have evolved in this approach.

  7. sammydog99 - Nov 28, 2010 at 1:08 AM

    Since a comparison of complete games from that era to the game as played today shows a dramatic reduction to very, very few, then the real purpose of relief pitching would seem to be to save the starters, presumably to extend their careers. It would be interesting if Mr. Posnanski could compare the career longevity of starting pitchers of each era. Does the modern pitcher last for more seasons, pitch more innings overall, more “quality” starts?

    I agree with the other posters above. The closers have got a good thing going, don’t let the cat out of the bag…

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