Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |
Closers, wins and saves


By Roger Weber


On April 27, 2004, the Cincinnati Reds lost to the Brewers 9-8 at Miller Park. After building a 7-6 lead, the Reds brought in Todd Jones to pitch. Jones promptly struck out one and retired the side easily in the eighth inning. The Reds added a run in the top of the ninth, but in the bottom of the ninth took out Jones, a typical long reliever pitching excellently that night, for Danny Graves, the designated "closer". Of course, Graves proceeded to give up three runs, getting just two outs. Graves was credited with the loss that night.


But that incident paled in comparison to a famous incident with Waite Hoyt, who, in a game on September 22, 1927 pitched eight innings of shutout baseball against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium and left the game with a 7-0 lead. Since the pennant was already wrapped up, the Yankees brought in Babe Ruth to pitch the ninth. Ruth gave up seven runs and then in the bottom of the inning hit a home run to give the Yankees an 8-7 win. The winning pitcher: Ruth.


So through these two examples you can begin to see how ridiculous modern pitching stats- and the way pitchers are used in standard ways and given names like "closer" and "middle reliever"- are.


Jones and Graves were placed in arbitrary pitching positions. Graves had to pitch the ninth inning because he is the team's "closer." It didn't matter that Jones was pitching well and clearly had enough strength to pitch the inning far more effectively than did Graves.


The "closer" position was haphazardly invented as a spot for a team's best pitcher to get what managers think are the three most difficult outs in a game- the final three. Of course, if Graves was the Reds' best pitcher in 2004, which he almost certainly was not, why would he not come into a tie game in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and the Reds in need of two outs? -Because he has been designated the "closer." It's as if managers have completely lost sight of the logic of late inning pitching.


Of course, Graves would not be credited with a "save" if he worked that seventh inning and got the third out. He, would, though be credited with a save if he pitched the ninth inning with a 3-0 lead and gave up two runs. The dictionary defines a save as "a rescue from harm, danger, or loss." It sounds as if Graves' deed- blowing a shutout and giving up two runs in one inning – equivalent to an 18.00 ERA- is a noble rescue from certain doom. At the very least, the "save" stat deserves a new moniker. Maybe "almost blew it" or "hold" would be more suitable.


Now the blown save is a stat no pitcher wants to accumulate. But anymore 31 out of 39 is good enough to merit a $5 million salary for Miguel Batista. 31 out of 39 equals a 79% rate. Even Chad Cordero only converted 87% of his save opportunities. Both of those sound pretty good. But let's take a statistical look:

  • Baseball definition of save: "A pitcher is credited with a save when he finishes a game won by his club, is not the winning pitcher, and either (a) enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning, (b) enters the game with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck, or (c) pitches effectively for at least three innings."

Under the first part of that definition, the pitcher enters the game with a lead of one, two or three runs. So we'll say, just for simplicity, that that averages out to a two run lead when he enters the game, which means he must give up no more than one run to secure a save. Under the second condition, if the pitcher gives up the tying run the save will be "blown." This often means, for example, that the bases are loaded and the tying run is on first. We'll say that on average, the pitcher will blow the game if he gives up more than 1/3 of a run. Obviously a pitcher cannot give up fractions of runs, but this is an average. He can come in at any point in the inning, whether it's zero, one or two outs, so we'll say that on average he enters the game with one out. The third is the most subjective and least commonly used, so we'll ignore that for now. Combining the first and second and doing a little math, using these figures a pitcher gets a "blown save" if he gives up 0.8 or more runs although that varies. That is obviously an average since a team cannot score fractions of a run.


Before we move on, let's take a look at the derivation of runs per game and runs per inning.


It is fairly common knowledge that the average score of every baseball game ever played is 5-3. Therefore, a team's average "runs per game" is about four. Specifically, over the first few weeks of the 2006 season it was about 4.3. Games went an average of 8.75 innings, a figure that makes sense because in home games the home team a little more than half the time does not come to bat. While the figure 8.75 seems like it should be a little closer to 8.7 because the home team wins the majority of the time, but the difference can be explained by times the home team wins the game in the bottom of the ninth. Of course, for the purposes of the study, extra inning games are eliminated and are not included in that 8.75 figure. 


In 70% of all innings zero runs were scored. In roughly 90% of innings, no more than one run was scored. In 95.5% of innings no more than two runs were scored. A little math tells us that in 86% of innings, an average pitcher should be able to give up fewer than 0.8 runs.

So is accomplishing that feat 79% or even 87% of the time really that impressive. Of course, closers probably are trying to get the toughest outs of a game. It can be expected that their job is a little harder than getting three outs in a 0-0 game in the second inning. Then again, these are players paid exorbitant salaries to pitch about 60-70 innings a year with the sole goal of securing saves.


So the man most people believed to be the best reliever in baseball based on his save total last year, Chad Cordero, actually succeeded barely an average amount of the time. Given this 86% figure, 10% of all pitchers should convert at least 94% of their save opportunities and about 88% should convert at least 80% of their opportunities. Remember that "closers" are supposed to be the best relief pitchers on a team. Trevor Hoffman and Ryan Dempster led closers in save percentage last year with 93 and 94 percent respectively. But if 88% of pitchers can convert as many saves as Miguel Batista, why is his salary nearly $5 million?   


You can see how distorted the public's view of pitchers can get when they only focus on dumb statistics. Saves are treated as great triumphs. But a 7.00 ERA is not viewed the same way despite being a figure a pitcher could reach and still theoretically perform better than a typical "closer." That isn't realistic, though, because often closers enter the game with a one run lead. If the lead is lost, then closer gets a "blown save."


Another way of looking at it is to compare how accurate a pitcher's save percentage is to his overall effectiveness as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research might define it- through ERA and strikeouts per walks*. There was a .58 correlation between pitcher performance and save percentage for pitchers with over 20 saves in 2005. This is decent, but not great.


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Perhaps these pitchers' effectiveness could be shown more clearly if they pitched in situations in which they were most needed rather than in an arbitrary consistent situation where a "save opportunity" was at hand. And perhaps teams would do a little better if they would leave in an effective pitcher during the ninth inning instead of bringing in the designated "closer" every time.


But saves and the "closer" position aren't the only ridiculous elements of baseball. Think about pitcher wins and losses. Think about the Waite Hoyt game described above. And imagine this hypothetical situation:

A pitcher strikes out the first 14 batters he faces (4 2/3 innings). Then he gets hurt and is taken out of the game having given up no runs but having gone just 4 2/3 innings (not eligible for a win). During that time his team has scored eleven runs, but after the pitcher leaves scores no more. For the rest of the game the team uses 5 relievers, each of whom gives up 2 runs. Final score: The pitcher's team wins 11-10.

So who gets the win? It's up to the scorekeeper, but it can't be the starting pitcher. Didn't he pitch most effectively for the longest period of time?


Once again we see fans following the stampede over the cliff of stupidity. If the "experts" say it, it must be true. "Saves" and "wins" are easy stats to measure, and it is human nature to group people into simple roles- like middle reliever or closer. But do they mean anything? And does a team benefit from them? Is a player accurately measured by wins and saves? And is a save really as noble as it sounds? Stats don't tell everything. But they can often tell you when another stat doesn't work. Pick up a scorecard. Spears of ignorance are whizzing all around you. Your scorecard is your rock to break their path.

* K/BB is deemed to be a telling statistic not because of the value of the individual statistics, but because of the theory that when the bat makes contact with the ball, the batter has more control over it than the pitcher and the pitcher cannot really control where the ball will land. Therefore his effectiveness can be measured by how well he pitches when the bat does not make contact with the ball.


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