Moneyball-inspired thinkers are turning their attention to closers in their search for positions that can be budgeted more efficiently. AL teams have already reconsidered the value of the DH and now are scrutinizing closers.
Closer is the position that sustained the most turnover this past offseason, as Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Cordero, Ryan Madson, Huston Street, Andrew Bailey, Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Melancon are in different spring training camps than they were 12 months ago.
Another guy, Neftali Feliz, has been moved out of Texas' bullpen.
Why the changes?
Teams are recognizing there is no need to pay a premium for a guy to amass 40 saves (eight players did in 2011) or even 30 (19 did) because so many of those saves are meaningless.
Closers' compensation has historically been highly statistically correlated to saves and save percentage. However, this phenomenon overlooks the striking variability in saves.
That variability is between one-run saves, where the first batter faced is a potential tying or leading run, and two- or three-run saves, where the first batter faced is not the tying run.
Analysis of all 28 closers who produced 20 or more saves in 2011 reveals the following:
These 28 closers appeared in a cumulative 1,127 saves and hold opportunities, and 239 were three-runners and of the 239, only four ended up as blown saves, a mere 1.7 percent failure rate. A total of 404 were two-runners and of the 404, only 36 ended up as blown saves, a 8.9 percent failure rate.
A total of 484, only 43 percent, were one-runners and 99 ended up as blown saves, a 20.5 percent failure rate.
So closer valuation deliberations should be weighted towards performance in one-run situations. There are typically only 16 to 20 of these per team per year and in fact, the 484 divided by the 28 closers yields an average 17.3 one-run closes per guy.
A three-run close is nearly a sure thing and serves only to inflate closer numbers. In these situations teams would be better served by employing an alternative reliever.
Closers Drew Storen, Brandon League and Chris Perez ranked seventh, 10th and 13th in saves on the previously mentioned ESPN site, respectively, yet they deserve far higher rankings in terms of performance assessment.
They attained 20, 19 and 19 one-run saves respectively, exceeding the totals of some of their more illustrious peers including: Mariano Rivera, who amassed 15; Bell, who had 16; and Papelbon, only with nine. Madson may well have languished in free agency as long as he did because his mere 10 one-run save situations suggest he has not been adequately "tested."
Storen, League and Perez also attained a success rate exceeding the group average of 79.5 percent in these one-run settings (20.5 percent fail rate). Storen converted 20-of-24 for 83.3 percent, League was 19-of-23 for 82.6 percent and Perez was tops at 19-of-22 at 86.8 percent. It should be noted that saves leader Jose Valverde, who produced 49 saves, was 16-of-16 for 100 percent in one-run settings.
At the other extreme, there were eight of the 28 prominent closers who failed in 25 percent of more of their one-run closing opportunities. Kevin Gregg blew six of 17, 35.3 percent, of his one-run save opportunities. Jordan Walden, Joakim Soria and Feliz are others who failed in more than 30 percent of the one-run settings. Fernando Salas, Kyle Farnsworth, Carlos Marmol and Papelbon were the other four who struggled.
Veteran closers such as Rivera, Valverde, J.J. Putz are accorded so much respect by their teams' management that they are allowed to close three-run games out of deference to their closer roles when in fact there is no need to risk overusing them in such benign circumstances. These three guys closed 11,15 and 11 three-run games respectively and were 41-of-41 in doing so.
Certainly closers' agents, aware of the correlation between saves and salary, have emphasized "getting the numbers" to their clients as a means of commanding top dollars in negotiations. Also, a certain gunslinger imagery has evolved around the closer role as evidenced by the fact that many of these guys enter games to their own customized music selection. So teams have been inclined to accede to the "closer must close" mentality.
Look for Tampa Bay to lead the rebellion in closer appraisal and use. In 2010, the Rays' tolerance in allowing then-closer Rafael Soriano to close 11-of-11 one-runners and 17-of-18 two-runners enabled him to secure a huge free-agent contract with the Yankees.
In 2011 the Rays shifted to a more unconventional "closer by committee," employing Farnsworth but substituting Joel Peralta in non-one-run save situations on Sept. 12, Sept. 18 and Sept. 25. Why allow Farnsworth those easy saves which would serve only to inflate his value as a 2013 impending free agent?
Look for the St. Louis Cardinals to juggle Salas and Jason Motte in similar fashion and for Boston to do the same with Bailey and Melancon. Few teams will emulate the Philadelphia Phillies paying Papelbon $50 million over four years.
Teams have used the three-run saves as a means of massaging hurt, perceived fragile egos. The logic is to maintain the closer's confidence after he has suffered one or two blown saves. Rookie All-Stars Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel were periodically coddled in this manner and it makes sense to do so when the closer is early in his career and the team has arbitration control over him for years to come.
However, babysitting veterans like the Chicago Cubs' Marmol is going to diminish. In 2011, shortly after Marmol blew saves on April 3, April 20, June 5, July 8 and Aug. 16, he was permitted to close easy games April 4, April 23, June 8, July 9 and Aug. 20.
New GM Theo Epstein is unlikely to endorse this pampering of Marmol because he does not want to have to later pay a premium to a closer that management had to nurse. Bob Warja, in his Dec. 26 article, correctly asserts that the Cubs will be better served switching to youngster Andrew Cashner if Marmol falters early.
This veteran pampering was extended to Soria and Gregg in 2011 but their jobs are in jeopardy, as the clubs have Jonathan Broxton and Jim Johnson waiting in the KC and Baltimore bullpens.
With the recent retirement of closers Billy Wagner, Eric Gagne and Trevor Hoffman and the waning years of Rivera, Joe Nathan and Brad Lidge, there will be continued study of optimal closer utilization strategy. Look for decreased involvement of the closer in protecting three-run leads and perhaps even a new definition of what constitutes a save.