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The Closer You Get …

Mar 12, 2013, 11:07 AM EDT

Detroit Tigers v Atlanta Braves Getty Images

One question has fascinated me for a while now: How much have modern closers changed the game? I mean, sure, we know they have changed many things SURROUNDING the game in obvious ways. Closers have helped change the salary structure of the game. They have changed the way managers direct a game. They have given us indelible memories — the stomping of Al Hrabosky, the high heat of Goose Gossage, the mustache of Rollie Fingers, the Dan Quisenberry sinker ball, the unhittable pitches of Craig Kimbrel, the wonder of Mariano.

My question is just a little bit different and more focused on results: How much more often do baseball teams win games they lead going into the ninth inning now that closers rule the ninth inning?

I’ve written some about this before, so first I’ll review a bit and then get to some relatively new stuff. We start with a surprisingly simple fact:

When teams lead the game going into the ninth inning, they win 95% of the time.

No, the number is not all that surprising — I suspect all of us would probably have guessed that teams leading going into the ninth win somewhere around 95%. What’s surprising is how constant that statistic has been through the years — teams winning 95% of the time they lead going into the ninth is pretty close to a universal truth. It was true in the 1950s. It was true in the 1960s. It was true in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s.

Last year, 2,206 teams led going into the ninth inning, and 2095 of them won — that’s 95%.

Of course, it’s never EXACTLY 95% — last year, for instance, it was 94.968% — so there are small fluctuations which we will talk about in a minute. But do those fluctuations mean anything? If you fairly flip a coin 2,000 times, it almost certainly will not land on heads exactly 1,000 times and tails exactly 1,000 times. We still know that it’s a 50% chance of heads or tails. And it’s a 95% chance for teams to hold on to their ninth inning leads — the consistency of this number is staggering.

An example: In 1945, baseball was a different game. Almost all the baseball stars of the time were fighting World War II. The game was affected. Nobody in baseball hit 30 home runs that year. Guys like Stuffy Stirnweiss and Nels Porter and Steve Gromek were stars. It was disorienting.

In 1945, teams that led going into the ninth inning won 95% of the time.

The star players came back in 1946. Ted Williams led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases. Stan Musial hit .365. Hank Greenberg was back and he led baseball with 44 homers. Bob Feller pitched 371 innings (THREE HUNDRED SEVENTY ONE! It looks even more amazing in word form) with 36 complete games (THIRTY-SIX!) and he struck out 348 batters. Baseball was back.

In 1946, teams that led going into the ninth inning won 95% of the time.

The sheer stubbornness of this statistic is pretty remarkable. Baseball teams, through the years, have tried many different strategies to hold on to their ninth inning leads — some interesting, some provocative, some seemingly stupid. And while, in the short term, they might cause a few ripples, the long term percentage never changes. It stays at 95%.

So, you might ask: If the percentage is so constant (and so high), why do teams try all these new strategies? Why do they spend so much money on closers? It’s a provocative question. I do think that the idea of winning every single game you lead going into the ninth is SO tantalizing — it seems SO achievable — that teams just can’t help themselves. And it’s something easily documented. In 2011, the Baltimore Orioles lost four games they were leading going into the ninth. In 2012, they lost only one. It’s easy to say this made a huge difference between 93-loss 2011 Orioles and the 93-win 2012 Orioles.*

*I suspect the bigger difference was that 2011 Orioles led going into the ninth inning 63 times, the 2012 Orioles led going into the ninth inning 76 times. Well, that and the Orioles freakish 16-2 record in extra innings.

There’s something else. I think, that drives teams’ constant effort to cut into that one time in 20 that they blow a lead in the ninth inning: Emotion. When teams DO blow a game in the ninth, it hurts like a monster. Everybody takes these kinds of losses much harder than the garden variety 6-2 loss. I think teams overcompensate  because of that.

So, how much can new strategies affect the game? Well, if you look at the big picture, you have to go to the next decimal to find the differences:

1950s: .948
1960s: .946
1970s: .948
1980s: .951
1990s: .949
2000s: .954
2010s: .952

You can see that the last dozen or so years, the win percentages HAVE gone up slightly … the closer might deserve some of the credit. We’ll get into that in a second. But, how much of a difference are we talking about? In the 2000s, teams held on to 95.4% of their leads against, say, 94.8% in the 1970s. That’s roughly 135 extra wins in the 2000s. That’s 13.5 per season. That’s fewer than half a win per team. It’s not nothing. But you might argue that it’s not worth the many, many, many millions teams spent to get it.

