Mar 12, 2013, 11:07 AM EST
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Dec 6, 2013, 11:05 PM EST
Beleaguered free agent Joba Chamberlain is drawing interest from the Cubs and Royals, tweets Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. Chamberlain, 28, has been ravaged by injuries over the last three seasons. In June 2011, Chamberlain was knocked out for the rest of the season with an elbow injury, eventually undergoing Tommy John…
Dec 6, 2013, 10:20 PM EST
The Marlins signed Garrett Jones to a two-year, $7.5 million deal this afternoon, effectively squeezing Logan Morrison out. Instantly, rumors began to fly involving Morrison in a potential trade. Jon Morosi of FOX Sports tweets that the Red Sox and Brewers have checked in, though nothing is imminent. Morrison has had trouble staying on the…
Dec 6, 2013, 9:50 PM EST
Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News is reporting that the Yankees have signed free agent outfielder Carlos Beltran to a three-year deal. Beltran will turn 37 on April 24, so the contract will span his age 37-39 seasons. After a pair of injury-shortened seasons in 2009 and ’10, Beltran has shown lately that…
Dec 6, 2013, 9:20 PM EST
Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports is reporting that the Red Sox are bringing Mike Napoli back. They have signed the 32-year-old first baseman to a two-year, $32 million deal, adding to what has been yet another exciting day of hot stove action across baseball. It’s quite the raise from last season’s one-year, $5 million deal (though…
Dec 6, 2013, 9:00 PM EST
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Dec 6, 2013, 8:10 PM EST
The Mets made their big off-season move earlier today, signing free agent outfielder Curtis Granderson to a four-year, $60 million deal. GM Sandy Alderson had promised to make some news, especially compared to the prior off-season when the Mets were among the least active teams. Per Newsday’s Marc Carig on Twitter, Alderson had some assistance…
Dec 6, 2013, 7:20 PM EST
Earlier today, second baseman Robinson Cano signed with the Mariners on a ten-year, $240 million contract, leaving the Yankees out in the cold with an infield that includes the embattled Alex Rodriguez, the hobbled Derek Jeter, the recovering Mark Teixeira, and the recently-signed Kelly Johnson. Now that they don’t have to set aside space for…
Dec 6, 2013, 6:30 PM EST
Despite a solid showing in a limited sample of innings at the end of the 2013 regular season and in the post-season with the Cardinals, reliever John Axford was non-tendered as he was set to earn at least $4 million following back-to-back poor seasons with the Brewers and falling out of the closer’s role. MLB’s…
Dec 6, 2013, 6:05 PM EST
Joey Votto contributes to a good cause on the baseball field by getting on base nearly one out of every two times he comes to the plate, and hitting for power to boot. But now he’s contributing to a great cause off the field with the creation of the Joey Votto Foundation, aimed to support…
Dec 6, 2013, 4:50 PM EST
Nate McLouth won’t have to move far, as Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the former Orioles outfielder has agreed to a two-year deal with the Nationals. There’s no starting job for McLouth in Washington, where Bryce Harper, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth all figure to play almost every day, but Rosenthal says he’s “expected…
Dec 6, 2013, 3:42 PM EST
Two seasons into a four-year, $46 million contract the Phillies are trying to trade Jonathan Papelbon, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com. Papelbon has been very good for the Phillies with a 2.67 ERA that’s not far off from his 2.33 ERA for the Red Sox, but his strikeout rate and average fastball velocity both…
Dec 6, 2013, 2:29 PM EST
Here’s the rundown of where this winter’s top 150 free agents are landing, continuously updated throughout the offseason. Re-signings are posted in red, while players signing with new teams are in blue. Stars denote players who received qualifying offers and thus will cost their new team a draft pick if they sign elsewhere. (Non-tenders have…
Dec 6, 2013, 1:50 PM EST
Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Marlins are close to signing first baseman/corner outfielder Garrett Jones, who was let go by the Pirates last week. Jones lost his job to Justin Morneau down the stretch and the Pirates didn’t want to pay him around $5 million via arbitration. Why the Marlins want him is…
Dec 6, 2013, 1:23 PM EST
Now that the Mariners have signed Robinson Cano for $240 million there’s tons of speculation about their next big move, since the consensus is that Seattle has significant payroll space left to spend and remains aggressive on a number of trade and free agent fronts. Making a run at David Price would be another huge splash,…
Dec 6, 2013, 12:36 PM EST
The Rangers nearly traded for J.P. Arencibia before he was non-tendered by the Blue Jays. Now they have him anyway, signing him to a one-year deal, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. It’s worth $1.8 million and includes $300,000 in incentives, according to FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal. Arencibia, who turns 28 next month,…
Dec 6, 2013, 12:14 PM EST
No, there’s very little chance that Robinson Cano will resemble a $24 million player in 2023. But at least he’s better than that now. In a world in which Jacoby Ellsbury is worth $22 million annually and middle-rotation starters get $10 million-$13 million per year, it’s hardly unreasonable to value Cano as a $30 million…
Dec 6, 2013, 11:48 AM EST
After going 12-12 with a 3.86 ERA for the Cubs and Orioles last season, Scott Feldman has landed a fat three-year, $30 million contract from the Astros, according to FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal. Feldman had similar peripherals in 2012 with the Rangers, but since it resulted in a 5.09 ERA, his best offer was a one-year,…
Dec 6, 2013, 11:48 AM EST
In a big move that will nonetheless get almost zero attention among New York sports fans today, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that the Mets have signed former Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson to a four-year contract. Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com says it’s worth $60 million. Granderson missed more than 100 games with…
Dec 6, 2013, 11:04 AM EST
As of this morning the New York Daily News was reporting that the Mariners were no longer negotiating with Robinson Cano because of Jay Z’s attempts to raise the second baseman’s price tag at the last minute. As of right now–and for the next 10 seasons–Cano is a Seattle Mariner. Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes…
Dec 6, 2013, 10:30 AM EST
For all the drama being reported this morning about Robinson Cano‘s talks with the Mariners falling apart over Jay Z’s negotiating tactics–and multiple well-respected reporters more or less confirming the story–Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com now says the talks are “still alive.” Who knows what exactly that means at this point, but if nothing else the…
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