MLB Closers: Blowing Games Late, but Closer Role and Save Stat Still Overrated

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MLB Closers: Blowing Games Late, but Closer Role and Save Stat Still Overrated
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Matt Thornton, who was a dominant set-up man last year, has struggled in the closer's role this year. Sports fans and pundits still seem to think that the closer's role is any more important than the rest of the bullpen, despite their being little reason to believe this.

Despite the fact that the 30 MLB teams' combined save-percentage (66 percent) heading into Wednesday's action is on par with the MLB average over the past 10 years, closers are under scrutiny as many teams have either changed their closer or turned to a closer-by-committee structure. 

The Chicago White Sox have turned to four different relief pitchers to close out games; the Twins lost confidence in All-Star Joe Nathan after two straight blown saves; Brandon Lyon has blown three consecutive saves for the Astros; the St. Louis Cardinals had no choice but to tell Ryan Franklin to stay away from the ninth inning after blowing four out of five save opportunities.

As a result, some point to this evidence as reason to believe the closer role is more important than ever.

This is a misguided conclusion to arrive at, considering all that the evidence does is reaffirm the importance and value of having a quality bullpen.  

And even though many blown saves occur in the middle-to-late-innings, ninth-inning blown saves get highlighted on SportsCenter. They are easy to point to in a sports culture that centers on reacting to outcomes rather than thoughtful analysis, and they are what lingers in a fan's bitter mind.

My argument is two-fold: 1) that the closer role, as it is currently constructed—whereby a specified pitcher typically only enters the game in the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less—is unnecessary, incorrectly promoted and misleading, and thus, is not simply overrated but also counterproductive; thereby 2) the statistic used to define the closer role—the "save"—may be the most useless and misleading statistic in all of sports. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Ryan Franklin lost his closer job after blowing four of five save opportunities. The cardinals do not have a "closer" problem. They have a bullpen problem. The two problems are often conflated.

The establishment of a "closer" role grew from the creation of the "save" statistic. 

A baseball journalist and sportswriter, David Holtzman, started keeping the unofficial stat in 1960 while writing for The Sporting News until it became an official stat in 1969, largely thanks to his lobbying efforts. 

Holtzman (rightly) felt there was no way to measure how effective relief pitchers were at doing their jobs, which was to hold leads. 

The closer role, which has unintentionally paved the way for a small number of relief pitchers to earn starter-type money despite pitching a fraction of the innings, makes little sense in a philosophical or strategic sense. 

The closer role has coincided with an era of the five-man rotation, seven-man bullpen and 100-pitch counts.  These rigidly defined roles—"long-man," "set-up man" and "closer"—obscure the reality that the most important outs in a game often occur in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

The matchups and circumstances of every game should dictate what relief pitcher is brought in—and when.  Would you rather have Mariano Rivera pitch in the eighth inning to the opposing team's 3-4-5 hitters, or come in in the ninth against the bottom of the order?

Moreover, closers have the luxury of entering the game with the bases empty to start an inning, while their bullpen mates are often thrown into hectic scenarios with men on base.  This inflates a closer's statistics, while also deflating the middle reliever's.  And the "hold" stat for middle relievers is the same concept as the "save," yet middle relievers get no love while closers can demand over $10 million annually for "earning" 30 saves a year. 

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Dennis Eckersley was the first closer in 1992 to win the Cy Young and MVP awards in the same season despite pitching just 80 innings. In todays era, Eckerseley could command an outrageously inflated $15 million annual salary.

If we can assume the closer is typically their team's best relief pitcher, why should he be limited to save opportunities? Shouldn't teams put them in as many meaningful situations as they can?

"Allowing a pitcher to pitch in more situations ups his chances of getting into more games and [pitching] more innings," wrote Zack Lessner, a correspondent for the Bleacher Report. "More innings from your [best] pitcher is [getting] better value."

Aside from trying to get your best relief pitcher into the most games, his value to the team is greatly diminished when his role is oblivious to the circumstances of a game—e.g., right/left matchup, quality of hitter. 

This brings us to the absurdity of saves.  Saves are useless in the sense that it does not provide us with substantive insight as to how effective the pitcher in question has been.  All it tells us is how many times, and at what rate, closers have finished the game without giving up the lead. 

But considering the terribly low standards it takes to "earn" a save, saves do not describe the effectiveness of a pitcher, which is what Holtzman intended it to do.

As rule 10.20 states:

Credit a pitcher with a save when he meets all three of the following conditions:

(1) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and

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(2) He is not the winning pitcher; and

(3) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:

- (a) He enters the game with a lead no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; or

- (b) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck; or

- (c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings.  No more than one save can be credited in each game.

A closer can conceivably enter the ninth inning up five runs with the bases loaded, give up a grand slam, record one out and receive a save.  

It's amazing how many baseball organizations—that is, all of them—still want their managers to appoint a closer, considering that not doing so would not only benefit the team, it would also keep all their relief pitchers' salaries in check by not handing one pitcher a bunch of saves on a silver platter so that they can go exploit the market based on their "saves earned."

Closers earn saves, thus earn the big bucks, simply because their manager has decided to give them the ball in the ninth every time.  It comes with the territory of being a closer. 

Closers who have recently been made wealthy men owe a great deal to Holtzman and a baseball tradition that is stubbornly immune to change.

They are beneficiaries of what is a defunct baseball philosophy that allows a small group of relief pitchers to be monumentally overpaid.

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