Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Who's Your Closer?

I'll cover relief pitching as two different categories--closers and set-up men, using thresholds of 10 saves or holds as of Thursday, July 25th when I did the data gathering. This chart plots closer 2013 salaries vs. their FanGraphs $Value:
The horizontal axis is the closer's 2013 salary and the vertical his FanGraphs $Value. Pitchers with points above the line are delivering more value than their contract, and pitchers below the line and underperforming. Using these values, Greg Holland is delivering the most value and Huston Street the least.

Jerome Holtzman invented the save in 1969 as a writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, and while it's not perfect, it was a perfectly reasonable method to measure effectiveness in what was becoming an increasing phenomenon--games NOT finished by the starting pitcher. This chart illustrates that trend going back to organized baseball's beginnings in 1871 with the National Association:

Even as long ago as the middle of the Dead Ball Era pitchers were only completing 60% of their starts, and by the time Holtzman developed the save, the complete game was already more fondly remembered hagiographically than as actual fact. Today the complete game is essentially extinct and will remain so unless significant changes in baseball strategy occur. With teams carrying 12 and sometimes 13 pitchers, that won't be anytime soon.

To review, these are the criteria for a save:
1.       He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
2.       He is not the winning pitcher;

3.       He is credited with at least ⅓ of an inning pitched; and

4.       He satisfies one of the following conditions:

a)      He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning
b)      He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat or on deck
c)       He pitches for at least three innings
Like every stat, by itself it has shortcomings but provides a way to measure effectiveness. That's why it's very helpful to have the FanGraphs $Values to help give additional context. It makes for some interesting observations.

This is FanGraph's all-time top closers as ranked by WAR:


I will never miss the opportunity to state that Mariano Rivera's WAR of 39.5 means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to me--what gets my attention is that his value is over 43% greater than the #2 on the list, Rich Gossage. That is TREMENDOUS--here are the differences (also using FanGraphs WAR values) between the #1 and #2 all-time best by WAR by position:

I had to make some judgment calls that could affect this marginally--for example, what will Alex Rodriguez be remembered as (stop it), a shortstop or third baseman? I personally go with third for no good reason--he's played around 20,000 innings in the field, around 10,900 at short and 9,900 at third. If I put him at short, that gap between him and Honus Wagner would be smaller but still healthy--it cannot be overstated just how dominant Wagner was. FanGraphs has Stan Musial listed as the best first baseman (they list players at any position with significant playing time), but he's more of a left fielder to me. No matter what, Rivera's historical dominance is amazing, and the fact he came back from the horrific injury to have the year he's having is nothing short of miraculous. The only reason his data value is where it is stems from his salary--at the age of 43 he's still one of the top 10 closers in baseball. It will be a LONG time (and quite possibly never) before we see his like again.


What's a pitcher have to do to end up like Huston Street? The numbers themselves don't look bad--19 saves in 20 save opportunities, and using newer metrics like shutdowns and meltdowns, he appears only marginally worse--17 shutdowns and 5 meltdowns. Hitters are batting only .234 with a .790 OPS against him, so I guess it's the four losses he has that's held against him. Heath Bell, after a relatively decent career, could be a huge problem for the Diamondbacks if they make the playoffs, and with the Dodgers recent resurgence, that's becoming a VERY BIG "if"--I started hearing yesterday (Sunday, July 28th) that the Rangers might be making Joe Nathan available (more on that later). If this is true, Kevin Towers better be on the phone making that deal. They're already 2.5 games behind the Dodgers for the NL West and 5.5 games back in the wild card hunt, and they can't afford ANY blown saves.

The "screen door on a submarine" analogy describes decent closers on teams going nowhere like Greg Holland, Addison Reed and Glen Perkins. Holland won't be going anywhere since the Royals think they're on the precipice of success, and they very well could be--they have decent starting pitching, it's their offense that has been the shortcoming. Reed and Perkins are very different sides of the same coin--Reed is young (24), relatively cheap until he reaches free agency in 2018 and could be part of the next Sox team that is competitive. The obvious questions is "When will that be?" since the Sox are very old and have little replacement talent--they're poised to be the next version of the Marlins. Perkins ISN'T young (30) and the Twins successful days are behind them and they'll need to reload. Having written all that, trading a closer won't net much in return, so maybe these teams are better off holding on to what they have.

Before I did the research I thought there were more closers making $10 million or more than there actually are--three, which will drop to two after Mariano Rivera retires, leaving Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano. Papelbon's is stupid money as the Phillies are probably at the end of their successful run that featured Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and outstanding starting pitching, and he's trying to work his way out of there.  The Nationals are stuck with Soriano through 2015--they're lined up to be a payroll disaster around 2016 when all their young talent comes due for serious money. Jason Grilli will be a reference point for future closer contracts, particularly for young talent like Craig Kimbrel and pitchers due for new contracts like Bobby Parnell. Grilli is having an outstanding year in his first year as a closer...at the age of 36. At some point GMs will recognize that the Mariano Riveras of the world are very much the exception and not the rule, making these big contracts relics of the past. I understand I've written that in just about every position post (this is number 10), but it's the natural evolution if contracts shift from overpaying for past performance to paying for future production.

I find the trade rumors on Joe Nathan intriguing, and I'm not sure I understand it (which should come as no surprise). I can only think the Rangers believe he's at peak trade value and are attempting to get the mos they can while they can. If they can get a decent return, I'll understand it, but I'm not sure who the market is--Detroit just picked up Jose Veras, and the Tigers were the rumored team interested in Nathan. 

Every now and then, you'll see a fact like this:
Atlanta wins 94.2% of games when leading going into the 9th inning.
This has a halo effect on Craig Kimbrel as he must CERTAINLY be the reason for that fact--he's a shutdown closer who GETS THINGS DONE. I like Kimbrel--he is a great closer, but there's one tiny issue:
MLB teams in the aggregate win 94.9% when leading entering the 9th. 
In 2013, closers have been successful in 821 of 1183 save opportunities, or 69.4%. Saving games IS difficult since it only occurs about 70% of the time. Apparently, not everyone can close games, and the golden era that saw closers like Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon (in his prime) might be over. The replacement appears to be wide-ranging--converted veterans like Jason Grilli, young blood like Addison Reed or someone in the middle like Casey Janssen. Of the young closers, only Kimbrel has even a remote shot to get a big contract, and I suspect the definition of "big" will change to something in the $5-7 million range. I could be very wrong on that, but pitching is changing--it seems that almost EVERYONE can throw 95-97, and if they can master a pitch or two and have some movement on that fastball, GMs will ride that closer until he fails and then reload with the next guy.

I'll end with this pitch chart from Brooks Baseball:

Brooks Baseball uses MLB PITCHf/x data that breaks pitches into 10 separate types--since 2007 (and probably 1995, for that matter), Rivera uses TWO pitches, and the cutter accounts for almost 90% of them. Hitters KNOW what they're going to see, it's lost about 3 mph in velocity and they STILL can't hit him. He's a one-of-a-kind talent, as I stated previously, but that won't prevent GMs from trying to replicate this success--just on a different scale and at a lower cost. If a closer has success for a year or two (and at a low price), why not? What's happening is the realization of how unique Rivera was and that HE can't be replicated, so teams will stop trying--and likely stop paying 8-figure salaries to closers.

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