Dubsism

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Three Reasons Why Closers Are Overrated

mel rojas

We all know baseball players make a boat-load of money.  Most of them deserve it.  People will fill a ball-park at $100 a ticket to see a guy who hits 40 homers or strikes out 250 guys.  But there’s one group who clearly doesn’t deserve it. I’ve made my thoughts on closers in baseball abundantly clear to anyone that will listen. The role of the closer is the most over-rated and over-valued position in baseball. Their value is based on a meaningless statistic, which managers then base bad decisions on.  Worse yet, most closers are simply failed starters.

If you don’t believe that, check out the following points.

1) “Saves” are an overrated statistic.

First, we need to understand what a “save” actually is.  A pitcher earns a save by getting the last out in a game where:

  • His team leads by 3 runs or less, or…
  • By pitching the final 3 innings of a game that his team wins by any margin, or…
  • By getting the last out if the team leads by more than 3, but the tying run is on deck.

Consider what that means.  A team has a three-run lead in the heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, and the starting pitching has just dealt eight innings of  2-hit baseball.   To get the last three outs, the manager sends in the “closer,” who throws maybe 20 pitches to get the 7-8-9 hitters out, and for that he gets a “save”  If he does that 40 times in a season, somebody will give him a contract for $30 million.  What kind of horse shit is that?

Here’s the reason why that’s horse shit.  In 1992, Dennis Eckersley was making a nice career as a closer in Oakland after having been a failed starter (more on that fact later) for about half the teams in the bigs. In 1992, he hit the peak of his career by winning the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards as a relief pitcher.  Here’s a guy who won the award for the best pitcher and the best player in the American League based on the following numbers.  Eckersley only appeared in 69 games, and only pitched 80 innings.  Eckersely saved 51 games, and for you Sabremetrics geeks, his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was 2.9.

First, let’s compare him to the other pitchers who were in the running for the Cy Young award, Jack McDowell and Roger Clemems.   McDowell was second in the voting and Clemens was third.  McDowell chucked 13 complete games while Clemens completed 11.  Between the two, that’s 24 times their teams didn’t need the bullpen, let alone the closer.  McDowell pitched 260 innings compared to Clemems’ 240.   Any baseball manager will sing the praises of a starter who eats innings because baseball season is a marathon, therefore there’s a hell of a lot more value in a guy who pitches 250 innings versus a guy who pitches 80.  McDowell’s WAR was 5.3. Clemens 8.8.

It gets worse when you compare Eckersley to the everyday players over whom the won the MVP award.  Keep the marathon thing in mind when considering 2nd place finisher Kirby Puckett  played in 160 games as opposed to Eckersley’s 69.  Puckett hit .329 with 19 HRs and 119 RBI.  Kirby Puckett’s WAR was 7.1.  I’m not a huge fan of the WAR statistic, but that’s a HUGE disparity. Boil it down and I’m willing to bet Puckett’s contributions were responsible for far more than 51 wins for his team.

Not to mention…closers (in this case Eckersley) are dependent on guys like Puckett (or in Eckersley’s case, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire) to produce runs so that closers have leads to protect in the first place.

The bottom line…there’s a whole team full of guys who make the outcome of a ball game happen, and some guy who waltzes in to pitch the last inning gets all the glory.

Horse shit.

2) Managers playing to the “Save” rule.

All it takes is a look at the logic used by major league managers to understand how stupid this is.

If you start with the premise that the “closer” is the best pitcher in the bullpen, you are faced with the question as to why a manager wouldn’t bring that guy in a situation where the ball game is on the line.

For example, let’s say a team is up by one run in the 8th inning. Their starter is showing signs of fatigue, and he gives up a lead-off double, which brings the winning run to the plate with nobody out.  The ball game is clearly on the line at this point, so you would think this would be the spot to bring in the best guy in the bullpen.  Except that’s completely opposite of what conventional managerial wisdom says to do.  Instead, this situation brings us the never-ending series of silly decisions like that “righty-versus-lefty” crap, going to the “Set Up Guy,” or any other choice a manager can make other than bringing in his “Best Guy.”

Here’s what this “By The Book”-style thinking gets you.  Cincinnati Reds manager Brayan Price could be the poster child for this garbage.  Price actually declared earlier this year that he would not use Aroldis Chapman, who is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, in a tied game on the road.   Instead, he’d rather trot out some wad of lunch meat like J.J. Hoover.  Idiot.

The recently fired Matt Williams is another prime example.  There was no reason for him to leave Stephen Strasburg rot in the bullpen during last year’s play-offs as his the Nationals’ season was going up in smoke faster than a blunt at a Snoop Dogg house party.  Because Strasburg isn’t a “closer,” Williams couldn’t bring himself to bring one of the best pitchers in baseball into a game his team need desperately to win in a situation where they need to stop the bleeding right now.

