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Does Prior Experience Matter for a Closer?

July 28th, 2011 by in General Guidance, Theoretical, Uncategorized

This season, I’ve been conducting a series of studies in an attempt to better understand which closers will accumulate the most saves—the primary reason we draft them in the first place.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve found that closers who begin the season with a tenuous hold on the closer’s chair tend to wind up with far fewer saves than those who begin the year with the job all to themselves.  I’ve also found that relievers with poor skills who “aren’t good enough to be closers” tend to accumulate nearly as many saves as relievers with elite skills.  Today, I thought I’d add a third variable to the mix: experience.

Managers love to talk about how a closer has experience saving games, and it sure seems like the Ryan Franklins of the world get more chances than the Matt Thorntons.  Let’s see whether this is actually the case of if it’s merely a couple of bad beats that tend to stick in our heads (insert Rounders reference here).

Closing Experience

The first way I’m going to measure “closing experience” is to look at all relievers from 2001-2010 who began the year closing games broken down by the number of times over the previous six seasons they finished with at least 30 save opportunities.  That is, for every season that a reliever finishes with at least 30 save opps, he is credited with a year of closing experience.  Let’s check it out:

Well this is interesting.  I came into this study fully expecting to see a very large gap between the guys like Mariano Rivera and Francisco Rodriguez who have closed for years and the guys like Thornton and Kyle Farnsworth who were first-time closers.  The logic behind that hypothesis was that a team would be more willing to look past small sample size struggles of a proven closer than one who was new to the job, chalking it up to the new guy not being closer material or not being able to handle the pressure. 

Looking at the chart above, we see roughly three levels.  The first level belongs solely to the first time closers, who are expected to save 25 games, absent other information.  Once a closer has at least one year of experience logged, however, he’s expected to save roughly 29 games per year up until the time he manages to get his fifth year of experience under his belt.  Once he has at least five years of experience, his saves expectation jumps up to 34-35 per year.

That group is home to the absolute elite; only 10 closers—total—have made the list over the past ten years: Mariano Rivera (9 times), Trevor Hoffman (9), Troy Percival (3), Billy Wagner (3), Jason Isringhausen (3), Robb Nen (2), Francisco Cordero (2), Francisco Rodriguez (1), Joe Nathan (1), and Roberto Hernandez (1).

Wait a second…if these guys are so good, then how come there aren’t more repeaters?  If these guys are saving 35 games per year, that should carry over as another year of experience to the next year, shouldn’t it?  Excellent question observant hypothetical reader.  If I remove Rivera and Hoffman’s numbers, closers with 5 or 6 years of experience only average 31 saves per year—right in line with all other closers with at least one year of experience.

Even if a closer manages to reach this elite level, and even if we include Rivera and Hoffman, we’re only looking at a gain of 10 saves on his expected performance.  That’s certainly significant, but it’s not enormous, especially when Mariano Rivera goes for $20 and a guy like Farnsworth goes for $6.  Maybe you can justify giving that to Mariano, but otherwise, you may only be looking at a gain of 5-6 saves for Jonathan Papelbon (who went for $18) over Farnsworth.

In statistical terms, we get just an 0.04 r-squared when running a linear regression between closing experience and saves.  That means that years of closing experience explains just 4 percent of the difference between closer save totals.

Career Saves

To be thorough and to avoid the subjectivity in defining what a “year of closing experience” is, I decided it would also be a good idea to look at how many saves the closer has accrued in his career, coming into a given season.

The gap here is even smaller than before.  The difference between a player with little-to-no closing experience and one with lots of experience is just 8 saves.

Additionally, our r-squared drops to 0.02 here.

Concluding thoughts

That about wraps it up for this time.  Through three parts of this series, I think we've learned quite a lot about closers and how to approach drafting them.  While I think the last article really challenged conventional wisdom, this one was equally surprising, at least for me.

I was really expecting to see a much weaker showing for first year closers and a much stronger showing for fourth year closers.  The difference between them, however, is just four saves over the course of the entire season.  I was fully expecting to write a section of this article talking about how ill-conceived my confident drafting of Frank Francisco (last year and this year) and Matt Thornton (this year) looked in retrospect, but that doesn't appear to be the case.  It's looking more and more like I simply got unlucky, but I'll continue looking next time.