This is how far I got last time … looking at this thing through a wide-angle lens. But, as many of you pointed out, looking at “ninth inning leads” as one entity is a very incomplete way of looking at things. Obviously a five-run lead going into the ninth is very different from a one-run lead going into the ninth. Before, I had no idea how to break down the leads by runs — Baseball Reference doesn’t yet give that option (though Sean Forman says it’s something they might try to do in the future) and I just don’t have the dexterity to manipulate the amazing Retrosheet database that way.

Well, Tom Tango and Baseball Prospectus to the rescue. Tom pointed out that by using the Baseball Prospectus expected win matrix, you can go back to the 1960s to find what a team’s win percentage would be when leading with 0 outs and 0 base runners in the ninth inning. Great, great information. Now, finally, I would see just how much closers have affected the game. Right?

Well, first thing I found is something obvious: Teams up five runs or more going into the ninth inning win just about 100% of the time. There’s a fluke comeback every now and again, but it’s pretty close to 100%.  Teams up four runs going into the ninth win 99% of the time. So we’ll throw those out for now.

How about three runs? Well, Goose Gossage said one time that if he got a save for pitching one inning with his team up three runs, he would be “embarrassed.” He’s not wrong there. Teams up three going into the ninth almost always win.

Winning percentages when team leads by three runs going into the ninth inning: 

1960s: .974
1970s: .977
1980s: .975
1990s: .963
2000s: .976

You will note that the lowest win percentage is in the 1990s. This is a big theme. Yes, teams obviously were using closers in the 1990s, but teams were also scoring runs at a historic rate.

Winning percentages when team leads by two runs going into the ninth inning:

1960s: .930
1970s: .925
1980s: .941
1990s: .936
2000s: .931

The numbers are kind of all over the place — but as you can see the winning percentage in the 2000s, with closers and setup-men and all that, almost precisely matches the winning percentage of the 1960s, when runs were hard to come by and starters often finished what they started. I’m not sure what you can learn from this. Now, to the big one.

WInning percentages when team leads by one run going into the ninth inning:

1960s: .844
1970s: .850
1980s: .852
1990s: .846
2000s: .848

And … yeah, the stat kind of pops like wet firecrackers. Not a lot to see here. Apparently, the win percentage when teams are up one entering the ninth leading doesn’t change much no matter what managers do. It was .850 in the 1970s. It was .848 in the 2000s.

Sure, yes, there are many variables here, and if you wanted to do an in-depth study of comebacks you would, as Tom Tango points out, take into consideration the run scoring environment. You would also consider ballparks and many other things. But I wasn’t really interested in that. I was really interested in knowing if closers have made it more likely that teams will win games they lead going into the ninth. And the answer, I believe, is no.

Now, wait a minute: You could argue that the game is constantly evolving and that teams need to use closers JUST TO MAINTAIN the status quo. That is to say, if teams tried to stretch their starters like they did in the 1970s or use their bullpen the way managers did in the 1960s, teams might come back in the ninth inning a much higher percentage of the time. Maybe the comeback rate would be 10% instead of 5%. I don’t know. It’s a great topic of conversation and somewhat beyond my own meager analytical skills.

But I just find it fascinating that no matter how much everyone tries to fiddle with the last inning of a game — closers, match-ups, specialists, pinch-hitters, whatever else — those overall ninth-inning win percentages just do not move. I would guess that teams with great closers having great years might help a team squeeze an extra win or two in a season. Maybe. But I do wonder if all of the ninth inning tactics are about as useful as rearranging furniture.

  1. hojo20 - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    This post is too long. Please keep it pithy like Craig does. Thank you.

    • carbydrash - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:30 AM

      This is really tame compared to Posnanski standards. I got a feeling he could have scribbled this down in his underwear during a Price is Right commercial break.

      Also, it’s awesome. So quit yer caterwallin’.

    • hammyofdoom - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:39 AM

      How DARE he give us a well thought out, well researched bit of blogging that is longer than average for this site!

    • jm91rs - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:54 AM

      I have a feeling he was taking a shot at Craig more than he was actually having a problem with Posnanski.

      And awesome post. Using numbers to make a point without getting too stat-geeky for me. Good stuff Joe.

      • hojo20 - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:23 PM

        No, I like Craig’s quick posts.

