At New English D we’re very critical of the save statistic because not only does it not reflect actual performance, but it has also affected the way managers actually use their bullpens. Managers chase saves which results in using their best relievers in the wrong situations. I won’t rehash the problems, but you can check out the whole rationale in the bullpen section of our Stat Primer page.
What I’d like to do is identify the The Nine Worst One Inning Saves in MLB History. Below you’ll find a list of the most ridiculous appearances in which a reliever was credited with a “save.” The argument here is that a three up three down inning with 3 strikeouts results in a save and is valued identically to these appearances in the save column.
In order to gather this list, I sorted every save since the stat became official in the late ’60s by the number of baserunners allowed after deleting runners who reached via errors. After that I sorted by walks and dropped out anyone who induced a double play in order to leave me with nine. From there, I broke any ties by sorting by the number of times each pitcher missed the strike zone. The only reason I was hunting for nine is because this is part of our The Nine series. A list of 11 or 13 would make the same point. I was just trying to find the absolute worst 1 inning saves in history. Let’s do it. Each of these appearances are 1 inning saves with 5 total baserunners:
You’ll notice most of these are quite recent. Managers didn’t used to only call on pitchers for one inning saves and they used to pull relievers who pitched terribly before things got this bad. All of these pitchers earned a save for these performances. If you can get a save for pitching like this, how much is a save really worth?
At New English D we do not approve of the way modern bullpens are managed. We don’t appreciate the way managers chase “saves” and only go to proven closers in perfectly aligned save situations. We believe this to be an inefficient and illogical use of resources. If you’d like to catch up on the theory behind these views, here are three pieces we’ve publish this year on the subject that tell a pretty complete story:
But for now, as an exercise in the ridiculousness of closers and an exercise in fun baseball history, I present to you, The Nine Worst Seasons by Closers.
The rules are simple. Since “Saves” became an official statistic in 1969, there have been 5088 individual qualifying reliever seasons and among those there have been 557 relievers to get 30 or more save opportunities in a given season. Full disclosure, “Blown Saves” are not recorded in the first few years of the sample, so it’s possible I’m missing a few relievers who had 30 save opportunities because I added saves and blown saves to get save opps. The rankings below are determined by Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) because I believe that to be the best measure of pitcher performance because it takes into account strikeouts, walks, and homeruns without punishing anyone for bad defense or rewarding anyone who allows inherited runners to score. xFIP isn’t available for all of the years in question and WAR is a counting stat, so it would be misleading when comparing pitchers who threw a considerably different number of innings. (FYI: The average number of blown saves among pitchers who had at least 30 SVO in a season is 6. The average SV% in the sample is 85%.) You can find full stats for the relievers below here (Worst Closers).
9. Bobby Thigpen (1991 White Sox)
30 for 39 in SVO, 3.49 ERA, 5.18 FIP
8. Jorge Julio (2003 Orioles)
36 for 44 in SVO, 4.38 ERA, 5.20 FIP
7. Rocky Biddle (2003 Expos)
34 for 41 in SVO, 4.65 ERA, 5.26 FIP
6. Brad Lidge (2009 Phillies)
31 for 42 in SVO, 7.21 ERA, 5.45 FIP
5. Jeff Montgomery (1996 Royals)
24 for 34 in SVO, 4.26 ERA, 5.67 FIP
4. Jason Isringhausen (2006 Cardinals won World Series)
33 for 43 in SVO, 3.55 ERA, 5.70 FIP
3. Ambiorix Burgos (2006 Royals)
18 for 30 in SVO, 5.60 ERA, 5.89 FIP
2. Jose Mesa (1999 Mariners)
33 for 38 in SVO, 4.98 ERA, 5.92 FIP
1. Shawn Chacon (2004 Rockies)
35 for 44 in SVO, 7.11 ERA, 6.57 FIP
I’m fully aware that a list of the worst people to ever do something doesn’t prove much, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Seven of the nine worst closers in baseball history got 30 saves during their worst season. That has to tell you something about how easy it is to accumulate saves.
Also of note: The worst closer on this list who only blew one save is Fernando Rodney of the 2009 Tigers. He was 37/38 despite a 4.40 ERA and 4.56 FIP. Ah, the good old days.
Alright guys, it’s time to have the talk. We’ve been putting it off for a while, but I think you’re ready. You’re starting to ask questions, and you should hear it from me.
Closers don’t matter.
I’m exaggerating a little bit. They matter because they’re one of your seven relievers and tend to pitch in close games. So it’s important that they aren’t bad, but they don’t matter in the way you think they do.
This is of importance because Tigers closer in waiting Bruce Rondon has struggled in Spring Training and everyone is starting to panic. “The Tigers need a proven closer!” they will say. “Rondon isn’t up to the task, we must find the Tigers a closer!” they are already saying.
But closers are just not as important as everyone thinks. You don’t need an experienced closer. You don’t need a closer at all. The Tigers would be great going closer by committee or to use Rondon. Or anyone who is reasonably competent.
