Who’d You Rather?
Thanks to a couple of elimination-game victories last night by both Bay Area representatives in the playoffs, (more on the Giants/Reds extra-inning affair below) it’s not too late to play, in the spirit of TMZ, 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 2012 statistics for this year’s post-season closers:
Saves Blown Saves ERA
Jim Johnson 51 3 2.49
Rafael Soriano 42 4 2.26
Jason Motte 42 7 2.75
Aroldis Chapman 38 5 1.51
Jose Valverde 35 5 3.78
Tyler Clippard 32 5 3.72
Grant Balfour 24 2 2.53
Sergio Romo 14 1 1.79
Admittedly, it's not a lot to go on, but when discussing closers, these are the three results-based statistics most often cited. They tell you how many times a closer protected a lead in the 9th inning and the rate at which he gave up runs. Additionally, by showing blown saves, one can calculate the percentage of times a closer successfully protected a 9th inning lead. Since the eight closers left in the playoffs are listed in order of the number of saves they recorded, it’s pretty obvious that Jim Johnson, with just three blown saves, also leads the pack with the highest percentage of successful save opportunities. Grant Balfour would move up to second and Sergio Romo to fourth, although you can site smaller sample size caveats in both cases, if you’d like. The point is that it’s your choice and the question to decide is this: Based on the above and what you know about each pitcher, can you make a decision on which closer you'd choose?
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 – despite what Mitch Williams will loudly insist from his perch in MLB studios. 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, the sabermetric community doesn’t believe superior ‘mental toughness’ is 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 the opposition 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. It is true, therefore, that he has a far less forgiving job than the 7th or 8th inning reliever. In the case of runners on second and third base with no one out while protecting a one-run lead, the game hangs in the balance in a way it does not in an earlier inning. Traditional baseball managers often say they want their pitcher to have a ‘closer’s mentality’; I don’t care if he reads poetry and watches Lifetime. I just want a guy on the mound with the highest strikeout rate possible. 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, 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 have the optimal combination of these skills.
Viewing closers through that prism, perhaps your choice of closers would change with a different data presentation. Here are 2012 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 307 84 31 29.7%
B 294 48 31 34.0
C 289 72 29 35.8
D 279 69 25 35.9
E 279 86 17 40.7
F 276 122 27 37.3
G 269 41 18 62.3
H 215 63 13 48.5
Now what do you see? Here are a few items I noted:
- B flat out scares me. With the second lowest ground ball-rate, he’s a flyball pitcher who also puts hitters on base with his lack of control at a rate in excess of 10%. Not only that, he inflames these weaknesses with a very low strikeout rate. 48 out of 294 batters is just a 16.3% strikeout rate in a year where all pitchers strikeout 19.8% of hitters and relievers do it 21.9% of the time. In short, he’s got the worst strikeout rate and the worst walk rate. I'd want him guarding my one-run leads like I'd want Terrell Owens guarding my money.
- A is my second least favorite closer. He has the second worst walk rate and is an extreme-fly ball pitcher. His strikeout rate, 27.4%, is quite strong but those fly balls and extra baserunners are worrisome. He triggers ‘walk-off HR’ alerts to me.
- It’s impossible not to be seduced by F’s strikeout rate. The walk rate and flyball tendencies may send up small warning flags, but when 44.2% of all hitters make a U-turn at home plate, he’s got to be my top choice for closer. After that, E is my idea candidate for a closer. He has a well-above average strikeout rate (30.8%) the lowest walk rate (6.1%) and is a groundball pitcher, at least among this group, to boot. Let’s put it this way, F may be top-ranked but I have a feeling in an auction, the comparative value would lie with E.
- The other four have assorted strengths with no true warning flags. For instance G doesn’t strike people out but he’s stingy with the free pass, and his ground ball rate is exceptional. I’d take any of them happily, but H looks like the best of the group.
So, F is my favorite followed by E and H. B and A positively do not pitch in high-leverage situations for me, and by extension, I can’t pick their teams to advance in a short series.
Here are the names of the relievers:
A = Tyler Clippard, Washington
B = Jose Valverde, Detroit
C = Grant Balfour, Oakland
D = Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
E = Jason Motte, St. Louis
F = Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati
G = Jim Johnson, Baltimore
H = Sergio Romo, San Francisco
Now that you know where, and with which team, each closer toils, there are a couple of other items to note. Detroit mitigates its bottom-tier defense with starting pitchers who strikeout batters at a top-tier (2nd in AL) rate. I don’t understand why they seemingly abandon that strategy with their closer. It’d be like a HAZMAT worker switching out of an asbestos suit and donning attire soaked in moonshine. Rafael Soriano’s lack of ground balls looks a little more troublesome to me now that I know he pitches in Yankee Stadium – especially vs. left handers. A 9th inning confrontation in the Bronx with Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, or Jim Thome this week would be especially tense and enjoyable. (Or, as viewers and fans, we could be so lucky as to get a 9th inning confrontation with Prince Fielder in the next round.)
* * *
Last night we saw Sergio Romo pitch two innings of relief and essentially save his own win, though of course, he only gets credited with a win. Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy properly treated the game as an all-or-nothing proposition and had used 12 of his 13 position players before the 8th inning ended. Once the 9th inning started he’d used his four best relievers as well. The only players left on the bench were backup catcher Hector Sanchez, middle relievers, and unused starting pitchers.
Dusty Baker, the Reds’ manager, should have taken more notice of this.
With two outs in the top of the 10th inning, Reds’ reliever, Jonathan Broxton had done a great job of working out of a two-on, nobody out jam by striking out consecutive batters, after giving up two singles to start the inning. With runners on first and second and Joaquin Arias at the plate, Broxton was in a much better situation than he’d been in just two batters earlier. However, on his first pitch to Arias, catcher Ryan Hanigan bungled the offering, the ball got away and both runners advanced to second and third base respectively on the passed ball.
Normally, I despise intentionally putting runners on base especially mildly-weak hitting batters like Arias (.270/.304/.389). Broxton is especially well suited for this situation, given our discussion above, with an above-average strikeout rate (23%), an elite, miniscule walk rate (3.5%) and high groundball tendencies (49.2%). But just as in poker, where you sometimes pay more attention to your opponent’s actions than your own cards, Dusty Baker should have walked Arias – yes, increasing the run expectancy for the Giants in the process. Why? Because Sergio Romo was the next batter and it would have forced Bruce Bochy into an agonizing decision – remove Romo from the game and go the rest of the way with middle relievers, or let Romo hit and essentially concede the third out. Either of those results would have strengthened the Reds’ chances of winning the game.
In that situation, Bochy should have pinch-hit Hector Sanchez although managers seem to have an irrational fear of not having any back-up catchers on the bench. Sanchez is essentially the same hitter as Arias (.280/.295/.390) trading off a better line drive rate for a higher strikeout and lower walk rate. Had the Giants done that, Baker would have been giving up very little putting another runner on base. The passed ball was the killer in terms of increased run expectancy, an additional baserunner at first would have made little difference. It’s not that I think Baker used faulty logic; I don’t think he even saw the situation develop.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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