    • indaburg - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:32 PM

      Take your Ritalin.

    • manchestermiracle - Mar 13, 2013 at 12:37 PM

      If you think the post is long check out the comment thread. And I find it a bit ironic that you spent the time scrolling down through the article to post instead of just moving along.

      Excellent article and some real gems in the comments. Thanks to all.

  2. edrusch - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Great article, so do relief pitchers belong in the hof?

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:22 PM

      Time for the Tigers to bring back Valverde as he is just as usefull/useless as any other option.

      • Jeremy Fox - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:09 PM

        Well, not necessarily. These data apply to the range of strategies teams have actually used. “Let someone who used to be good but is now terrible pitch the 9th” isn’t a strategy teams have employed very much (though my Phillies did try it with Brad Lidge a couple of years ago…). Trying it might actually move the needle and seriously reduce your ability to hold 9th inning leads. Depends on how terrible Valverde actually is now.

      • dan1111 - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:29 PM

        Joe’s argument is that usage patterns haven’t had much impact on wins. That is quite different from saying the quality of the players doesn’t matter.

  3. jessethegreat - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    I’m disappointed Joe… How do you start a post about closers and don’t mention Mariano first?

    Also, no mention of Eck? How about how the transition to closer from starter has prolonged so many players careers (Eck, wood, etc…)?

    • brewcrewfan54 - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:30 AM

      Because it wasn’t about anyone individually it was about closers as a whole.

    • hammyofdoom - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:40 AM

      It looks like he just listed a bunch of them off-hand to prove a point

    • sportsdrenched - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:47 AM

      Gee I though Managers managed to win games, not prolong career’s?

  4. zzalapski - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    Good piece. It does seem more cost-effective to take the money Established Closers have been making and putting it toward the offense so that you can get that ninth-inning lead of 3+ runs in the first place.

    • bravojawja - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:06 PM

      Or spreading it out among 3 or 4 middle relievers to keep the other team from scoring in the 6th thru 8th innings, too. Match up your best guy against the other team’s best guys when they come to the plate in the 7th instead of your 3rd best guy while your best guy (closer) faces the other team’s 7-8-9 hitters in the 9th, assuming you still have the lead.

      • cur68 - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:26 PM

        This is not a new idea ’round these parts. I’ve heard Craig sing this song, many a time. Send in your best guy, no matter where in the middle innings you are, to face their best guy when a lead is being threatened. The game is won or lost before the bottom of the 8th so you need your ‘closer’ there, to face the oppo’s best hitters. Pitching the 9th is the equivalent of mop-up pitching. You need only a decent middle reliever to face hitters 5-9 if that’s who’s coming up in the 9th and your lead is 2 or greater.

        Given the statistics here, this makes a tremendous amount of sense. In fact, if you want to take a Moneyball look at it, the market inefficiency is really around “holders” not “closers”. This time, though, rather than a bunch of guys floating around without a team in spite of being great at an under-appreciated part of baseball, it becomes only a matter of utilization.

        Hypothetically, if you are entering the 7th inning with a lead of 2, you are really playing for one more run to ensure a >95% chance of victory by the end of the 8th inning, but you STILL have a >92% chance of victory if you just hold them where its at. If any of the oppo’s top 3 hitters are coming up to the plate, THAT’S where you send in your Rivera or Kimbrel. Middle relief can handle the rest, with your former set-up guy (Venters) “closing”.

      • bravojawja - Mar 12, 2013 at 2:48 PM

        Oh, I’m not claiming this as my idea. Lord knows, it’s been kicking around for a while, here and elsewhere.

        It seems to have some sort of traction in front offices. Teams are more willing to pay quality middle relievers more money these days. Hell, the Braves just traded a starter for a closer so the guy could pitch the 6th. Not that Fredi would go out on a limb and pitch Kimbrel anywhere other than the 9th with a three-run lead.

        I’m waiting for teams to pay those 3 or 4 guys, total, what one closer is making now. You’ll have a much better bullpen that’s easier to manage when you’re not “forced” to use the same guy every night.

      • cur68 - Mar 12, 2013 at 3:17 PM

        I think its pretty cool that what is a rather radicle notion from a current-player-use standpoint has some real traction with statistical back-up. I’m quite pleased to see logic winning the day over “tradition” even if that tradition is only about 40 years old. The notion of a “closer” is surprisingly durable, even in the face of a complete lack of evidence to support the notion.