The flip side of that situation proves my point.  Madison Bumgarner isn’t a closer either, yet he still pitched 5 innings in relief in Game 7 of the World Series, leading the San Francisco Giants to their third World Series title in five years. In other words, in a winner-take-all situation, managers like Bruce Bochy show why they are headed to the Hall of Fame by the ability to realize the cattle-herd mentality surrounding the use of “closers.”  Meanwhile, guys like Brayan Price and Matt Williams will end up as the guy who fucks up your sandwich at Subway.

3) Closers are just failed starters, and they rarely last very long.

As I’m writing this, I know somebody is going to scream “Mariano Rivera.”   In the words of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America,  “Mariano Rivera! That’s their one!”

Face it, Rivera was an outlier.  Hark back to my earlier example of Dennis Eckersley.  Rivera and the “Eck” are both outliers.  Don’t even waste time trotting out refurb-jobs lioke John Smoltz and Kerry Wood.  They failed as starters for one reason or another and became stars as closers, and they only prove the point that “closer” is a demotion from “starter.”

Now, let’s look at the “rules” rather than the “exceptions.” For every Mariano Rivera I can give you a Joe Borowski.  Do you  remember Sweaty Joe? He notched 33 saves in 2003 for the Cubs. Then he disappeared.  You get the same story with Jason Grilli. He bounced around for years until the Pirates made him their closer. He had a few big years, now he’s the receiving guy at a Kmart.  Eddie Guardado, Brian Wilson, Rafael Soriano,…I could go on for days with this.

Even worse than that list of uber-mediocrity is the fact teams love to pay these guys big money, which is the epitome of stupid.  A closer is as replaceable as the spare tire on a Ford Taurus.  Look at what happened during the pennant race when the Los Angeles Angels lost their closer to a groin injury.  They pulled out the time-honored “closer by committee” approach.  Lots of teams go that route when the don’t feel they have a “real” closer.  That begs another question.  If a closer can be replaced by a committee, what real value do closers have? Look at tit this way.  If the Cubs lost Jake Arrieta tomorrow, they couldn’t replace him with three other guys.  The Cubs could replace Pedro Strop with three Wrigley hot dog vendors.

Speaking as a Cubs fan, I wish I had a penny for every dollar the Cubs burned when they made such great “closer” signings as Dave Smith, LaTroy Hawkins, Rick Aguilera, and (gasp) Mel Rojas. You’ll love how this breaks down.

  • Dave Smith: $4.65 million, 3 years. Result:  107.2 innings pitched, 6-12, 40 saves, 3.63 ERA
  • LaTroy Hawkins: $7.5 million, 2 years. Result: 99 inning pitched, 6-8, 29 saves, 3.575 ERA
  • Rick Aguilera: $7.8 million, 2 years.  Result: 93.3 innings pitched 7-5, 37 caves, 4.30 ERA
  • Mej Rojas: $4..58 million, 1 year. Result: 59 innings pitched, 0-4, 13 saves, 4.42 ERA
Mel Rojas.  Oh, the humanity.

Mel Rojas. Oh, the humanity.

Historically, what the Cubs spent for one year of service for each of those four heaps was more than the Cobs spent this year on the salaries of Kyle Schwarber ($507K), Kris Bryant ($507K),  Addison Russell ($507K), Jake Arrieta ($3.63 million), and Anthony Rizzo ($5.85 million) combined.  Adjust those costs all that  economic mumbo-jumbo about how the dollar isn’t worth now what it was ten years ago, and it becomes clear the value of closers is more inflated than the Hinderburg ten minutes before the lightning storm.

Conclusion:

The Save rule was adopted in 1969. At the time, pitching 3 innings at the end of the game wasn’t an uncommon practice.  Today, it would be front page news.  The rule was never intended to create pay-days for guys who pitch 80 innings a season.  A starter goes 8 innings, then we want to heap praise on the Mariano Riveras of the world for getting 3 outs? Again, you didn’t see Bruce Bochy running to the bullpen for a closer when Bumgarner was mowing down the Royals last October. You didn’t see Joe Maddon in a hurry to get his closer in for Jake Arrieta the other night in Pittsburgh.

The bottom line baseball needs more managers who understand how to handle pitching staffs, know when to make moves and which guys to bring in which situations, and less guys making $10 million to strike out the bottom of the order.

About JFI

I tend to think outside the box and question mainstream thinking.

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This entry was posted on October 10, 2015 by in Baseball, Sports and tagged , , , , .

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