Is your favorite closer really good?
Closer, by definition, is the reliever that comes into the game to record the last three to six outs of a given game when the team is leading by three runs or less, or in the ninth inning of a tied game as long as he pitches for the home team.
These types of game situations are considered “high leverage” or at the very least “medium leverage” situations, most of the time. This means that every event will abruptly affect the winning expectancy for each team. For example, if a tied game in the bottom of the first inning and the lead off hitter of the home team hits a home run he will give his team a one run lead, but the visiting team will have eight more chances to tie or win the game. If this happens in the bottom of the ninth, the game is over. So hitting a tie-breaker homer in the first inning isn’t the same as hitting it in the ninth.
That’s why teams save their best reliever for the late innings when the game is on the line. Now, not necessarily the most “high leverage” situations will come in the ninth when the team is leading by three or less. Maybe, you face a bases loaded no outs situation in the seventh, with your team leading by one or two runs and that should be a “closer” situation.
In the book “Baseball Between the Numbers” by Baseball Prospectus there’s a chapter dedicated to when you should use your closer. The guys from Baseball Prospectus believe that most teams let their closer go to waste when they only use him in the ninth inning when their team is leading by three or less runs instead of using them on high leverage situations when they arise.
Even though I agree with that theory, I’m not going to discuss it here. I’m just going to show you the numbers of four closers to see if they’re really good at what they’re supposed to, getting outs in “high leverage” situations. You hear people saying that sometimes closers get relaxed in three or more run games and that’s why they get in trouble, but when there’s only one run to protect they excel. Let’s see if they’re right.
This year’s saves leader is Fernando Rodney (Rays) with 36. He is having the best season in his Major League career so far. He is 2-1 with a 0.83 ERA, 0.3 HR/9, 1.3 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and 36 saves in 54.0 innings. He has allowed only seven runs, five earned and two home runs throughout the season. According to FanGraphs, Rodney has allowed three runs, all earned, in low leverage situation (18.1 IP), one unearned run in medium leverage situation (16.2 IP) and three more, two earned in high leverage situation (17.2 IP). Also, his opponents’ wOBA is at his lowest when he’s pitching in high leverage situations (.143). This means that Rodney has been great in doing his job.
The second pitcher in the saves column is Jim Johnson (Orioles). Johnson is 1-1 with a 3.33 ERA, 0.6 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 5.0 SO/9 and 34 saves in 48.2 innings. He has allowed 20 runs, 18 earned and 3 home runs in 2012. Johnson’s run distribution is pretty similar throughout every situation, with a slight improvement in high leverage situations. He has allowed eight runs, all earned in 10.2 innings of low leverage situations. In 14.1 innings of medium leverage situations he has allowed six runs, all earned. And when the game is on the line, he has allowed six runs, four earned in 22.2 innings. Also, he hasn’t allowed a single home run in high leverage situations and the opponents’ wOBA is the lowest during that situations (.199).
Joel Hanrahan (Pirates) has the third most saved games in the Majors this season with 33. He sports a 2.62 ERA, 1.2 HR/9, 4.4 BB/9 and 10.9 SO/9 in 44.2 innings. He has allowed 13 runs, all earned and 6 HR’s for the Pirates this season. Hanrahan has allowed the most runs while pitching in low leverage situations. In 11.1 innings, he has allowed eight runs and his opponents have a combined wOBA .410 against him. In 14.1 innings of medium leverage situations, Hanrahan has allowed only one run and in high leverage situations (18.0 innings), the right hander has allowed four runs.
The last closer I’m going to analyze today is the all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera. In low leverage situations, Rivera has allowed 30 runs, 27 earned and 10 HR’s in 202.1 innings. In medium leverage situations, he has allowed 26 runs, 24 earned and 8 HR’s in 204.1 innings. And in high leverage situations, Rivera has allowed 105 runs, 96 earned and 16 HR’s in 280.0 innings. Even though he has allowed more runs and home runs in high leverage situations, he has pitched almost 80 innings more during those situations too, so it wouldn’t be fair to him to just look at the number of runs and home runs allowed. His numbers are definitely better in low and medium leverage situations, but that doesn’t make him a bad pitcher in high leverage situations. That just makes him human, something we didn’t know he was.
If you want to know how your favorite closer fares in high leverage situations, just go to his stats at Fangraphs.com and check out his splits numbers.
All the numbers are from last week when I began writing this post. So, sorry for the outdated stats guys.
Image by Keith Allison under the Creative Commons License Agreement.