        Will we see that day where Papelbon comes out to work the 7th? I sure hope so. The commensurate “stat-geek” outcry will be pretty funny.

  5. wonkypenguin - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    How much of this is economically driven? As in, agents can market their clients as these “specialists” and have created a niche to sell a product that, as you illustrate very well, has no overall impact on the game. A “specialist” is always more highly regarded than a “generalist” even if it has no difference. It just reminds me of all the technology we DON’T need that has been marketed to us so that we feel like we should have it.

    I also wonder if any of it is fantasy baseball driven. I don’t actually believe this to be true. I prefer to think that teams are going to do what will help them win games regardless of anything else [funny coming from a Cubs fan, I know], but following an economic theory, a BILLION dollar industry like fantasy sports may be hard to ignore.

    • brewcrewfan54 - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:36 AM

      Unless there’s something about fantasy points that a GM can use to glean future performance it has nothing to do with that. GM’s are trying to win games and keep their jobs. Winning will keep people coming through the turnstiles and making money, except of course in Tampa.

  6. icanspeel - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    I think it’s more noticeable with the upper echelon of closers since not every team has a proven closer, so their poor stats evens out the better stats of the top closers. Not to mention that even though there are 162 games, each win is important, so 2-3 extra wins could be the difference between making the playoffs and not.

  7. carbydrash - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:35 AM

    On of the most crazy statements I ever read about closer’s came from LaRussa’s book “One Last Strike” (don’t bother reading it, it’s boooooring). When explaining how he differed from Dave Duncan, Tony said, if given a choice, he would prefer to have an ace closer over an ace starting pitcher. This was the single craziest statement I’ve ever heard from LaRussa.

    Think about it! LaRussa would presumably prefer Eckersley over Seaver, Rivera over Verlander…a guy who pitches 60 innings over a guy who throws 240.

    The funniest part? LaRussa won 2 titles with the Cardinals. In 2006, his closer was injured and rookie Adam Wainwright took over closing duties in the playoffs. In 2011, their closer was released, a variety of pitchers were used and they eventually just starting using Motte at the very end of the season.

    • albertmn - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:58 PM

      An elite closer makes it easier to manage late in a game. So, from the point of making a decision on who to pitch, a closer makes is easier. It doesn’t necessarily make the team better, but TLR may have preferred it because it made his job easier.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:27 PM

        but TLR may have preferred it because it made his job easier.

        Considering the amount of lineup/pitching changes, something tells me LaRussa liked making things hard on himself.

      • hasbeen5 - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:41 PM

        Churn beat me to it. I would have thought TLR would have loved extra match-up based changes.

      • carbydrash - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:51 PM

        Having a good closer makes it easier than having Tom Seaver?

        That’s insane troll logic.

      • paperlions - Mar 12, 2013 at 3:20 PM

        Having an ace throw CGSOs makes a manager’s job even easier.

  8. mscxvd - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    I wonder what the percentage is if the team is only ahead by a couple of runs in the ninth when closers are more likely to be used. Its pretty obvious that a team is likely going to win in the ninth if ahead by like 5 or 6 runs.

    • mscxvd - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      Im an idiot maybe i should have finished reading before commenting…

    • brewcrewfan54 - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:39 AM

      Did ya read the article because it answers your question.

  9. unclemosesgreen - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    The role of the bullpen as a whole has evolved and that has changed the game significantly. Not so much closers in particular as the entire pen. Matchup guys, the LaRussa lefty-righty shuffle, the evolution of the LOOGY, swingmen who can eat innings while keeping the team in the game, these have all changed the look and strategy of the game dramatically.

    Overall you would have to say that the on-field product has gotten better and better, on both sides of the ball. The talent pool is now truly international and multi-ethnic, when it started out as all the best American white guys only.

  10. ireportyoudecide - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    Great article, I feel closers are way overrated, if they were pitching 2 or 3 innings every time it would be different. For example everyone is bashing the Reds for trying to make Chapman a starter, I saw the guys on MLB network say as a closer he’s a top 15 player in baseball. That is just crazy to me, if the Tigers knew if they put Verlander in as the closer and he would pitch 65 innings with an ERA of 0.00 he would still have way less value then as a starter with a 3.00 ERA and 200+ innings. Closers are overrated.

