Tagged: closers

Big Shakeup in AL Central

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With the news that Twins closer Joe Nathan has a
“significant tear” in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing
arm the AL central race has
suddenly been changed dramatically.  It’s not a certainty yet that Nathan
will get surgery, an operation that would likely put him out for the entire
season, but it appears that the Twins are suddenly without their biggest
pitching weapon and the entire division may be turned on its head.

At first glance it seems ludicrous to claim that a pitcher who appeared in only
70 games and pitched less than 70 innings could affect an entire division with
his absence (especially coming from a self-proclaimed closer hater), but Nathan
is one of only a handful of superstar closers in Major League Baseball and his
presence means more than his impressive number of saves and strikeouts. 

In a division without a dominant team and without a lot of overpowering
pitchers, he was perhaps the division’s most important arm.  That’s most
important, not best.  Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young last year, but his
team still finished last and may likely see the same result whether he
duplicates his 2009 success or not.  The loss of Nathan, on the other hand,
not only dramatically alters Minnesota’s
end-of-game strategy, but it kills their swagger and belief that no matter
what, if they led after 8 innings, they were going to win.  The entire
dynamic of the team will be affected knowing that they don’t have their
shutdown ace to slam the door in the late innings.  

The Twins are hoping Francisco Liriano can reclaim the magic in his left arm,
but he’s still a work in progress as is the rest of their young staff, which
seems to take a step backward with every gain they make.  Even the success
of Nathan’s bullpen mates, Jon Rauch (7-3, 3.60, 17 holds) and Matt Guerrier
(5-1, 2.36, 33 holds) can partially be attributed to the knowledge that they
only had to get three outs and pass things off to Nathan in the 9th.  Now
they’ll be shuffled into unfamiliar roles, and nothing seems to cause more
chaos in a bullpen than shuffling roles.  It’s part of the stupidity of
modern bullpen use, but it’s true nonetheless. 

With Nathan at the back end of the Twins bullpen, Ron Gardenhire could manage a
game much differently than he will with an average or unproven closer or
closing committee.  The Twins were able to shorten games and could rely on
Nathan game after game.  Since he came to Minnesota
and became a full-time closer in 2004, Nathan has converted 246 of 271 save
chances, just over a 90% clip.  Compare that to the gold standard of
closing dominance, Mariano Rivera who’s converted 243 of 261 (93%) over the
same span and you see how important Nathan is to a team who needs every single
win.  Remember, two years running the Twins have had to play one-game
playoffs to decide the division.  This is a team who’s playoff hopes could
live and die with a single blown save.

As for the other teams in the division, they’ve now got an added incentive to
get into the Twins ‘pen, knowing it’s down a man.  No longer will opposing
hitters be hoping they scratch something out against one of the game’s
best.  Instead they’ll go to the plate in a close game late knowing that they’re
facing an inexperienced arm who hasn’t faced the game-ending pressure nearly as
often as Joe Nathan. 

With Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and a few key offseason additions the Twins
will still be a top team in the AL Central, but the loss of Nathan will be felt
later in games.  In a division as close as this one figures to be, every
game could come down to the bullpen and the Twins just lost their ultimate
trump card.  I think hitters in camp for the Tigers, Sox, and even the
Indians and Royals might step in the cage today with a little more bounce in
their step knowing they just might not have to hear “Stand Up and
Shout” blaring from the Target Field sound system until 2011.

Don’t get me started on closers…

This started as a rant on how the closer is possibly the most
overvalued position in baseball. The definition of a save and the way
in which current closers are used has become a joke. They are often
saved for only specific situations when the game is not in doubt and
they merely finish off what the starter and middle relievers have
started. The idea that closers can be judged and ranked according to
their ability to accumulate saves is false.

Last year, Frankie Rodriguez racked up a single-season record 62
saves. He was widely considered the best closer in baseball and many
felt it wasn’t close. However, when you compare his stats to those of
fellow AL All-Star closer Joakim Soria of the Kansas City Royals you’ll
find something different. It’s clear that saves are not an accurate
measure of closer effectiveness, but more a measure of his team’s
ability to be leading going into the late innings and his ability to
keep from screwing it up.

The Angels played in a horrible division and won more games than
anyone, while the Royals finished 4th in the AL Central, thus K-Rod had
many more chances to rack up saves. Let’s look at the stats, give me a
minute…


W

L

ERA

G

S

OPPS

IP

H

R

ER

BB

K

K-Rod

2

3

2.24

76

62

69

68.1

54

21

17

34

77

Soria

2

3

1.60

63

42

45

67.1

39

13

12

19

66

Soria had a better ERA by .64 and only one less inning despite 13
fewer games, meaning he pitched longer per game and therefore provided
more value per appearance.

K-ROD AVERAGED 2.70 OUTS PER APPEARANCE. LESS THAN ONE INNING EACH
TIME HE CAME INTO A GAME. Soria averaged 3.2 outs per appearance, not
Gossagian, but substantial over a full season, particularly when
factoring in the other KC relievers who were largely horrible. Every
extra out Soria could get was HUGE in the scope of their overall
record.

Soria also blew only 3 of 45 save chances (OPPS) for a 6.23 BS% (blown saves/save chances) while K-Rod blew 7 of 69 chances for a 10.14 BS%. K-Rod blew 1 of 10 while the Mexecutioner blew only 1 of 15 chances.

Look at hits, and remember K-Rod managed only three more outs than Soria over the year.

K-Rod: 54 in 68.1 IP or 7.11 H/9 IP

Soria: 39 in 67.1 IP or 5.21 H/9 IP

The near-equality of innings means you can throw out any debate over sample sizes. The samples are the same!

BB

K-Rod: 4.48/9 IP

Soria: 2.54/9 IP

Since Soria was better in both H/IP and BB/IP this one’s obvious, but for the record:

WHIP

K-Rod: 1.29, very very tough

Soria: .86, Mexican tough

Batting Average Against

K-Rod: .216

Soria: .169

Slugging Percentage Against

K-Rod: .316

Soria: .255

K-Rod does get one category…

K-Rod: 10.14 K/9 IP

Soria: 8.82 K/ 9 IP

but remember all those walks?

K-Rod: 2.26 K/BB

Soria: 3.47 K/BB

Soria wins all but two major statistical categories, arguably the
two least important. Save is an arbitrary definition of holding a lead
after a certain point in a game, and strikeouts, though important,
aren’t as important as simply recording outs. Hitters were more
successful and had a higher percentage of extra base hits off of K-Rod
than they did off of Soria. The sample sizes are nearly identical, and
they both play in the American League with the DH and similar
opponents.

There is overwhelming statistical evidence that Soria was the more
effective reliever last year. Fewer hiters reached base either by hit
or walk, fewer hitters got extra base hits, fewer runners scored, his
ratio of K/BB was higher, he blew a lower percentage of save chances,
and he recorded more outs per appearance. We have every reason to
believe that had K-Rod and Soria switched places, Soria would be the
saves record holder. The only difference is that the record would
likely be 65 rather than 62.

I knew K-Rod (and his save record and saves in general and closers
overall) were overrated, but I can’t believe the total statistical
dominance of Soria over him. If saves can’t even tell us who’s the more
effective closer within one season, how can they possibly be used as an
indicator of reliever performance between decades or for Hall of Fame
conisderation?