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MLB Closers Have Become Baseball's Version of the NFL Running Back

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MLB Closers Have Become Baseball's Version of the NFL Running Back
Associated Press
As a dependable closer who lands a big contract, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel (right) is a rarity in MLB these days.

Ah, the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when specialized star players at their position would dominate for several seasons at a time and land long-term, big-money contracts for the actual (and perceived) value they brought to their teams as irreplaceable performers who were considered the keys to their club's success.

That description applies to both NFL runnings backs and MLB closers, two roles that were once highly valued in their respective sports, only to have the game—and their value within it—change in front of their eyes. 

Not long ago, running backs were counted on to be productive, instrumental components to their team, much like closers were. Until recently.

For a moment, think back over the past decade or two in both sports. In football, you'll recall names like Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk—each of whom ranks among the top 10 in career rushing yards in NFL history.

In baseball, their equivalents might be names like Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, John Franco, Billy Wagner, Dennis Eckersley, Troy Percival—all six of whom place in the top 10 in career saves in MLB history.

LINDA KAYE
As a consistent and durable every-down back in his day, Cowboys Hall of Famer was sort of like the NFL's Mariano Rivera.

Now think about the NFL in 2014, and you'll realize that the league has been devaluing the need and importance of having a stud, every-down running back. Instead, teams are focusing on drafting, developing and locking up top-tier quarterbacks, considering them to be the more impactful, success-driving stars in a sport that has become much more passing-oriented on offense.

Sure, as with closers in baseball, a handful of big-time backs are always around—the Adrian Petersons, LeSean McCoys and Matt Fortes—but the shelf life of even the elite runners is nowhere near what it used to be. Heck, three recent NFL rushing leaders, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster and Maurice Jones-Drew—who compiled the most yards on the ground in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively—have since seen their careers hit the skids not long after.

Going back to the baseball parallel, it's only fitting that after 17 almost entirely consecutive seasons as the New York Yankees' closer, Rivera hung up his pinstripes in 2013...and his replacement, David Robertson, promptly lasted less than a week before being felled by a groin injury in early April.

Elise Amendola
With retired Mariano Rivera no longer wearing pinstripes, the Yankees are hoping David Robertson can handle the ninth inning.

With Robertson’s activation off the disabled list Tuesday, per Spencer Fordin of MLB.com, now is a good time to explore the volatility and value—or lack thereof—of closers in baseball today.

The reason closers, much like running backs in football, have been downgraded in the pecking order of baseball has a lot to do with their fluctuations in performance and health, especially when compared to another position.

As mentioned earlier, quarterbacks are now deemed much more valuable than backs; whereas in baseball, a premium is being placed on starting pitchers as opposed to relievers, particularly as the sport has become more and more pitching-dominated over the past handful of years.

Perhaps no player more perfectly embodies what is going on with closers nowadays than Jim Johnson.

Johnson, you probably know, led the majors in saves for the past two seasons with 51 in 2012 and 50 in 2013—and then was pretty much discarded by the Baltimore Orioles, who simply didn't want to pay him the projected $10 million he was due via arbitration this offseason. And so the O's swapped Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for—anybody, anybody, Bueller?—Jemile Weeks.

Yes, the pitcher who finished the last two years atop the saves leaderboard—the very statistic that defines a closer—was traded for a backup second baseman who hasn't been able to stick on a big league roster since 2012, when he was more or less terrible (.221/.305/.304) anyway.

As for Johnson? Well, it didn't exactly take long before poor outings early on forced the A's to remove him from the closer gig.

Jeff Chiu
Jim Johnson was removed from the closer role after only his first few appearances with his new team.

So what is a closer’s actual value? Fortunately, this actually can be put into quantitative context via the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic. Whatever your feelings on WAR, it’s a very useful all-encompassing metric that makes it easy to compare players against each other regardless of position, league or era.

Here's a look at the WAR leaders among relief pitchers in 2013, according to FanGraphs:

Top 10 Relievers by WAR in 2013
RELIEVER TEAM SV WAR
Koji Uehara Red Sox 21 3.3
Greg Holland Royals 47 3.2
Mark Melancon Pirates 16 2.5
Joe Nathan Rangers 43 2.5
Craig Kimbrel Braves 50 2.2
Kenley Jansen Dodgers 28 2.2
Trevor Rosenthal Cardinals 3 2.2
Nate Jones White Sox 0 2.0
Danny Farquhar Mariners 16 1.9
Drew Smyly Tigers 2 1.9

FanGraphs

What do you notice? Out of the top 10 relievers by WAR, only four of them—less than half—actually spent the entire season as closers. The other six either took over the job during the season (Koji Uehara, Mark Melancon, Trevor Rosenthal, Danny Farquhar) or proved to be valuable setup men (Nate Jones, Drew Smyly).

