The Importance of Closers

added 10/15/2008 by Scott Barzilla

There has been a great deal of debate recently about the importance of closers. To be sure, the save statistic is one of the more controversial in baseball. Pitchers are paid millions of dollars based on that stat alone. Yet, we cannot get universal agreement about its usefulness. Moreover, does the save really capture the essence of relief pitching?

As some of you know, I have been constantly working on a Hall of Fame book for the past several years. I came close to getting one published before my agent became too sick to continue. Any chapter on relief pitching is bound to be one of the more interesting chapters in the book. With the recent influx of relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame (Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage have been elected in recent years).

I won't belabor the point here (partially to get some interested readers to buy the book), but the Hall of Fame index I use is based on three different metrics by three different sabermetricians. Their disagreement on the importance of relief pitching is as clear as the nose on their face. I find the fact that they disagree to be interesting on a couple of different levels. First, their disagreement mirrors the disagreement of casual fans. Secondly, it shows the pinheads like Jerry Manuel that statisticians are not all cut from the same cloth.

In order to demonstrate this point we will take a look at the "best" closer in the National League over the last two years: Jose Valverde. After all, Valverde has the most saves and is at or near the league lead in save percentage over those two seasons. That's a pretty effective combination don't you think? Well, we will take a quick look at win shares (as expressed in wins) and wins above replacement player to see how the two compare.

                     WS       WARP
2007 Valverde       4.67       6.4
2008 Valverde       4.67       5.6

At first glance, it would appear that the good folks at Baseball Prospectus (the creators of WARP) put more stock in the importance of a closer than Bill James (the creator of win shares). This is likely true, but there are some key differences in the metrics. The main difference comes in the fact that win shares are tied directly to the number of wins a team earns. WARP is loosely based on this, but is more fluid to individual performance.

With 86 wins to their credit, Valverde was given direct credit for 5.4 percent of them. In other words, a replacement level pitcher would have cost the Astros 4.67 wins (or 5.4 percent of their victories) in comparison with Valverde. So, stick out a typical AAA arm out there and the Astros would have won 81 games according to Bill James. If we were to ask Bill James, he might qualify that some, but that is the implication of the metric.

If the Astros want to build a team capable of winning 90 games then they would need to pay Valverde somewhere in the neighborhood of 5.4 million on a 100 million dollar payroll. If we follow Baseball Prospectus' numbers to their logical conclusion we would conclude that he should be paid closer to 6.7 million. These salary numbers were within that range this year and likely will next year. The question is whether they can afford to pay him ten million a season beyond 2009. To correspond with the percentages, they would have to sport a 150 million dollar payroll.

So, if these numbers from both sides are accurate, why would any team pay a closer more than ten million dollars? Simply put, it comes down to a concept known as "leveraged outs." The disagreement from casual fans and sabermetricians alike involves the same issue. Naturally, stat geeks frame it in a different way. In short, are some outs more important than others? If you believe the game can be broken into 27 equal units then the idea of paying someone 10 percent of your payroll for three of those outs is patently ridiculous. The problem is that not everyone agrees that those units (or outs) are equal.

If you take them to their logical extreme, both arguments make a great deal of sense. On the one hand, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that it takes a special player to preserve a three run lead in the ninth inning. On the other hand, it also seems counterintuitive to pay someone the same amount of money to close out a game as the guy you pay to steward your team through a 15-3 blowout. Therefore, most fair-minded people find some way to split the difference. Splitting hairs in this argument is not an exact science. Some mistakes are made (Eric Gagne) while some decisions seem crazy (Mariano Rivera for 15 million!) but end up working out.

This brings us full circle to Jose Valverde. Valverde is not so much an individual case as he is an example of a greater issue. Can a middle market team like the Astros afford to keep Valverde at his price? He is legitimately very good at what he does, but how important is that at the end of the day? The Reds paid Francisco Cordero 12 million per season to do the job. They were no closer to winning the division than they have been in years past. Yet, the Phillies are one game away from the World Series with a rejuvinated Brad Lidge. He now has a multi-year eight figure contract. They swear up and down that they wouldn't be here without him and no one is in a position to disagree too much.

All of this lively debate goes back to the save. People have been trying for awhile to find a better way to accurately grade a closer's performance. Even save percentage seems a bit unfair at times. Somehow, the holder of the league lead in holds is given the same amount of acclaim is the chairman of the federal reserve board. They are both important positions that the vast majority of Americans couldn't name. Does that seem fair?