    • jm91rs - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:02 PM

      Chapman was dominate and lights out, and all season I thought he was incredibly valuable to the Reds. Then the post season happens and the guy doesn’t even pitch in the most important series of the last decade for the team. The fact that a team’s most dominant pitcher doesn’t even take the mound in a post season series should open a lot of eyes as to the over-valuing of a closer.

      Sure it’s nice to close out games, but the stats Posnanski just posted show it, it would have very little effect overall on the outcome of a season. And if it keeps your best pitcher from taking the mound in a series, then it’s something to re-think.

    • obpedmypants - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:18 PM

      Verlander put up 6.8 WAR according to fangraphs.

      Joe’s data says an average team has an 85% chance of winning a game when they’re up by 1 going into the 9th. So, if you had a pitcher would be lights out, 100% victory in that 9th inning, then he’s worth 0.15 wins over AVERAGE (let alone over replacement) per outing. Obviously it depends on the number of outings the team gives its player, but if they have over 45 one run leads to protect in the 9th, then I’d rather have him locking down all of those games

      • jwbiii - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:08 PM

        I’m not going to look through every closer’s game logs, but Aroldis Chapman was mentioned above, and he was outstanding last season. He finished 12th in MVP voting, so the BBWAA consensus is that he was a top 15 player in the NL, though not in all of baseball. He was brought in 17 times with the Reds up by 1. He blew four of those leads, and the Reds lost all of those games, so the Reds won 76% of the time when they brought Chapman in to protect a one run lead. Even if you have a top notch closer, there’s no guarantee.

      • obpedmypants - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:50 PM

        jwbiii, you’re preaching the the choir. I just was refuting ireportyoudecide’s hyperbole when he said this:

        >> if the Tigers knew if they put Verlander in as the closer and he would pitch 65 innings with an ERA of 0.00 he would still have way less value then as a starter with a 3.00 ERA and 200+ innings.

        His hypothetical assumed closer perfection. And a perfect closer can be more valuable than a great starter, depending on how many close games your team plays.

  11. buffalomafia - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    In my own opinion Chapman from the Reds should stay a closer rather than be in the rotation? Chapman will ruin his arm in 1-2 years throwing that hard being in rotation?!

    • brewcrewfan54 - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:48 AM

      He’s obviously not going to go out there trying to throw 105mph for 7 innings. As a closer he knows he’s inly going to throw for 1 inning so he can give it everything he has for that inning. As a starter he’s foing to know he has to make his strength last a lot longer. His maturity will be the bigger issue.

    • jm91rs - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:06 PM

      He may ruin his arm, but it only takes one pitch with poor mechanics to do it. Throwing a little softer for 7 innings or throwing 105 for 1 inning, it won’t matter. If he’s going to hurt it, he’s going to hurt it.

      At least this way there’s a chance that the guy could see the field in the playoffs even if there is no save situation.

  12. hammyofdoom - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    Even Mitch Williams says that pitching the 8th is harder than pitching the 9th… in the 9th the offense is antsy and all you have to do is throw fastballs slightly out of the zone. I’m glad more people are starting to comment on how foolish it is to put so much faith in a guy that simply needs to pitch one inning and not give up 1-2-3 or even 4 runs.

    • El Bravo - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:13 PM

      This is why I consider a hold as good as a save in most situations. Holding a lead in the 6th, 7th, and 8th is nearly, if not completely, as important as holding it in the 9th.

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:26 PM

      Mitch Williams had a tad amount of trouble in the last 9th inning of 1994. If it had been the 8th nobody would have remembered it.

  13. jessethegreat - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:49 AM

    You haven’t taken into account how having a big time closer effects the rest of the rosters mentality.

    The starter that has full confidence in his teams closer that is feeling gassed might be more reluctant to throw a fuss if the manager try’s to pull him knowing that the shut down closer is coming in to get him out of the jam. Said starter is less likely to “dig down deep” and try that heater across the middle allowing one swing of the bat to tie it up or take the lead. Guys don’t push forward when they are out of gas as much
    when they have a closer they can count on.

    I know there is no way to analyze this using statistics or our friend the saber metrics, but the great Yogi Berra did hypothesize “90% of baseball is half mental”, and that has to count for something here…

    • brewcrewfan54 - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:12 PM

      If you know how to statistically analyze “mentality” and put it on paper I’m sure we’d all love to see it.

