Closers Get the Credit, but They Don’t Put Out Many Fires
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Baseball’s closers attract a tremendous amount of attention, from fans during the season, and from general managers during the winter before. As dramatic figures in the game go, they get to be heroes one night, goats the next.No single position on the diamond attracts as much speculation over whether a specific failure might completely de-rail a pitcher’s career.
Whether it’s Mitch Williams after his historic moment against Joe Carter in the 1993 World Series, Byung-Hyun Kim against the Yankees in the 2001 Series, or Brad Lidge against the Cardinals in last year’s NLCS, a closer’s ability to rebound and get the three most important outs of a game often produces the game’s most dramatic stories.
On any given day, baseball fans can look up the league leaders in saves, of course. But do you know who ranks among the league leaders in putting out fires? One of the keys to any team’s success lies not so much with who gets the glory stat, but in who actually faces the situations that might radically change a game’s outcome. It’s become something of a selfdefeating proposition that managers reserve their best relievers for the ninth inning instead of using them in the situations earlier in the game, when a lead is at stake.
The ability to pitch out of a real jam earlier in the game can make all the difference, but most closers come in to start the ninth and never actually have to pitch with the bases clogged by a previous pitcher’s baserunners. You won’t find any of the top 20 pitchers in saves on the leaderboard for inherited baserunners.
The leader among closers in inherited baserunners is Seattle’s J.J.Putz with 25, but keep in mind that he wasn’t the Mariner’s closer in the season’s first month. Tied at 24 baserunners are Toronto’s big winter pickup, B.J. Ryan, and the White Sox’ Bobby Jenks.On the opposite end, Padres closer Trevor Hoffman has yet to inherit a single baserunner and Detroit’s Todd Jones has inherited two.
Among the closers, that’s a huge difference, and there’s an equally large difference between who has stranded those runners and who’s blown it.For example, while Jones allowed both of his inherited runners to score, Ryan has allowed only one of his 24 to cross home plate. The Cardinals’ Jason Isringhausen may lead the NL in saves, but he’s also allowed eight of his 21 inherited baserunners to score. (For interested Yankees and Mets fans, entering yesterday’s games, Mariano Rivera had allowed five of 13 inherited runners to score, and Billy Wagner one of three.)
Clearly, not every closer is facing the same situations, but that reflects the age-old debate over how closers should be used.Should they be handled in what has come to be called the “Eck usage pattern,” like Dennis Eckersley in his prime, or the way pitchers like Wagner is used today? That’s basically a job where the closer comes into the ninth inning with a lead, and almost never faces a leadoff batter with runners on.
In 1980, Kansas City’s Dan Quisenberry threw 128.1 innings and had to cope with 89 inherited baserunners The Yankees’ Goose Gossage tied Quiz for saves that year, pitching “only” 99 frames and inheriting “only” 54 baserunners. In those days, closers were firemen, leading the league in both saves and inherited baserunners. They had much greater impacts on their teams in that era as opposed to today, when closers are reserved to log higher saves totals in more games but against fewer hitters in fewer innings, and with fewer fires to put out. The dichotomy highlights the extent to which closers and the pitchers who pitch with ducks on the pond are now two different groups.
This year’s leaders in inherited baserunners make up a slightly different mix. Although execrable Royals reliever Andy Sisco leads the pack with 42, Yankees situational lefty Mike Myers rates second with 39, and has done great work by allowing only five to score. Scott Proctor has been a local whipping boy, but he’s also been asked to pitch with 36 men on base, tied for sixth-most in baseball with the Mets’ Chad Bradford. Bradford’s allowed only six of those men to score, against Proctor’s 13.
Giving credit to middle relievers has been something to keep statheads busy, with mixed results. Originally, the “Hold”was invented to give middle men something to feel good about, but with official scorers crediting holds to people who pitch with a lead, allow baserunners without recording an out, and leave the game, it’s been hard to take the stat seriously.If you use the definition where you don’t award a Hold unless the pitcher records an out, you get a pretty good idea of who’s actually doing the job. The Padres’ Scott Linebrink is being used as a middle man in much the same way that the man he sets up, Hoffman, gets used — rarely coming in with runners on base, and essentially acting as the closer for the innings before the ninth.
How, then, do we know who the stoppers are in the pen, and how do we give credit to the guys who, like Tom Gordon during his Yankees years in front of Mariano Rivera, have been doing their fair share to help their teams win? To adjust for the context of what a pitcher has done and how much it has added to a team’s chances of winning, Baseball Prospectus statistician Keith Woolner has concocted WXRL (or Win Expectation above Replacement, Lineup-adjusted).
This stat measures everything the pitcher has done — baserunners stranded, leads protected, outs recorded, et al — in the context of how much closer it brings his team to a win. Unlike saves or holds, it doesn’t discriminate between when a manager elects to use a reliever. Instead, it evaluates the pitcher’s performance on whether he’s helping his team win games. As a result, a middle man like Linebrink can end up appropriately ranked with the game’s top relievers. It might not help them much in salary negotiations, but it’s important to give credit where credit is due to a pitcher who has done his share to help his teams to the top of the division.
Ms. Kahrl is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art analysis, visit www.baseballprospectus.com.