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Ralph Kiner has the right idea about closers and saves

Aug 9, 2011, 2:37 PM EDT

ralph kiner

Allen Barra of the Village Voice quotes 88-year-old Hall of Famer and part-time Mets announcer Ralph Kiner on the evolution of the closer role and the modern manager’s obsession with saves:

One of the worst things they ever did to relief pitching was invent the “save” category. If they hadn’t done that, managers would bring in their best relief pitchers at the point in the game where he could do his team the most good. Casey Stengel used to do that, and so, a lot of times, did Leo Durocher.

Now you’re paying the relief aces for saves, and you can only bring them in in save situations where your team is already ahead. They show you how many games a relief pitcher saves, but they never tell you how many games a team loses because a manager didn’t use his best reliever in the toughest situation.

Amen.

  1. Ryan Lansing - Aug 9, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    Pretty sad that a man who has accomplished that much would chose to live in his mom’s basement, playing with spreadsheets and eating cheetos.

    • clydeserra - Aug 9, 2011 at 2:48 PM

      I only regret that I have but one thumbs up to give to this comment.

    • aclassyguyfromaclassytown - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:18 PM

      Are you referring to Kiner, or Gleeman?

  2. FC - Aug 9, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    OK, so how many games does a team lose because the Manager doesn’t use his best reliever in the toughest situation?

    • Utley's Hair - Aug 9, 2011 at 2:52 PM

      All of them?

    • kopy - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:03 PM

      7

      • Utley's Hair - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:15 PM

        “The answer is…four…?”

    • FC - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:03 PM

      I’m serious, this is a good topic to dissect. Are there studies out there that point to a drop in team wins due to this effect? What about team losses because they use the best guy too early and then blown out of the water in later innings?

      I’m not sure how one would go by making this analysis because how do you know in one game that the tough situation you’re facing now is the last one or that there won’t be a worse one later? Let’s say you bring your ace reliever in the 7th in a tough situation (2nd, 3rd, 0 outs) and gets the job done. Then you have an average reliever pitch the 8th or 9th and the opposition puts you in trouble again, who do you turn to now?

      I’m not sure there’s a way to make a conclusive study that having the best reliever pitch in the 9th is better or worse than pitching the 7th (or 8th). I think in the end what’s really needed in the BP is not one ace reliever but two or three so you can address more than one late inning situation.

      • kopy - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:14 PM

        It’s way too hard to quantify. Things to be considered are: overall effectiveness of relievers, who is batting, number of outs, position(s) of any runners, and inning. Also the situation, do you just need outs? Or do you need a K or a GIDP? I’m sure there’s a way, but not without creating some sort of “fireman index” that is a number which represents the difficulty of the situation.

        Think of it this way: if you’re using your best reliever in a situation that is more important than 1 inning of no out, no runners, 1-3 run lead, you’re doing something right. Bringing in your best reliever in a bases-empty situation almost seems like a waste, unless it really is the 9th inning and a greater situation never arose (say for instance, your team scores 3 in the first and the score remains 3-0 all game long. All other things being equal, I’d want the best reliever to come in trying to strand runners.

      • Bryz - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:15 PM

        But you have no guarantee that you’ll have multiple high leverage situations to pitch out of in a game, just like there’s no guarantee that your average relievers will be able to protect the lead for your closer at the end of the game.

        I feel it’s better to make decisions based on what is certain (we need to get out of this jam now), not on what is uncertain (but what if there are jams later?).

      • kopy - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:16 PM

        Also, I would believe that holding a tie game is much more crucial than protecting a lead.

      • shawndc04 - Aug 9, 2011 at 4:34 PM

        Actually, Jim Caple has noted that Dave Smith at Retrosheet did some research on this:

        Don’t believe me? Check out this study by Dave Smith of Retrosheet. He researched late-inning leads over 73 seasons, from 1944 to 2003, and an additional 14 seasons prior to that span. What he found is that the winning percentage for teams who enter the ninth inning with a lead has remained virtually unchanged over the decades. Regardless of the pitching strategy, teams entering the ninth inning with a lead win roughly 95 percent of the time. That was the exact rate in 1901 and that was the rate 100 seasons later. In fact, the rate has varied merely from a high of 96.7 percent in 1909 to a low of 92.5 percent in 1941.

        But I know what you’re thinking. That study applies to all leads, including big ones. But what about the slim leads, the ones defined as “save situations”? Glad you asked. Because Smith looked at those leads as well. And what he found is winning rates for those leads have also remained constant — one-run leads after eight innings have been won roughly 85 percent of the time, two-run leads 94 percent of the time and three-run leads about 96 percent of the time.
        _____
        Use your best relief man when the situation dictates, and not just in a “save” situation.

      • dcburden - Aug 9, 2011 at 5:28 PM

        One might start by comparing each reliever’s average LI against some objective measure of that reliever’s quality (xFIP?)

    • hittfamily - Aug 9, 2011 at 5:32 PM

      I am behind Kiner 100% on this. A lock down closer is great, but given the choice, I’d take Bard’s work over Papelbons every day of the week. Not because I think Bard is better, but I think his job is more valuable. It is a luxury to turn a 9 inning game into a 8 inning game, but I’d rather have the guy who comes in and rarely allows inherited runners to score. I have always felt a quality hold was more valuable than the save. If I am managing, and we have a 4-3 lead in the seventh with runners on first and third, I’m not leaving my best arm in the pen hoping we have a lead when I finally get around to using him.

  3. thefalcon123 - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    Saves are a pretty important stat. Obviously, we need to know how many times a player came into a game and finished it with his team leading by 3 runs or less and not giving up the lead. Cause if he gave up the lead, and then his team won the game, he didn’t save anything, because he won that game.