    • buddaley - Mar 12, 2013 at 3:52 PM

      The issue is not entirely whether a closer has value or even how best to use him, but whether the mentality to be “a big time closer” is so rare a commodity. Check out almost any season in the past 20 or so years and discover how many different pitchers managed to do brilliantly as closers for a year or more-that is affected the rest of the roster’s mentality positively while in that role as you suggest.

      Indeed, you will discover not only many pitchers managing that, but many different types. Pitchers who moved from middle relief or set-up men into closers. Pitchers who replaced injured closers during the season. Former starters who ended up in the bullpen and worked their way into closing. Hard throwers; junk ballers; High K, high BB pitchers; Low K, low BB pitchers. Pitchers with one out pitch; pitchers with 3 solid pitches.

      Take one team, let’s say the Rays. Since 2008, not only have they had a different saves leader each year, but they have also promoted (switched?) pitchers in-season most years to fill the role without any apparent loss of effectiveness. At various times, Howell, Wheeler, Benoit, Balfour, Peralta have demonstrated the “closer mentality” very well, although none were considered closers at the season’s start. In Peralta’s case, in fact, he had to accept the role in the stretch drive of a pennant race. And both Farnsworth and Rodney succeeded despite having a reputation for lacking that very “mentality” quality for most of their careers.

      To stay with the Rays, suppose Longoria has to replaced in-season. What are the chances someone else on the roster or in the system could replace his production as fully as Peralta replaced Farnsworth? Or that such a replacement on any team could occur yearly for one of its star players? Could the Yankees find a new shortstop every season, let alone in-season, to replace Jeter’s production? Even for a limited role like DH, could the Red Sox find a new one every year to give them Ortiz’s production?

      So how really rare is the mentality to get the last out? Or is it really something of a myth-with some exceptions of course-and the real issue is the talent of the pitcher?

  14. decimusprime - Mar 12, 2013 at 11:59 AM

    Great article. My question is how does the current usage of closers ie. only in the 9th compare to how they used to use them ie. 7th-9th innings? Now they are only used when a team is up for that last inning which changes things compared to a 2-3 inning usage.

  15. stex52 - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    Interesting post, Joe. Thanks for the digging. I will use it in the future for my anti-closer rants.

  16. El Bravo - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:09 PM

    Closer are the Portabella mushrooms of baseball. A marketing ploy, if you will. All major league pitchers are going to close a save situation nearly 95% of the time, if given the opportunity. Likewaise, all Portabellas are simply large, run-of-the-mill crimini mushrooms. In both scenarios, you simply slap a new name on the same old thing and you can sell it for 5 times the price.

    • El Bravo - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:11 PM

      *Closers
      *Likewise
      Edit function.

  17. mianfr - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    Why does this number surprise you?

    There’s essentially only a half inning left to be played if you already have a lead going into the ninth. 0.5/9 = 5.556% of the game remains, then.

    Even if you’re using an average major league reliever in the closer role, you’re heavily favored to win the game with any lead at that point. You might get a little more variance there because it’s really hard to predict which batters in the lineup you’ll be expected to face ahead of time, but again, think about it. Say it’s a great offensive team. They score 5 runs per game. That’s .556 runs per inning. I’d imagine any deficit at all makes even a team like that very unlikely to come back (although I’d love to see standard deviations for runs per game over the season as well… Not sure if someone has calculated that for teams at some point, but I’d love to do it myself if I have the time and it’s not a hair-pulling data collection job.).

    If anything, teams should be winning more frequently when they have a lead in the ninth, especially when you consider that a team winning on the road gets to bat in the ninth and additionally if the other team ties the game you also have the opportunity to still win in extra innings.

    • stuckonwords - Mar 12, 2013 at 3:21 PM

      mianfr, for a minute I thought you were on to something there. But sorry mate…you oopsied. Half an inning is indeed .5/9 of the game, but it’s 1/9 of the teams’ at-bats. So your 5.556% left in the game (remarkably similar to the 95% rate in the article) becomes 11.1% of the opposing teams’ offensive opportunities. Thus, no correlation between that and the 95% rate.

      • mianfr - Mar 12, 2013 at 4:24 PM

        You’re right, that absolutely is 1/9 of the team’s at bats.

        I think the overall point is still in tact though, except obviously now closers are doing about what you’d expect them to, not worse. It’s still going to boil down to .556 runs per inning on average for that elite team, though, and you need at least one run to not be trailing any longer.

        You could probably do a big probability tree to work out a team overcoming each and every deficit possible (and additional branches for extra inning possibilities), and I bet it would work out to around 6%.