Saves Are Made Up
Saves are arbitrary. A three run or fewer lead? Bring in the closer! Four runs, forget about it. Why is it that a four run lead against the Angels isn’t a save but a three run lead against the Astros is? It makes no sense. You can also receive a save when you pitch horribly. If you come in with a three run lead and walk three and give up a hit, but then get the next three guys out, you get a save despite allowing more baserunners than outs.
Save are not a measure of performance, they are a measure of opportunity. If you gave the best reliever in baseball 50 save opportunities he would get 48 or 49 saves. If you gave the median reliever 50 save opportunities, he would get 44 or 45 saves. It does not require any sort of special skill to be a closer above and beyond pitching in any other inning.
The Ninth Inning Isn’t Always the Most Important
Why have we decided the last three outs are the most important and most difficult outs to get? If the middle of the order is up in the seventh inning of a one run game, that is when you should use your best reliever. If your closer is your best reliever, he should come into the game when it is most on the line.
If we were to assume that your closer is your best reliever, he should be used when you have the most to lose. That isn’t always the ninth inning. Don’t save him for an inning that might not come. The ninth inning is no different from any other inning.
Anyone Can Close
Think about this. A team’s All-Star closer goes down in Spring Training and will miss the whole season. They’re in trouble right? Wrong. They replace him with a middle reliever and they win the World Series. That happened last season.
Good relievers are good relievers. Use them and they will perform well. Sergio Romo wasn’t a proven closer and now, all of a sudden, he is one.
There is no closer mentality or proven closer mold. If you can pitch in the eighth inning, you can pitch in the ninth. We’ve seen middle relievers become closers and we’ve seen lots of critical innings come and go with closers waiting for a save that never came.
I realize I’m trying to make two points at once, so let me break it down. 1) Anyone who is a reasonable good reliever can pitch in the closer role and rack up saves. 2) The idea of a closer who pitches the ninth inning of close games is silly.
Both points are relevant to the current Tigers situation, so let’s take them in turn.
First, Rondon can close. So can Dotel, Benoit, or Coke. You don’t need any special skills. They are all capable relievers who could easily thrive in the ninth inning because they have shown they are able to perform in the 6th, 7th, and 8th inning. Maybe you might think that Rondon hasn’t earned his keep, and I suppose we could discuss if he is actually not ready to pitch in the majors at all, but I think that he is. And I think he would be perfect for the role.
I think that, because of point number 2. Turning your relief ace into a closer who has a very limited job description means you can’t use him when you need him earlier in games. So, why not use your third best reliever as your closer and leave your best two guys to pitch when you need them more?
That’s exactly what you should do. If I can’t win the war and eliminate the position of closer entirely, what if instead, we just didn’t use our best reliever for that spot and instead, recognized that we can get the most out of our bullpen by using our best reliever in a more flexible fashion.
I want Dotel, Benoit, and Coke available to pitch whenever I need them. If that is the 6th inning, so be it. They are better than Rondon right now, so I’d rather have them for earlier in the game if I get into a jam. Rondon, being the closer, will always get to start with no one on base and will only pitch when he doesn’t have to rush to warm up. He’ll know in advance he’s pitching, so he won’t need to get loose in a hurry.
Hmmm. A young, erratic reliever with a ton of potential. What’s the best way to use him? In situations with no one on base after a well-paced warm up. Sounds exactly like the closer role to me.
Now it may be the case the Rondon simply isn’t ready for big league pitching. If that proves to be the case after Spring Training (Guys, it’s been two weeks!), then he should spend time in Toledo and we shouldn’t bother having a closer at all.
Saves are all in our heads. There is no latent save. It was made up in the 70s by a sportswriter who was apparently too dense to look at strikeouts and ERA. You shouldn’t get special credit for getting three outs in the ninth when someone else just got three outs in the eighth. Managers should use the reliever best suited for each situation as it comes up. If that means Coke in the 7th, Dotel in the 8th, Rondon in the 9th, great. If it means a different order, that’s fine too.
I’m not worried for a second about Rondon in the closer role. In fact, I would advocate for it. It’s better to have your best guys available to pitch in any inning rather than pigeonholed into a single one.
Of the ten closers with the most saves in 2012, only four had more than 10 saves in 2011. Good pitchers will get saves and there’s a good case to be made that you’re wasting your best reliever if you make him your closer.
Your closer isn’t any more important than your eighth inning guy. Or your seventh inning guy. Your closer is someone who gets saves, and saves don’t count in the standings.
So I hope the Tigers go with Rondon or Dotel or anyone on the current roster. They don’t need to sign a proven closer because you don’t have to be proven to succeed in the closer’s role and the closer’s role doesn’t even matter that much to begin with.
Unless you’re playing fantasy baseball. Then it matters a lot.
What do you think? Is Rondon the right fit for the closer’s role? Do we overvalue closers? If you answered anything but yes to the last question, read this article again and again until your answer changes.