    I can only imagine explaining some traditional baseball stats to a reasonable adult who is unfamiliar with the game:

    Random Person: Wait…what is a pitcher win? That means his team on the game when he started, right?

    ME: Yes…and no. He gets the win if he pitches at least five innings, leaves the game with the lead, and then the bullpen doesn’t give up the lead.

    RP: So…what happens if pitches 8 innings, a guy in the bullpen gives up 4 runs and the lead, and then his team scores 5 more to win the game. He still gets the win…right?

    ME: No, the guy who gave up four runs did.

    RP: That is the stupidest f**king thing I’ve ever heard.

  4. kellyb9 - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    “If they hadn’t done that, managers would bring in their best relief pitchers at the point in the game where he could do his team the most good.” All I can say is… hopefully the best relief pitcher at that point in the game is your closer.

    • wlschneider09 - Aug 9, 2011 at 6:17 PM

      Koji Uehara called, he wants you to meet Kevin Gregg

  5. The Common Man - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:24 PM

    Oh Ralph Kiner! You and your ridiculous malapropisms! See, the way you said that it sounds like you don’t really understand how important it is to save the closer for the exact moment you have a lead. I mean, what’s a team going to do if they use the closer for 3 innings to keep the score tied, then get a lead in the 11th, and need to bring in someone else to save the game for them. There’s no way Ryan Madson could possibly get three outs. He just doesn’t have the mentality.

    • cur68 - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:44 PM

      There you go with that sarcasm again Common. FYI a nation turns it’s sarcasm-free eyes to you…woo, woo, woo.

      • The Common Man - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:45 PM

        I have a bountiful supply. Near endless.

      • cur68 - Aug 9, 2011 at 3:56 PM

        Noted.

  6. Old Gator - Aug 9, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    Always loved Ralph Kiner. Marilyn Monroe married the wrong guy.

  7. dasher521 - Aug 9, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    The tieing run should have to be on second base in order to record a save. Other wise the statistic should be “finished game”.

  8. browngoat25 - Aug 9, 2011 at 5:14 PM

    Kiner is awesome. But I will say that I think the game has changed since Durocher and Stengel, in that those relief aces would come in and pitch 2 or 3 innings. Bullpens werent that big of a deal, as starters pitched so many complete games, so you did not have to worry about tiring a guy out.
    (as an aside on bullpens, when was the last time a team had a 9 or even a 10 man pitching staff?)

    That said, it would be nice to see those “closers” in a high leverage situation in the 6th, 7th, or 8th, as opposed to picking up three outs with a three run lead in the 9th.

    • killabri - Aug 9, 2011 at 6:56 PM

      I think the argument here varies in terms of the team. I will exclude poor teams from this because even if they were to use their best reliever in a given high leverage situation in the 7th-8th, they then have to take their chances with a worse pitcher finishing the game. I guess the crux of the argument is just how much drop off is there between a team’s best reliever and it’s 2nd and 3rd best?

      In a good bullpen, you have one player listed as the closer and one or two other guys that you use to bail you out of trouble spots or, in the absence of those, bridge the late inning gap to get to the closer. In many instances, these players have numbers similar to the closer and on a lot of other teams would be closing. So while Kiner’s point is certainly a valid one, the best bullpens are built to overcome waiting until the 9th inning to use your “best” reliever. I think that what the Brewers did adding K-Rod to their pen (while already having an establishing closer) illustrates this a little bit, but obviously there is lots of baseball left to be played. Going solely by the “Hold” stat… the two leaders on that team this season prior to K-Rod’s trade were LaTroy Hawkins (1.78 ERA) and Kameron Loe (4.05 ERA). Sliding K-Rod into Loe’s position in the pen represents a massive upgrade for the Brewers, and could possibly allow Hawkins to be used to bail the team out of any fires that crop up late in the game.

      • browngoat25 - Aug 9, 2011 at 7:27 PM

        I think that too often, managers are slaves to the save stat. For example, it’s the 7th inning, your team is holding a 3-run lead, and with one out the bases are loaded. The manager of the losing team would not hesitate to use his best pinch hitter in such a high leverage offensive situation, but the team holding the lead would not use their best reliever, saving that bullet for the 9th, which may or not be meaningful.
        I understand that relievers perform better (or, at least, think they will perform better) when they have explicit roles, but I have never heard that as a defense for saving the closer for the 9th with a lead.
        Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera made Joe Torre look like a genius, but how do you handle a bullpen when you dont have those caliber of pitchers?

  9. leftywildcat - Aug 9, 2011 at 9:22 PM

    So a good team could ignore the stat, and have 2 very good closers, one a lefty and one a righty. When the starting pitcher is pulled, the two closers come in to pitch the rest of the game. Lefty pitches to left handed batters while the rightly plays 1st base, and they trade spots when a right-handed hitter comes up. Switch hitters defeat the whole idea.

    Gene Mauch, when managing the Phillies, once moved his right-handed starter to 3rd base late in a close game, and brought in a lefty reliever (who may have been a regular starter) to face a very good left-handed hitter. The lefty got the out, came out of the game, starter went back to the mound, and a new 3rd baseman came into the game.

  10. scapistron - Aug 9, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    Look up “shutdowns” and “meltdowns” on fan graphs. It captures what most of you are saying. Instead of giving credit based on inning and run lead it is based on the leverage of the situation and the outcome. It also does not give credit for creating your own sticky situation and wiggling out of it (walk the bases loaded and strike the next 3 out).

  11. sawxalicious - Aug 10, 2011 at 1:34 AM

    The lightbulb just went on over Tony LaRussa’s head…he could complete his bid for title of most ingenious/hey-guys-i’m-outside-the-box manager ever.

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