  18. Jonny 5 - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    Ask yourself this. How much merchandise is sold by a large market team attached to a closer compared to a relief pitcher that’s good enough to close out games? I’d say millions of shirts and jerseys ranging from $20 – $200 each and various other items is nothing to sneeze at. I’d also venture to say that it could cover a VERY large salary. Now, say you rotated your last inning relievers in and out depending on matchup and who’s least worn out. Then what do you get in merchandise? That’s right, not much. Large market teams are usually the ones shelling out big bucks for the best ” closers” and I think it has to do with marketing strategies honestly. I could be wrong but what else ya got? GM’s are big dummies? I don’t think that’s it.

    • brewcrewfan54 - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:38 PM

      That’s an interesting way to think but I just think that GM’s are way more concerned about winning games before they worry about merchandising because a winning team is going to make money.

    • jwbiii - Mar 12, 2013 at 4:09 PM

      The problem with this line of thinking is that the MLB royalties from merchandise sales are split evenly among the teams. The Marlins make as much money as the Yankees on the sale of a Mariano Rivera jersey. The Yankees, of course, would make more money if it was sold in a Yankees owned store.

  19. nolanwiffle - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    Sounds like I missed my calling. I could have been a closer specialist who appears only in those games that my team led by seven runs or more entering the ninth. Get me Boras on the horn, stat!

    I can still bring the 58 mph heat. Undead red, as it were.

    • binarymath - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:41 PM

      Undead red. I love it. I can hear the PA announcer already…

      Now pitching for the Giants, #38 Nolan “The crimson flat-liner”, “The Ruby Zombie”, The Coma from Sonoma” (or other nickname here) Wiffle

  20. moogro - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    Rivera is great and effective for a small number of pitches, but way overvalued.

  21. larrytsg - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    OK, this is good, but there is one scenario that is not addressed here. Basically, when a team is ahead after 8 innings (by whatever number of runs) how often does the game go into extra innings? Or for the home team, how often does it go to the bottom of the ninth, which could be considered an extra half inning if the lead was preserved. Give us historical data on this. It’s kind of like asking how often a closer takes a save situation and vultures a win out of it.

  22. elmo - Mar 12, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    I’m just gonna go ahead and blame the whole closer craze on Charlie Sheen in Major League.

  23. albertmn - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    In the modern game, having a good closer helps the manager set the rest of the bullpen. I’m not saying it makes sense, but relief pitchers seem to pitch better when they know their role and how and when they will be used. Look at struggling teams that cycle through different guys in that role throughout a season. If “any” pitcher could do it, why would they keep changing guys? Because not just “any” pitcher can do it.

    Are closers slightly overvalued, when they get a save for a 3 run lead? Sure. But, change the rules on what qualifies as a save. If there aren’t 50 opportunities for a team, the manager might use his best pitcher for longer than an inning in the 30 games where he is more needed instead of saving him for tomorrow by only pitching on inning.

    What I always find interesting is that everyone thinks closers are vastly overrated…..until their favorite team doesn’t have one and keeps blowing saves. The Angels had 22 blown saves last year. Do you supposed they wished they hadn’t blown so many, so they might have made the playoffs?

    Last point – While technically a save situation, I don’t think 8th inning guys should be assessed a blown save for giving up a game when they were NEVER going to actually get a chance at the save. They had no real chance to earn a save, so how can they blow a save they can’t earn?

  24. schlom - Mar 12, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    Joe address Rivera on his blog: http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2013/03/you-made-me-do-it.html

    Basically, over the past 16 years the Yankees with Rivera have won 6 more games than the average team.

  25. sc101071 - Mar 12, 2013 at 2:04 PM

    Sure the numbers work out to 95% most years, the bad closers average out with the good. If the argument is over paying closers, you should figure out the winning percentages for the teams with a 9th inn lead with the “top five” closers every year, or some variation. Either by reputation or salary.

    • stuckonwords - Mar 12, 2013 at 3:42 PM

      But…umm…it wouldn’t be very fair if we only analyzed the closers who were successful. The top guys…the ones with the highest salaries as closers…already have demonstrated their ability. So yeah…if everyone had Mariano Rivera as their closer, the percentage would be really high, and we’d have our proof that closers are worth their pay. But to really determine if it’s a viable strategy, you have to include the lesser, more unproven ones in the stats.

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