Why Mariano Rivera, Brian Wilson and Other MLB Closers Are Irrelevant

Jim Flannery@@calgaryjimboAnalyst IAugust 23, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 30:  Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Baltimore Orioles during their game on April 30, 2012 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

The Major League Baseball season to this point has demonstrated a very significant point about the modern game that no one seems to be getting: The role of closer doesn't matter.

This whole thing really began during the free-agent frenzy, when teams all over the MLB were tossing money at available closers. At the time, I observed that spending big bucks on a position that is statistically irrelevant is a waste of resources.

Then, in early April, Brian Wilson's season came to an abrupt end due to an elbow injury, and Giants nation was thrown into turmoil wondering how the team would manage without its beloved stopper. Once again, I observed that it wouldn't matter to San Francisco's chances, and it turns out I was right.

When Wilson went on the DL, the Giants were off to a slow, 4-6 start and were stuck in fourth place in the NL West. Today, they are first in their division, at 68-55 and in good shape to make the postseason. 

A couple weeks after Wilson went down, in the first week of May, Mariano Rivera sustained a season-ending knee injury during his pregame ritual of shagging fly balls with his teammates. As Giants fans did with the Brain Wilson injury, Yankees fans began wailing and gnashing their teeth for fear of what would happen to their team without Rivera.

One more time, I noted that his absence from the Yankees lineup would not affect their performance.

One more time, I was right. The Yankees were 14-12 and in fourth in the AL East when I wrote my piece; right now, they're 72-52 and solidly in first place. 

It doesn't seem to me like either of those teams is hurting too badly as a result of losing its bullpen ace.

The numbers I've repeatedly pointed to come from this 2004 study by David Smith. In it, Smith observes that throughout major league history, teams holding leads in the ninth inning have won 95 percent of the time.

The era of the specialized closer role has not changed these numbers in the slightest.

Smith's final two conclusions are key, in my mind: "The most successful teams get the lead and keep it...Total scoring is by far the best predictor of overall success."

In the cases of the Giants, the Yankees and every other successful team out there, these are the key ingredients that earn them victories, not how good their closers are.

It's a simple fact of baseball life and one that major league general managers would be smart to pay better attention to.

Because it might save them a few bucks when they're trying to decide whether to pay Jonathan Papelbon $12.5 million a year or Fernando Rodney $1.75 million for the same or better results.

Seems like pretty simple math to me.


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