I’ve written extensively on bullpen usage and the closer role. To catch you up, here are the three big pieces:
I encourage you all to read those piece to catch up, but I’m going to move forward even if you haven’t. I’m going to make a claim and then seek to back it up with real evidence. The claim is this:
Closer experience doesn’t matter. If you put a good reliever into the closer role, he will succeed.
I would prefer managers not use closers at all (see link #3 above), but let’s say managers want to have a closer who comes in during save situations for a single inning. If that is the case, I am here to tell you that you do not need closer experience to be a closer.
I took the 30 pitchers with the most save opportunities from 2012 to test this theory. The group average was 35 save chances from 2012 and none had fewer than 20. Only the Athletics had two players on the list who played for only one team and four players on the list played for two or more teams in 2012. Combined, they averaged 30.3 saves and 910 saves in total.
These are 30 undisputed closers. The took on the closer role in 2012 and accumulated saves. Jim Leyland, who is my target audience right now, would look at their save totals and save percentage and consider them closers.
You with me so far? Good.
Only 10 of them had more than 17 save opportunities in 2011. Only a third of 2012’s best closers would have made the list from 2011. Certainly there were injuries, but Joe Nathan is the only one who was a legitimate closer before 2011 other than Rafael Soriano, who backed up Mariano Rivera in 2011. Maybe I’ll give you Jonathan Broxton, but he had lost his closer tag, so we’ll see. Despite all of this, at most we could say that half of 2012’s best closers had closer experience. Just half.
Half of them had fewer than 10 save chances in 2011 and five had zero save chances in 2011. Half of the best closers of 2012 weren’t even closers the year before.
I’ll cut the group in half and say anyone under 10 save chances in 2011 is non-proven and anyone over 10 chances is proven. I’m being generous.
The non-proven closers averaged 27 saves in 2012 and the provens averaged 33. But they averaged an 87 and 86% save percentage, respectively. The non-proven closers averaged 7 fewer opportunities in 2012, but they converted essentially the same percentage as the proven closers.
These are facts. I’ll go a step further. The five closers who had zero save chances in 2011 converted 84% of their save chance in 2012. There is literally no discernible difference between pitchers with closing experience as it pertains to saves. None. None. None.
It gets better. The proven closers had an ERA of 3.11 in 2012. The non-proven closers had an ERA of 2.73.
So basically, this is the argument I’m making. Closing experience does not predict future success in that role. The 30 best closers from 2012 prove that pretty nicely. The 15 proven guys were no more successful at converting saves and had a worse ERA than the non-proven closers. If anything the unproven closers pitched better.
Jim Leyland and the Tigers have placed an extremely high value on closing experience. They signed a reliever who was past his ability to pitch in MLB because he had saved games before and they won’t turn to better pitchers because they “can’t close.” Leyland has been clear on this. I have never heard a clear explanation about what makes the 9th inning different, but I can tell you very clearly that pitchers have been placed in the closer’s role as recently as last season and had absolutely no problem handling it.
No problem at all. So while I don’t advocate using a closer at all, if managers insist on defined roles with specific limits can we at least accept the fact that you can put anyone who is reasonable competent into the closer’s role?
Leyland doesn’t want to use Smyly or Benoit in the closer’s role and has repeated said the “9th inning is a little bit different,” but there is just no evidence that is true.
You can create a closer by putting a good reliever into the role. The Tigers have good relievers and should just put one of them into the role if Leyland insists on having a closer. It really is that simple. You can invent a closer. Fifteen teams did it last season.
I’ve included an Excel File (Closers) with the the data I used. The stats to the right of the yellow divider are from 2012 and the left side is from 2011.