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Who'd Ya Rather?

In the spirit of TMZ, let’s play baseball's version of Who’d You Rather, or in this case Who’d You Rather Have as Your Closer?  Here are the traditional and most recognizable 2011 statistics for the two closers in this year’s World Series:

                                    Saves               Blown Saves               ERA

Jason Motte                    9                             4                        2.25

Neftali Feliz                   32                             6                        2.74 

It's not a lot to go on, but typically, when discussing closers, the first thing you see sighted on television graphics is the pitcher's save totals.  In this case Motte has less experience closing (but not as we'll see below pitching relief this year) but a better ERA.  Both pitchers have upper-90s heat, so you'd assume strikeouts are the forte of each man.  Based on what you know and have seen this post-season, can you make a decision on who your closer of choice would be?

One of the supposed tenets of the sabermetric community is that anyone can close.  While that’s not an entirely accurate characterization of the belief of modern baseball analysts, it is derived from a slightly different claim.  That is, getting batters out in the ninth inning isn’t inherently more difficult that getting them out in the fourth or the seventh inning.  However, the situations (namely, the presence of extreme leverage) are different so certain skill sets are more desired than others, but contrary to common announcer clichés, superior mental toughness isn’t one of them.

In most save situations, the closer is protecting a one or two run lead so it’s imperative he doesn’t give his opponent free base runners via the walk.  He should also be an extreme strikeout pitcher because balls that don’t get hit into play can’t advance existing base runners or result in new base runners.  Finally, given the choice, when batters do hit the ball in play, you’d prefer your closer give up ground balls rather than fly balls.  Ground balls can result in double plays and obviously, they don’t turn into home runs.  In short, these are characteristics you'd like from all your pitchers, but in the highest of leverage situations that arise during a game, you'd like to deploy your assets that do this the best.  (Incidentally, "highest leverage" doesn't just mean the ninth inning.  There are plenty of situations in the 8th or even 7th inning where it's proper to bring in your best reliever and not stick to a rigid system of reliever labels.)

Viewing closers through that prism, perhaps your choice of closers would change with a different presentation of statistics.  Here is a set of 2011 statistics which more closely identify skill sets instead of results for all of this postseason’s closers, with their identities hidden: 


            Faced       Strikeouts      Walks/HBP             GB%

A         305                 86                    25                    49.7

B         301                 69                    37                    42.9

C         268                 63                    21                    43.6

D         252                 54                    30                    37.2

E          246                 62                    17                    48.8

F          233                 60                    10                    46.5

G         231                 51                    15                    50.6

H         229                 61                    14                    42.4

Now what do you see?  Here are a few items I noted:

- D flat out scares me.  He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher and has the worst K/BB ratio of the group.  He’s got the worst strikeout rate and the second worst walk rate by batter.  I'd want him guarding my one-run leads like I'd want Qaddafi's bodyguards protecting my family.

- B is my second least favorite closer.  He has the worst walk rate and gives up a lot of fly balls.  Also the strikeout rate is below average.  I would suspect he subjects his teammates and their fans to a lot of cardiac arrest.

- The other six have assorted strengths with no true warning flags.  For instance H is a fly ball pitcher but his control is exceptional and he strikes out a very high percentage of batters so I’d still be comfortable using him to close. I’d take any of them happily, but . . . . .

- . . . . F would be my favorite.  Tremendous ability to strike batters out with easily the best control of the group.  Plus, an above average (for this group) ground ball rate.

Here are the names of the relievers:

A = John Axford, Milwaukee

B = Jose Valverde, Detroit

C = Jason Motte, St. Louis

D = Neftali Feliz, Texas

E = Ryan Madson, Philadelphia

F = Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

G = Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay

H = J.J. Putz, Arizona

Note that the two I’d rank at the bottom of the list are Neftali Feliz and Jose Valverde.  This is why I wrote a few issues back during the ALCS that I thought there was an excellent chance we’d see a blown save in that series.  We didn’t, although Valverde did get rocked for the loss in Game 4, a non-save situation.  I'd especially note that comparing Motte to Feliz, Motte faced just a few more battes but struck out more, walked less, and induced far more ground balls.

Last night we saw Motte blow a save, although honestly he wasn’t given the chance to get out of the trouble he got himself into.  Pulling Motte after just two batters was a tough decision but it’s very defensible, and frankly it’s nice to see a manager depart from the “my closer is the only one who can pitch the 9th inning” thinking.  Tony LaRussa’s use of his bullpen has been nothing short of perfect since he got burned twice in the first three games against Philadelphia by not going to the bullpen, so I don’t think you can really fault his pulling of Motte two batters into the ninth. 

Given the situation at hand – runners on second and third with no outs, up by one run -- what the Cardinals really needed more than anything else was a strikeout, ideally two.  Motte struck out 23.5% of the batters he faced during the season and another 23.3% in the post-season.  Arthur Rhodes, who was brought in to face the left-handed hitting Josh Hamilton, struck out just 15.2% of the batters he faced this year and even accounting for the platoon split LaRussa was playing, the percentage only rises to 16.4% vs. left handed hitters in 2011.  To be fair, Hamilton, for his career strikes out more often vs. left-handers (22.1%) than right-handers (16.5%), although both numbers were lower by more than a full percent in 2011.   If Rhodes struck out or retired Hamilton with no baserunner movement, Lance Lynn would have been brought in to face Adrian Beltre and Lynn is even more of a strikeout pitcher than Motte.  The drawback to Rhodes is exactly what we saw happen – always a fly ball pitcher, at this stage of his career Rhodes only induced ground balls 35.8% of the time in 2011.  In this case it’s not that a ground ball would have helped, but of course it's that fly balls hurt.  Based on the way Motte had overpowered first Philadelphia hitters and then Milwaukee, I think I would have stayed with him vs. Hamilton, but that may be a call tinged with ageism more than anything else – I was still a candidate to buy a pack of baseball cards when Arthur Rhodes broke into the majors in 1991. (On a related note I was very, very single.)

It was an interesting ending to another low scoring game in the damp St. Louis air.  I think we’ll see a lot more runs scored in Arlington, and if you’re looking for the closer most likely to account for the next blown save in this Series, I’d look to Neftali Feliz.

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