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How often closers lose their jobs

May 25th, 2011 by in General Guidance, Theoretical

It would be an understatement to say that I've struggled with drafting competent closers in the CardRunners Experts League (a fact that Eric has little problem reminding me of on a semi-regular basis).  Last year, I drafted Frank Francisco, who lost his job two weeks into the season and, despite being one of the top non-closers in the game the rest of the way, never reclaimed the role.  This year, I drafted Matt Thornton and Francisco again.  Thornton was arguably the best non-closer in baseball before finally getting a crack at closing this year, but he had a rough (arguably unlucky) start to the season and lost the job in April as well.  Francisco managed to get injured after our draft and finally took the role back a couple weeks ago, but after a rough few days may be on thin ice again.

Given my storied unsuccess drafting closers, Eric suggested that I run some studies on closers and examine just what kind of return on investment one can expect from a closer.  Over the next few weeks, I'll be digging into the data and answering a number of questions about closers that should prove extremely useful for both myself in figuring out where I keep going wrong and for the population at large in their own closer decisions.

Closer Classifications

Throughout my series on closers, I'll be looking at all pitchers since 2001 who started the year as his team's closer and grouping them into the following categories:

    • Sole closer (CL)

    • Closer who will begin the year on the DL (INJ)

    • Replacement closer while primary closer is DLed (TEMP)

    • Closer-by-committee favorite (CCF)

    • Closer-by-committee underdog (CC)

I can't tell you how difficult it was to go back ten years and try to figure out who began the year as the closer, but I think I've done a pretty good job of doing so.  If you'd like to check my work, you can see the full list of classifications here.  If you see anything that's wrong on there, I'd love to be corrected, though I'd guess this list is close to 95% accurate.  I put it together using a combination of preseason auction prices (a huge thanks to Peter Kreutzer for these) and team-by-team April saves leaders cross-checked with Google searches for articles from the period in question.

"Sole closer" stats

To start with, we'll look at what happens to pitchers who begin the year healthy and with the closer's role to themselves.  The table is broken down by the number of saves accumulated and the percentage of pitchers who do so.  So for the first row of the table, we see that 41% of these closers save at least 35 games and these closers average 42 saves.

Overall, we see that if a pitcher begins the year healthy and at closer, he will save an average of 29 games.  And if we use 30 saves as a proxy for keeping the job the whole year, we see that 54% of closers manage to go the whole year in the closer's role.

"Closer who will begin the year on the DL"

Our sample size drastically diminishes here as no more than a handful of closers usually begin the year on the DL.  Adding to the noise in these numbers is the fact that I've made no attempt to account for injury severity, how long the closer is expected to be out for, or how good the closer is (i.e. an injured Mariano Rivera is more likely to take back his closer's role once healthy than an injured Brandon Lyon would be)

Caveats aside, we see that these closers average just 14 saves per year — half of what healthy closers do.

"Reliever who will close while primary closer begins the year on the DL" stats

Again, our sample size is tiny as we're dealing with the same exact teams as in our previous grouping.

Interestingly, these closers average 13 saves per year — just one less than the closers they're replacing.  You may notice that these two groups account for just 27 of a team's total saves (teams usually average around 40 saves per year).  This is likely because these "replacement closers" aren't elite relievers to begin with (if they were, they'd be full-fledged closers in the first place) and are more likely to lose the job before the real closer even comes back from the DL, which brings a third closer into the mix (or potentially more than that).

"Closer-by-committee" stats

The table to the right gives the stats for the reliever who is the favorite to emerge from a committee situation.

Another tiny sample because most teams don't begin the year with a closer committee, but we see that it doesn't bode well for pitchers who are a part of them, even if they're the favorite.  If they're not the favorite, their expectation doesn't change much:

For these pitchers, we see that they average a mere save less than the reliever who is the favorite to emerge from a committee situation. So no matter whether a pitcher is the favorite or not, if a reliever is a part of a committee of closers, this data suggests he'll be extremely lucky to top even five saves and will average just 7 or 8.

Making sense of everything

Based on what we've just seen, it appears that a closer who is healthy and has the role all to himself is — as we'd expect — the best bet. Still, it appears that it's just a 50/50 shot that this closer will remain healthy and effective enough to keep the job for the entire season. With an average expectation of 28 saves, though, they don't appear to be the worst investment in the world.

Injured closers, however, need to be severely discounted, on the whole. Obviously there would be some exceptions, such as if the pitcher is firmly established as the closer and is dealing with a non-serious injury that should allow him to return shortly after the start of the season. If that isn't the case, though, the replacement closer might end up being a good bargain. Closers who are a part of a committee are likely to be poor investments.

