Feb 16, 2007

The Closer

Are closers overrated? When, really, is the ideal time to use your best reliever?

I've wanted to examine this topic for a long time, so now I'll attempt to do it before Spring Training really gets going.

The Closer role has become incredibly glorified since the mid 1970's, which (not coincidentally) also was the beginning of free agency. I don't have statistical evidence to back me up, but I assume teams became more wary of injury prevention with all the money they were spending on free agents ('investments'). Baseball saw some great relievers in that era: Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle, Bruce Sutter and Mike Marshall.

I compared the stats for baseball's best active closers/relievers. No Papelbon or Zumaya because they only have 2 full seasons between them.

Looking at B.J. Ryan, Rivera, Krod, Hoffman, Gagne and Wagner, I found -

Rivera, Hoffman and Wagner have actually pitched better (in terms of OPS against) in the 7th and 8th innings than in the 9th inning or later. However, Ryan, Krod and Gagne have typically fared better in the 9th inning or later. Could this be the transition between the older generation closers (Rivera, Hoffman and Wagner are all 35+), and the newer generation (Ryan, Krod and Gagne are all younger than 32)? Are their bodies and minds geared more for single inning, save situations only?

Well, how do they fare coming in in the heat of a close game (OPS against with RISP):
Ryan, Rivera and Krod have been worse with RISP compared to bases empty situations. But Hoffman, Gagne and Wagner have actually fared the same or better with RISP. (Of course, this doesn't account for the fact that the pitcher may have allowed the hitters to reach 2nd or 3rd base themself.)

I think we can draw two conclusions from this admittedly quick study. 1. The closer is becoming ever more specialized for the 3 out, 9th inning role; 2. Each closer is different, and some are better suited for coming into games with men on base, or before the 9th inning, so it's wise for managers to use them accordingly.

Thanks to BR.com for the stats.