Short Nerd Chief

Stat of the Day: Closers in Non-Save Situations

Posted by Fred on April 30, 2008

In last night’s Cleveland-Seattle game, the Tribe trailed 2-1 going into the bottom of the eighth inning, and scored once to make it a tie game going into the ninth.  When faced with this situation (tie game in the ninth at home), conventional baseball wisdom suggests a manager should put his closer in to shut down the opposition in the top of the ninth, and try to win it in the bottom half of the inning.  Eric Wedge is nothing if not a follower of conventional baseball wisdom – in 2007, Joe Borowski entered a tie game in the ninth inning or later nine times, and gave up a run (or more) three times.  In came Rafael Betancourt, who proceeded to give up a 3-run homer to lose the game, which ended up a 7-2 Mariners victory.

Which leads us to the baseball question of the day – is the conventional wisdom correct?  In 2007, 23 relievers earned 20 or more saves, ranging from Bob Wickman’s 20 to Jose Valverde’s 47.  13 of 23 had higher ERAs in non-save situations than in save situations, an average difference in ERA of 1.39.  15 of the 23 had a higher OPS against in non-save situations than in save situations, an average difference of .103 in OPS.  The entire group of closers performed the same in non-save as save situations, primarily because a few were significantly better when no save was on the line (Trevor Hoffman, for example, did not give up an earned run in a non-save situation).  But for the majority of closers, the fact remains that they pitch better when used in their traditional role, something with which Tribe fans are intimately familiar (Borowski’s inflated ERA in 2007 was driven largely by his 9.60 ERA in non-save situations, as his 3.73 ERA in save situations places him more or less in the middle of this list rather than the very bottom).

When pitching in a tie game, 12 of the 23 had a higher OPS than they did overall, and the group as a whole had a slightly higher OPS in tie contests (.624 vs .618).  There is some inherent bias in that number, as it includes games where the closer had a lead and blew the save, resulting in at-bats with a tie score.  In that situation, it is reasonable to believe the OPS would skew higher – those are games where the closer didn’t have his good stuff, after all.

So is the conventional wisdom right? The answer is a definite maybe. Some closers clearly shouldn’t be placed in non-save situations if at all possible:

Player (non-save record) Save ERA Non-Save ERA Difference
Joe Borowski (2-4) 3.73 9.60 5.87
Ryan Dempster (2-5) 3.48 5.80 2.32
Brett Myers (4-4) 1.84 4.12 2.28
Jason Isringhausen (3-0) 1.82 3.23 1.41
Dave Weathers (1-4) 3.02 4.36 1.34

Other closers excel in non-save situations, and putting them in a tie game makes a lot of sense (an argument can even be made that some of these guys should pitch the eighth and not the ninth):

Player (non-save record) Save ERA Non-Save ERA Difference
Trevor Hoffman (3-1) 3.77 0.00 -3.77
Francisco Rodriguez (3-2) 2.96 0.25 -2.71
Brian Fuentes (3-1) 4.18 1.86 -2.32
Jeremy Accardo (4-2) 2.83 1.39 -1.44
Takashi Saito (2-0) 1.87 0.43 -1.44

Which group is Betancourt in?  I have no idea, given that the sample size is so small.  But Wedge should figure it out, rather than assuming that his closer should always enter the game if the score is tied in the ninth at Progressive Field.

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