Jim Caple has an excellent column up now on ESPN.com. Reading it reminded me of something I’d been meaning to write for a while. I’ve mentioned this before in the context of bashing Joe Torre, and I thought I’d expand on it a little.
Caple’s angle is basically that the “save” is the most overrated statisticin baseball, and that the “closer” is the most overrated position.
Sabremetricians among you may be familiar with Bill James’s “Bullpen Ace” model. What I find interesting is that people often confuse this model with “Closer by Committee” which is, in fact, wrong. According to James himself, he doesn’t like that model of bullpen management. From his 1984 Baseball Abstract:
I’m a little skeptical about group bullpens in principle . . . if you don’t have a bullpen ace, things can get awfully confused sometimes; one pitcher gets into a slump and then another and another, and you don’t really know who it is that is supposed to get you out of this. I like definition in a pitching staff; I like a staff with four starters, a relief ace, a middle-inning man, a spot starter/long man, a lefthanded spot reliever, a mop-up man. I like that . . . it is easier to find five guys who can pitch than it is nine or ten. When you have a group bullpen, you’re going to have your #8 pitcher out there on the mound with the game on the line 30 or 40 times a year. I don’t like that. It also means that you have to find 8 or 9 effective pitchers, and I don’t like that.
What I think is most interesting is that he refers to a “relief ace” but not a closer, and that the situation that he thinks is the problem (ie: the one thing to avoid regardless of the model) is when you have your #8 pitcher out there with the game on the line. Ironically, while many people would ignore James’s model in favor of the current in vogue “closer” model, it’s the closer model that yields this outcome more often than not.
Take a hypothetical situation, though I’m sure similar situations have occurred countless times in reality. The Yankees are playing the Red Sox in Fenway. The Yankees have a one-run lead in the late innings, and Pedroia has just walked, with Manny (thank God not anymore, so pretend this is last season), Ortiz, JD Drew due up. Let’s assume your starter is already out of the game. If you’re the Yankees, which pitcher do you want out there? If your answer is anything other than Mo Rivera, you’re an idiot. And if your answer starts with “what inning is it” you are not absolved from being called an idiot. Does it matter if it’s the seventh, eighth or ninth? It shouldn’t. This is the critical time. These are the guys that are going to beat you. Don’t you want your best pitcher facing them? Let’s assume it’s the 8th. Do you really want to pitch Kyle Farnsworth or Edwar Ramirez against these guys, so you can bring in Rivera to start the 9th with nobody on and to face Julio Lugo, Jason Varitek and whoever is batting 9th for the Sox? Of course not! You pitch your best pitcher in the most important time of the game.
But that’s not what accepted baseball convention is. Accepted baseball convention would say that you find someone to get through the 7th and 8th regardless of situation, and bring in your “closer” for the 9th. Even if it means they never come in with men on base, and often face the bottom of the lineup for three easy out, at a point in the game when the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion anyway (see Caple’s article for the breakdown of stats, that in almost every decade from the 1900’s to today, teams’ winning percentage with a lead in the ninth has been remarkably consistent, from before the invention of the closer and after). Francisco Rodriguez has like 7,000 saves already this season, but hasn’t come into a game before the 9th and has never come in with men on base. Does Mike Scoscia mean to tell me that his team has never been in a situation when the game was on the line before that?
I don’t mean to pick on Scoscia, because it’s accepted convention already. But someone has to have the cojones to buck the trend. But what’s also part of the problem is the statistic. Closers and their agents want to make sure they rack of the “saves” and the only way to do that is to pitch the 9th.
Why can’t baseball redefine the “save” to give the official scorer some discretion (which he already has when it comes to deciding wins, errors, etc.) to decide when the most important relief moment of the game was, and award the save to the pitcher who pitched out of it, even if it wasn’t the 9th. I guarantee that would change the players/agents/managers style very quickly.