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The Man Who Invented the Save, Its Future, and How to Tell When Your Closer Is Done

The save, a product of Chicago journalism, changed the face of baseball. But perhaps we can do better with shutdowns and meltdowns. Sabermetricians, and maybe Len Kasper, will lead the way.

Kerry Wood chicago cubs

 

Aside from the Bulls’ tenuous hold on their playoff spot, the most intriguing storyline in Chicago sports has been… bullpens (it’s going to be a long season).

On the North Side, explosive closer Carlos Marmol finally exploded (K/BB: 0.73 in 2012), relegating the position to Rafael Dolis, whose K/BB ratio in 51 games at the AA level last year was 1.37. In other words, Dolis walks fewer batters than Marmol (14.7 percent in 2011 to 11.2 percent), but who also strikes out way fewer (30.3 percent to 15.3 percent). It’s an odd profile for a closer. Though he shut down the Braves today to lock down a 1-0 win, Cubs fans shouldn’t move too far back off the edge of their seat from the Marmol position.

Meanwhile, unlikely rookie closer Hector Santiago got pulled by Robin Ventura, replaced by reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever Chris Sale, perhaps a sensible move given Sale’s arm troubles but one that leaves previous closer-of-the-future Addison Reed still waiting for his destiny. The man who one of those three was supposed to replace is Sergio Santos, a surprise trade to the Blue Jays; Santos is on the DL. The man who replaced Santos in Toronto, Francisco Cordero, just gave up eight runs over his past 3.1 innings. If someone wants to create a killer phone app for the future, a warning when a closer blows a save or gets pulled for injury would be of tremendous help to baseball nerds.

If you’re the sort of person who believes creating a category that didn’t exist creates a vacuum to be filled in real life, the man to thank or blame for the closer is the great Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, a Trib vet who invented the stat while he was at the Sun-Times:

I think it came about in 1960.  Elroy Face was 18-1 with Pittsburgh in 1959.  I was traveling with the Cubs.  The Cubs had two relief pitchers; right hander Don Elston and left hander Bill Henry.  They were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it.  The year Elroy Face was 18-1 he blew ten leads.  Did you know that?  But they had such a good hitting team they came back in the last inning and won the game for him.  Elston and Henry were terrific.  I thought it was not fair and that there should be some kind of index for the effectiveness of a relief pitcher.  You couldn’t judge him by his victories.  You couldn’t judge him by his earned run average because it should be lower than everybody else’s.  A lot of the runs he gives up are charged to the preceding pitcher.  So I came up with the save rule and obviously it’s caught on.

Joe Posnanski, one of the great sportswriters of the next generation, argues that by defining the reliever around a single statistic, it essentially created the position of the closer. Granted, it took awhile: Holtzman invented the save rule in 1960, and the first real end-of-game closer was Rollie Fingers for the Padres in 1978. From there the position started to be refined, bringing us to a south-sider whom you probably recall:

In 1990, Bobby Thigpen had a Wayne Gretzky kind of year for one-inning saves. The record had been Franco’s 24. Well, Thigpen had FORTY ONE one-inning saves and a mind-boggling FIFTY SEVEN total saves. It was nuts. Every manager wanted a Thigpen of their own. And soon, every manager had one. In 1991, the one-inning save jumped over 40%. In 1992, more than half the saves were one-inning saves. In 1999, it was more than 70%.

Now the multi-inning save is a rarity, though perhaps it didn’t have to be this way:

Bill James suggests that if the save rule was different, managers probably would have never made the shift to the one-inning closer, that they probably would still be using relievers the way mangers did in the 1970s and 1980s, with closers pitching in 70 games and throwing 120 or 130 innings a year.

Jonah Keri, a business reporter before joining the vanguard of stat-informed baseball writers, argues that it’s madness: “Bloody battles are fought over the ill-begotten riches that saves bestow on those who can get them. Managers lose games for their teams by getting seduced by saves. Pitchers who fail in save situations get labeled as gutless pariahs.” Keri’s solution? Another writer’s invention, but in keeping with the times, it’s from the baseball-nerd collective FanGraphs. The stat? Shutdowns and Meltdowns.

The advantage is that it gives all relievers their due, not just the closer. By the box score, it would matter less where Addison Reed was pitching for the Sox, and more how he pitched. It’s less arbitrary than the save, and in that sense, more simple. The disadvantage is that in another sense, it’s more complex:

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

It’s not as far out there as you might think. The Cubs’ Len Kasper won praise from FanGraphs and its commenters for his “series featuring new advanced stats each Sunday,” and the Astros have not only added run-expectancy output to their jumbotron, they’ve got a Twitter feed for statistical analysis. Once upon a time the save was a radical concept, and it then took years for it to define pitchers like Mariano Rivera (and, on the other side, Hector Santiago). When Kasper introduces a term you haven’t heard before, this is where it comes from.

Until then, we’ve got closers. And to tide us over, FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman came up with a handy ballpark method of handicapping a closer’s future: “When Closers Get Replaced Because They Suck.” The names should bring you back—Shingo Takatsu, Billy Koch, Matt Thornton. And sure enough, Carlos Marmol’s performance over the five games before losing the ninth-inning job put him within the Takatsu-Koch range, with an 8.10 ERA and two meltdowns (not to mention two appearances where he gave up three walks and a hit while striking out none). It could stand to be refined, but this season should offer more than enough opportunities at this rate.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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