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Must-click link: The evolution of the closer

Jun 15, 2012, 1:03 PM EDT

Bruce Sutter

We talk often about how crazy it is that managers won’t use their best relievers in tight spots, with guys like Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel watching like spectators as their teams lose games.

It’s the save star that drives this. The only stat I can think of which actually controls how the game is played as opposed to merely reflecting what happens. It’s a ridiculous state of affairs. But how did we get here?

David Schoenfield answers that question over at ESPN today with a great post, drawing on history and a little Bill James to explain how we got from a world in which starters completed nearly half the games pitched to one in which relief aces through as many as 200 innings a year to today’s state of affairs where managers will only use their best short men if and only if the game is already in hand.

Go educate yourself. It’s great reading. It’s also the basis for a great retort for the next time you hear someone decrying sabermetrically-oriented people for allowing stats to dominate their understanding of the game. Because really, it’s overwhelmingly the non-sabermetrically-oriented people who perpetuate the legend of the closer, and the closer itself is a creature of a statistic.

  1. ajcardsfan - Jun 15, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    That picture made me happy for 2 reasons:
    1)Bruce Sutter
    2)The Powder Blue Road Uni…I don’t know why, but those are still my favorite Cardinal Jersey’s

    • paperlions - Jun 15, 2012 at 2:14 PM

      Where you a kid when the blue road unis were used? I was….I figure that’s why I’ll always like them….every time I see one those I think of the 82 Cardinals, Herr, Ozzie, Lonnie Smith, Willie, Porter and those thick freaking glasses…..

      • ajcardsfan - Jun 15, 2012 at 2:22 PM

        I wasn’t even born by that point (’88 – I’m a young one) but my Dad gave me a lot of his Cardinals baseball cards when I was 5 (still have ’em among many others) and I always liked the blue jersey’s in a lot of the cards (Blue is my favorite color). I think what makes it more fitting is you can still get the Blue color for Whitey’s Jersey, who happens to wear my lucky number 24.

  2. rooney24 - Jun 15, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    I still say that everybody complains about how little closers are needed and/or how they are overvalued, but only until their team doesn’t have a good one. Once their subpar closer starts blowing games, then you only hear about how they need to trade for a closer.

    • hasbeen5 - Jun 15, 2012 at 1:57 PM

      The point isn’t that the pitcher is overvalued, it’s the way they’re used makes them less valuable.

      In the Atlanta example, opponents are hitting over .320 against Venters, and his K/BB ratio is about 2.5. Kimbrel’s average against is .131 and his K/BB is 4 to 1. Against Alex Rodriguez with a chance to tie the game, I’ll take the guy who has been clearly better at getting outs. Those were the most crucial outs of the game, and Kimbrel wasn’t even warming up.

  3. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jun 15, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    drawing on history and a little Bill James to explain how we got from a world in which starters completed nearly half the games pitched

    Also would help those in the “get off my lawn crowd” to stop crowing about pitchers throwing a ton of innings/complete games when even 60 years ago not even half the pitchers completed all their games. A ton has changed, in both life and baseball, since the 1950s.

    [for fun, and because I misread the statement, in ’68, there were 104 starting pitchers in the league, with 97 starting 15 games or more. Only 6 total pitchers completed at least 50% of their games started.]

  4. nothanksimdriving123 - Jun 15, 2012 at 1:57 PM

    Craig: Snarky grammar police here with another episode of Why Spell Checker is Evil.
    “…to one in which relief aces through as many as 200 innings a year…”
    Perhaps: “relief aces threw…”?
    Gaul-e, should half Dunn bedder den dat.

  5. thefalcon123 - Jun 15, 2012 at 2:00 PM

    It’s interesting to think of how too many people drew the wrong conclusions from Eckersley and the late 1980′s A’s. The entire bullpen was fantastic on those teams. For example, the five primary guys out of the pen for the 1990 A’s boasted ERAs of 0.63, 2.97, 1.57, 2.70 and 2.04 They had many great options to bring in a tight game in the 8th inning, so it didn’t matter as much is that guy wasn’t Eckersley.

    Most other teams cannot boast bullpens that fantastic. If they can, great, use your closer for the 9th. But if you can’t, use your best reliever when it’s most important, don’t save them for a save situation.

  6. bravesfaninbama - Jun 15, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    Craig, as a Braves fan, I can’t believe you’d use a picture of Bruce Sutter for this article. That guy was positively brutal during his days in Atlanta. My dad and I cringed every time he came in the game with a lead. I suppose the next time you link to a perfect game article, you’ll use a picture of Len Barker.

    • nothanksimdriving123 - Jun 15, 2012 at 3:07 PM

      Sorry braves, but to illustrate a perfect game story, the most appropriate pic would be one of Charlie Robertson, the only guy to pitch one between 1908 and 1956. He went 49-80 in his career and walked 67 more than he struck out. And how he has been overlooked by the HoF is just shameful. Far too often they let someone’s lack of accomplishments cloud their judgement.

      • bravesfaninbama - Jun 15, 2012 at 3:14 PM

        I was referring to the fact that after Barker’s perfect game, the Braves traded Brett Butler, Brook Jacoby, Rick Behenna (?), AND cash for Barker, only to see Barker completely fail as a Brave (0.5 WAR in 3 seasons), while Butler and Jacoby went on to lead productive Major League careers. This is the ‘perfect game’ equivalent to using Bruce Sutter for a ‘closer’ picture.

  7. umrguy42 - Jun 15, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    If teams used their “best relief pitcher” more – wouldn’t that risk making him statistically NOT your best pitcher any more? The more IP he has, the more shots batters get to screw up his (your stat of choice)…

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jun 15, 2012 at 4:05 PM

      The more IP he has, the more shots batters get to screw up his (your stat of choice)…

      • umrguy42 - Jun 15, 2012 at 4:53 PM

        I’m not sure pitching and batting qualifies as a “random process” :p (I’m *sure* the players on both sides hope it isn’t!) BAA, ERA, etc, aren’t *probabilities* of these things happening in the future – they’re simply means of measuring/expressing what’s happened before.

  8. ralphdibny - Jun 15, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    The “W” also controls how the game is played. How many times have you seen a pitcher who loses it in the fifth inning, but is left in the game because his manager wanted to “get him the win”?

  9. BigGreen89 - Jun 15, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    Although generally yes, you should use your closer in the most high leverage situation, but that not only includes who you’re facing. It also matters what inning it is and what the score is. You can’t use your closer every inning or every game. So, if you are up 1 in the 7th, you may use your closer to “save” the game and then lose it later. I am not a mathematician so I don’t know the exact numbers, but your odds are somewhat high that you will lose the game in those later innings and then you have wasted your best pitcher in a game you would have lost anyway. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use your closer in earlier innings, but there are countervailing percentages that should be factored in. To take it to an extreme, do you bring your closer in in the 1st inning with the bases loaded? No.

  10. unlost1 - Jun 15, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    BEST closer in baseball was not Eckersly or Rivera, but Cy Young who closed 749 of the games he started!

    • jwbiii - Jun 15, 2012 at 4:58 PM

      Ridin’ in a Stutz Bear Cat, unlost1
      You know, those were different times

  11. anxovies - Jun 16, 2012 at 10:45 AM

    Interesting that Mariano Rivera was not discussed in an article about the effectiveness of the closer. Is he “the exception that proves the rule?” And can anybody tell me what the hell that phrase means?

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