Now let’s consider that the best WAR in 2013—that would be Uehara's 3.3—ranked just 32nd among all pitchers, both starters and relievers.

That’s due to the inherent value derived from simply pitching innings, which starters do at a rate of six or seven (or more) per start and 180-200 (or more) per season. Relievers, by comparison, almost universally throw an inning per appearance—at most—and about 60-70 in a season, which is about one-third of what a starter accrues.

No wonder then that the best starting pitchers earn 6.0-7.0 WAR in a year compared to the best closers, who reach 3.0 WAR if they’re exceptional.

Michael Dwyer
Koji Uehara's 3.3 WAR in 2013 was the highest by any reliever in the previous six seasons, when Rafael Betancourt—another non-closer—put up 3.4.

Certainly, there is some psychological, almost mystical value to having a dynamite reliever who can shut down the opposition to get the final three outs. And closers often pick up some sort of acquired personality or behavior quirk along the way—be it facial hair, entrance music or histrionic antics—to push the fact that they are, well, different.

Think of Brian Wilson’s big, black beard, Rivera and Wagner’s “Enter Sandman,” Rafael Soriano’s jersey untucking or Fernando Rodney’s arrow shooting.

That speaks to every team, manager and fanbase yearning to reach a comfort level to the point where when the closer comes in, they know it’s game over for the other club.

And some relievers who have graduated from middle man or setup man to pitching the ninth will claim that there is, in fact, a difference between the 25th, 26th and 27th outs and the others leading up to them.

Ultimately, though, closers are made, not born, as Dan Szymborski wrote for ESPN Insider (subscription required) in December 2012:

Going through players who received at least 10 more save opportunities after a season of fewer than 10 saves, the players that fit that storyline of "good reliever, can't cut it as closer" are damned few. I found only 10 that underperformed their projected ERA by at least a run and when you knock out the ones who turned out to be just fine in future seasons (C.J. Wilson, Dave Veres, Ron Davis) and the ones that were injured, you essentially end up with Mike Perez, Matt Herges, Cliff Politte and Matt Lindstrom. Frightfully few for a 30-year period.

That is to say, just about any good reliever can become a closer. Just think of Kenley Jansen (converted catcher), Sergio Romo (unknown middle-inning arm), Glen Perkins (failed starter) and Joe Nathan, the active saves leader who cut his teeth as a failed starter and then a seventh- and eighth-inning man with the San Francisco Giants back in the early 2000s. And those are just a few among many others today who have advanced to the role after initial success in the middle innings.

That’s a big reason why teams simply aren’t placing much value on closers anymore. This is easy to see with a quick peek at contracts handed out to closers in recent years.

Using MLB Trade Rumors' handy Transaction Tracker, we can run a search for relievers who inked deals (via extensions or free agency) for at least three seasons that clocked in at $30 million or more in total value. The results:

RP Contracts: $10 M+ Per Season over Multiple Years (2004-2014)
YEAR SIGNED RELIEVER TEAM TERMS
2004 Kerry Wood Cubs $32.5 M, 3 YR
2005 B.J. Ryan Blue Jays $47.0 M, 5 YR
2005 Billy Wagner Mets $43.0 M, 4 YR
2007 Mariano Rivera Yankees $45.0 M, 3 YR
2007 Francisco Cordero Reds $46.0 M, 4 YR
2008 Joe Nathan Twins $47.0 M, 4 YR
2008 Brad Lidge Phillies $37.5 M, 3 YR
2008 Francisco Rodriguez Mets $37.0 M, 3 YR
2011 Rafael Soriano Yankees $35.0 M, 3 YR
2011 Jonathan Papelbon Phillies $50.0 M, 4 YR
2014 Craig Kimbrel Braves $42.0 M, 4 YR

MLB Trade Rumors

That's a pretty noticeable shift, no? After 2008, the well started to run dry in terms of relievers scoring massive money.

Over the five years since 2009, only three have signed deals of three-plus seasons at $10-plus million per. And of those three, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman essentially admitted that he didn't want to sign Soriano but acquiesced to ownership, while the Jonathan Papelbon contract was widely panned even at the time as a shortsighted risk.

Jim Cowsert
The declining Jonathan Papelbon is still owed $26 million through the 2015 season.

Only Craig Kimbrel, then, whose career is off to a historic start, has been deemed worthy of such a titanic transaction, which he landed this past February.

Ultimately, front offices have determined that inning-at-a-time relievers, no matter how dominant, simply are not worth ponying up for. Certainly not at the expense of position players, who impact more games, or starting pitchers, who have a greater impact on the games they pitch.

With very few exceptions in recent years, closers have become the interchangeable parts of baseball teams, shifting from role to role and team to team, while their clubs hope to extract as much value out of their arms while they can before the players succumb to injury or ineffectiveness.

Sounds a lot like how the NFL treats running backs these days, doesn't it?

 

Statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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