11 Responses to “Does Prior Experience Matter for a Closer?”

  1. Trevor says:

    Thornton is used as an example of a first year closer but his stats would not be included if ’11 was part of the study. By qualifying a “closer” as a player with 30 save opps a certain amount of success is guaranteed and therefore it is not all that suprising that the save totals are relatively close. The duds, flameouts and pieces of crap (i refer to Rodney here) should be accounted for in order to get the proper valuation of the elite closers. That said I would definitely agree that once established, a closer’s length of service is almost irrelevant.

    • Derek Carty says:

      Maybe I wasn't clear enough.  I'm not defining a closer as a reliever who achieved 30 save opps after the fact.  I'm defining a closer as any pitcher who begins the year as his team's closer, regardless of how many saves he ends up getting.  A guy like Rodney, who has flamed out in the past and has just one season with 30+ SVO would be included in the "one year" of experience bucket for 2011.

    • KziiPhung says:

      Have no idea how Moore will do, but I was thrilled by this call up bseuace it says that even the RFO is now all in. Too bad they made no move to be more competitive at the trade deadline, but at least now I have the sense that the most promising guys in the Rays organization are all in place and ready for a final push.

  2. Eric Kesselman says:

    Good article. Also worth noting that the major discount in price in auction comes from the uncertainty of having the job more than uncertainty in his performance in the job. For example if you add the auction prices of Jake McGee and Farnsworth you don't have much of a discount to the Papelbon's of the world.

    • Derek Carty says:

      Ah, you're correct.  I forgot for a second how early our draft was.  Fernando Rodney was $6, so maybe he's a better example (though he did end up being what seems to be the exception to the rule and losing the job).

  3. Trevor says:

    fair enough Derek but if I am following true first year closers like Farnsworth and Thornton would not be included

    • Derek Carty says:

      Yes, those kinds of guys would make it into the study.  They would be in the '0 years of experience' bucket.  So from 2001-2010, pitchers who began the season closing for a team but had no prior closing experience (like Farnsworth and Thornton) ended up averaging 25 saves for that season.

      • Trevor says:

        I still don't see how Thronton would be captured in this study. he didnt have 30 save opps in a year before '11 and he didn't get 30 save opps this year.  farnsworth will likely make 30 save opps…unless he's soon  traded to a team that uses him as a setup man then he too wouldnt qualify with the 30 save opp minimum.

        • Derek Carty says:

          Thornton and Farnsworth themselves are not in the study because 2011 isn't completed yet; this was running using the years 2001 to 2010.
          Let's say we have Carlos Marmol last year, though.  Before the 2010 season, Marmol had never received at least 30 SVO in a season.  In the 2010 preseason, however, the Cubs announced that Marmol would close for them that year. Therefore, for the 2010 season, Marmol was considered to have had "0 years of experience."  His 2010 season is one of 81 such seasons that are in the study.  On average, for these 81 pitchers who began the year as closer, they saved 25 games.  Some, like Marmol, ended up doing very well (38 saves).  Others, like Brad Ziegler for the A's in 2009, did not (7 saves).  If we look at all of those players, the average is 25 saves.

          • Cioaza says:

            I thought as soon as I heard about this last night that Farnsworth is done for the year, or that it is a very real poistblisy. I hope they put Moore in relief so we can see him for 1 inning at max effort. He could be even more dominant without having to worry about conserving energy for 100+ pitches and 7+ innings, we might see 98 a lot. You can’t say that the front office isn’t going for it now. Where has De la Rosa been all year? The guy can throw gas.

          • Nadir says:

            Mr. Broadhead was all against hainvg the treatment plant built in the location where the city proposed so bad he filed a lawsuit against the city to have it stopped. Now, Mr. Broadhead is being paid off to stop the lawsuit and now agrees to have the city move forward with the treatment plant in the same exact place. It’s something how money can motivate you to change your mind on something you felt so strongly about before.

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