9 Responses to “How often closers lose their jobs”

  1. Aaron says:

    I wonder whether the top bracket of closers should be split into the guys who won't get pulled after a rough patch and those who might. Mariano Rivera or Joakim Soria, for instance, are much less likely to lose their jobs than guys like Fernando Rodney or Kevin Gregg even though they are both "sole closers." Obviously that would add some subjectivity into this study but if one class of "sole closers" is 75% likely to keep their jobs and the other is 25% likely to keep theirs then lumping them together seems to muddy the waters.
    I've come to believe that top closers are undervalued in competitive leagues for several reasons.  First, it's easier to tell who the elite closers will be than who the elite starters will be. If we all came up with our top ten closers of 2011 before the season started there would be a lot of overlap and there would be a lot of agreement between that list and the eventual top ten closers at the end of the year based on their actual performance. A similar list of the top 25 SP (assuming teams need somewhere are 2.5 SP per closer) would likely not have as much overlap to begin with or when compared to actual end of season stats. That increased level of certainy when drafting an elite closer seems not to be factored into most draft prices.
    Second, closers are perhaps the most fungible commodity in the game.
    Third, closers really are valuable beyond saves. If an elite closer posts and ERA and WHIP of 2.00 and 1.05 compared to a mediocre closer's 3.5 and 1.25 then what have you really saved? Assuming 60 IP that's a difference of about 12 baserunners and 10 ER's. What's the difference between an elite SP (ERA 3.25, WHIP 1.15) and a mediocre SP (ERA 4.00, WHIP 1.25)? About 18 baserunners and 15 ER's (assuming 180 IP). It doesn't matter whether your closer saves you 10 ER's or your SP does you still get those savings. So while having one elite SP and one mediocre CL is better than one elite closer and one mediocre SP it's closer than you might think in terms of ERA and WHIP. And that's without the best part.
    Elite closers are cheaper than elite SP. In a typical draft elite closers will go somewhere in the $15-18 range while elite SP can cost well into the high twenties and even into the $30-35 range. Is Roy Halladay worth that much? Probably. But I'll take Rivera for $16 instead.

    • Derek Carty says:

      You're right, Aaron, that they should be broken down further.  That's planned for one of the future articles in the series, among other things.

      • Tinu says:

        And Gallo is good. There are some people out there who will awlays hate him. Why? Can’t say I know, but he’s clearly talented and is playing in essentially his rookie year.It’ll be no skin off his back though when the Knicks turn into a winner. Hey, there are people out there who never liked Patrick Ewing even though he was a warrior and all he did was win. Of course, now that he’s gone he’s a saint to everyone.I also want to know where this idea comes from that Mark Jackson is going to teach the Knicks to play defense. When he played, believe me, defense was not his specialty. It was a substantial weakness.

      • Samientha says:

        I listen to Sirius Radio and love the Howard Stern show, I hear them tkanilg about Howard Stern TV and I’ve seen it On-Demand but I want to check it out before I decide to order it. Does anyone know where I can go to stream the shows for free? Thanks all.

    • Kaoutar says:

      I just have to disagree with you. How did he blow up the 2010 plan, which is to 1) clear out cap space and kiss as many of these losres goodbye as possible, and 2) win if you can but not take on any contracts to do it.Lee and Gallo happen to be 2 out of the 3 best players on the team with Chandler, so I just disagree that he’s done anything wrong by building his offense around them.Just an observation, D’Antoni has gotten 1.5 years as coach. This kind of knee jerk short-sighted calling for heads is why people say you can’t rebuild in New York. But you not only can, you have to. Isiah and Layden tried not to but it only delayed the inevitable. Evaluate D’Antoni and Walsh in the fall, which is when they promised all along we’d be good. They didn’t promise us anything for last year, or this year.

  2. Eric Kesselman says:

    Mariano went $20 in CR auction. Feliz went $24. I think those prices are more typical than $16 elite closers, otherwise I'd be tempted to agree. People can be prone to underestimate the value of the top guys whip and their reliability. 

    As is, I think elite closers are an expensive luxury. When teams struggle, its always the closers that get shopped first. I think the Sergio Santoses of the world is how you should be trying to score your saves points. 

    • Aaron says:

      Maybe I'm misvaluing the market but in my two competitive leagues the top closers went in the mid to high teens while there were a few SP over $30. If they're going more in the $20-24 range along with the bottom of the first tier SP I'd think that's about right.

      • Cecilia says:

        a lot about their work ethic and coachability. I’m hnoipg the Blue Jays pitching coaches are able to make his change-up stronger, work on his command, and develop him into the closer the Blue Jays need. On your end, however, I wish Nestor Molina nothing but the best of support. He’s a work horse, and while his future is uncertain (starter or reliever) there is no doubt he’ll find success.Thanks again for your comments. We’ll be checking in with Molina, don’t be a stranger around here and thanks for dropping by.

  3. Abdarhman says:

    Sox fan here. While Santos’ slider is davistetang and a great put away pitch, that’s all it is at this point. When he tries to get it over for a strike, it is very flat and catches too much of the plate. He also struggles with his command, and while his fastball hits the upper-90 s, it lacks movement and he’s not very deceptive with it. Because of this, when he gets behind in the count, he’s usually pretty hittable. The one pitch I wish he would throw more of, and it doesn’t get mentioned, is his change. He still struggles with command with it, but when it’s on, it’s excellent. He’s still young as a pitcher, so these things will hopefully work themselves out, but I also worry that when they learn to lay off of the slider, he’s going to struggle. Personally, I’m extremely disappointed that I no longer get to see him develop further because the sky is the limit if he can harness his command. Oh, and you’re getting a great person, I’m going to miss him.

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