Who’d You Rather?
Last night on Twitter a meme instantly caught fire as #AddAWordRuinAMovie swept through my timeline. The concept is as simple as the hash tag suggests. Some of the cleverest ones I saw included, Finding Nemo’s Remains, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Adderall, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Kidney Stone. I didn’t participate in the fun but I think I would have simply submitted, The Godfather Three.
So even with the knowledge that the third installment of a beloved two-unit series can be overkill, I’m throwing caution to the wind and penning the third annual issue of baseball’s version of the TMZ staple, Who’d You Rather? Of course in our version, it’s more accurately titled, Who’d You Rather Have as Your Closer? Two years ago this exercise correctly predicted late-game blow-ups by Texas closer Neftali Feliz and last year’s implosion by the Tigers’ Jose Valverde which cost him the closer’s role before the second round of the playoffs had even ended.
Here are the traditional and most recognizable 2013 statistics for this year’s post-season closers:
Saves Blown Saves ERA
Craig Kimbrel 50 4 1.21
Grant Balfour 38 3 2.59
Fernando Rodney 37 8 3.38
Jason Grilli 33 2 2.70
Kenley Jansen 28 4 1.88
Joaquin Benoit 24 2 2.01
Koji Uehara 21 3 1.09
Trevor Rosenthal 3 5 2.63
Edward Mujica 37 4 2.78
(Based on the Cardinals’ unique situation of switching closers from Edward Mujica, who held the role for all but the last week of the regular season, to Trevor Rosenthal I’ve included both pitchers.)
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. Although the eight closers left in the playoffs are listed in order of the number of saves they recorded, (with Mujica at the bottom) as a percentage of saves converted, it’s pretty obvious that Fernando Rodney provided his manager, teammates, and fans of the Rays the most disappointment. Jason Grilli had the highest conversion rate. (In the case of Trevor Rosenthal, because he toiled largely in the 8th inning throughout the year, his blown save-to-save ratio is meaningless. However, Grilli’s ERA was the second highest behind Rodney’s, who along with the most blown saves also had the worst ERA, although this year’s crop of playoff-closers – along with the deposed Mujica – collectively sport superb ERAs. How you weight those factors is up to you. 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 that it does not in an earlier inning.
Traditional baseball managers often say that they want their pitcher to have a ‘closer’s mentality’; I don’t care if he reads poetry and enjoys Downton Abbey more than Breaking Bad. 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 the role through that prism, perhaps your choice of closers would change with a different data presentation. Here are 2013 statistics, which more closely identify skill sets instead of results, for all of this postseason’s closers, in order of batters faced, with their identities hidden (includes Mujica):
Faced Strikeouts Walks/HBP GB%
A 311 108 20 35.8%
B 292 111 19 37.3
C 290 82 39 45.2
D 265 73 24 42.3
E 265 101 11 40.4
F 262 72 27 37.9
G 258 98 23 47.4
H 255 46 6 50.6
I 202 74 13 33.0
Now what do you see? Here are a few items I noted:
- By far, this is the best crop of closers to enter the post-season in the three years I’ve run this exercise. In prior years there was always an outlier or two who had no business closing. Whether this year’s quality is the result of smarter resource utilization by managers, or that only the teams with the most-talented closers made the post-season, is undetermined.
- Let’s reveal Edward Mujica. He’s listed above as H, and you can tell he’s certainly an unconventional choice for a closer in that he strikes out batters at a rate (18%) less than the entire pitching staff of every other National League team other than the Colorado Rockies. His non-existent walk rate is helpful, but you certainly can’t have that many balls hit into play in high-leverage situations. The Cardinals were right to relive him of his closing duties.
- F scares me the most. With the third 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%. His strikeout rate, at 27.5%, is the lowest of all the closers left in the playoffs. In short, he’s got the worst strikeout rate and the second-worst walk rate while allowing fly balls. I'd want him guarding my one-run leads like I'd want Amanda Bynes babysitting my daughters.
- C is my second least favorite closer. He has the worst walk rate, but that is mitigated by his extreme-ground ball tendencies. I don’t worry about him giving up a crushing walk-off homer but the chance for an extended inning is elevated. Perhaps that’s why he’s faced so many batters this year.
- It’s impossible not to be seduced by the strikeout rates of B, E, and G, essentially all identical at 38%. You’re left to select between your preference for high-ground ball rates (G) or superb control (E) in choosing your favorite. I’d go with E as my ideal candidate for a closer.
- The other three (A, D, and I) have assorted strengths and above-average skills with no true warning flags. I’d take any of them happily, but “I” looks like the best of the group due to the highest strikeout-rate and perhaps, the freshest arm.
So, E is my favorite followed by G and B. F would not pitch in high-leverage situations for me, and by extension, I can’t pick his team to advance in a short series.
Here are the names of the relievers:
A = Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis
B = Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
C = Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay
D = Joaquin Benoit, Detroit
E = Koji Uehara, Boston
F = Grant Balfour, Oakland
G = Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta
H = Edward Mujica, St. Louis
I = Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh
Through the first nine games of the post-season (including Game 163 between Tampa and Texas) the only tense ninth endings occurred last night in both Atlanta and Oakland. Both Benoit and Kimbrel turned in effective four-out saves but Benoit was spectacular striking out the side in the ninth inning on 14 pitches. Kimbrel walked two of the five batters he faced and he does have a bit of a red flag (compared to the other elite closers) when looking through the walk/HBP lens. There’s a lot of baseball to be played this October but I’ll nominate Grant Balfour as the pitcher most likely to follow in the footsteps of Neftali Perez, Jose Valverde, and Sofia Coppala and garner unwanted attention for a poor performance in a supporting role.
* * *
I didn’t have a chance to do a write-up for the two ALDS series but I did release my selections on Twitter before they started. I called for Boston to win in 5 games and the Tigers to sweep the A’s.
That’s two references to Twitter in this piece. Anything else happen on Twitter yesterday? Well, I got into a Twitter war over the non-attribution on a major media platform of a term, definition, and concept that has run through more than 125 blog posts and an 80,000-word book of mine. Here’s the article: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9767620/jonah-keri-previews-al-divisional-playoffs
See if you can spot not just the non-attribution but the complete mis-attribution to someone else. It’s not the first time this has happened (the third separate and unrelated incident on a hugely influential online platform by my count) but given the topic and context it’s probably the most disheartening.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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