As baseball season gets into full swing, we hear lots of buzz about the closer -- baseball's newest position. Is the newly-minted closer worth the adulation and the money, or is the mystique just a myth?
For over a century baseball had nine positions on the field. Then came the designated hitter and more recently the feared closer. The DH is a specialist, playing only offense. The closer is a specialist too -- a relief pitcher coming to work the ninth inning with his team ahead by no more than three runs. But why is the ninth inning with a lead different than any other? It's not, but sports writer Jerome Holtzman came up with the concept of a "save" that gave rise to the closer, that led to the mystique of the closer, that led to exorbitantly high salaries. Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan and lots of other closers owe Holtzman big time.
The closer is supposed to unnerve opposing batters. I am reminded of Valdez, a B cowboy movie from the fifties. Ads for the movie said "Valdez is coming." Brave men shivered in their boots and women would run and hide. Now fanfare and music greet the closer and the opposing batters shiver in their spikes and meekly make outs. The mystique of the closer makes great drama, drains the team's coffers and increases the bank accounts of the closers.
The going rate for a recognized closer is $10-15 million per year, while other relief pitchers who may be just as good might get $5 million. Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan have the highest close percentages of all time -- each saving about 89 percent of their opportunities over their careers. Sounds good, but how important was that to their teams? Well, a baseball stat geek recently looked at every major league game in history. When a team leads by one run going into the ninth inning, it wins 86 percent of the time, 94 percent when winning by two runs, and 96 percent when winning by three runs. All of a sudden 89 percent for the very best of all time doesn't impress so much.
How about the contribution of Mariano Rivera to the New York Yankees over his long tenure as their closer? During the 16 years (1997 through 2012), the Yankees had the best overall regular-season record in baseball. The Pirates had the worst record. Now the Pirates' closers over those 16 years were the famous and feared, what's their names? Right, I don't remember either. Anyway, if in those years the Yankees were leading going in the ninth inning they won 97.2 percent of their games, while the lowly Pirates only won 94.7 percent of theirs. This translates into about 1.5 games per year from the worst team to the best team; from a bunch of unremembered closers to the best ever.
In San Francisco where I live, for a few years there was "fear the beard" as Brian Wilson saved games and saved the day for the Giants. Fans loved the high drama, but did the Beard really make a difference? In 2010, Wilson was the closer and the Giants won the World Series. In 2012 he was injured and pitched in only two innings all season, so it was closer by committee. But the Giants won again. In 2013 the Giants had a new great closer in Sergio Romo (who saved 88 percent of his opportunities) and the Giants finished 16 games out in the National League West.
But what happened in 2011? At the start of the season Wilson was doing his usual job and had saved 35 out of 40 opportunities (87.5 percent). He was then injured and forced to miss over a month of the season, and the Giants fell out of contention while he was on the disabled list. During spring training the next season, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article with the headline "Giants Know High Cost of Losing Closer." Really, I wondered. So I did my homework. While Wilson was away the Giants' closers went seven out of eight, or 87.5 percent. Does that number sounds familiar? But wait. The one blown save that the Giants pitching staff had was in the seventh inning of one game. Wilson would not have pitched in the seventh-inning because he was "the closer." This means to me that that while Wilson was away the ninth inning closers saved seven out of seven. Tough to beat that. So my conclusion is that had Wilson been healthy and pitched, the Giants could only have done worse. Wow, that is a high cost!
The Giants won again in 2014 despite losing their closer from 2013, Sergio Romo. They technically didn't lose him, but Romo's poor performance resulted in a demotion to becoming the setup man. Santiago Casilla took over the closer's role. Interestingly enough for 2014 both Romo and Casilla saved 82 percent of their opportunities. That's a low figure for ninth-inning closers, but did not keep the Giants out of postseason play.
Even the Atlanta Braves, who have been so smart in utilizing their pitchers over the years, couldn't resist falling for the myth of the closer. From 2001 through 2004 they turned John Smoltz, one of the great starting pitchers of his era, into their closer. Why would anyone in his right mind want to turn a superstar who consistently pitched effectively in over 200 innings per season into a closer who could be used for maybe 70 innings? Could the reason be perception and baseball lore and the facts be damned? In 2003 Smoltz went on the DL in September. Replacing him as closer were a few relievers and some starters seeking to reestablish themselves. During that September I happened to see a televised game in which one of the Braves' substitute closers saved the day. Nonetheless the television announcer dutifully informed all of us fans that the Braves was just not the same without Smoltz as the closer. He had been on the DL for 15 days at that point. Number of saves the Braves' pitching staff blew while he was out those 15 days -- zero, nada, rien, gar nicht.
Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, retired from the Yankees at the end of the 2013 season. During his major league career he saved 89 percent of his chances. In his last year, 2013, he saved 86 percent of his chances. The prior two years were 84 percent and 90 percent. Could it be the reason the Yankees failed to make the playoffs in 2014 was the absence of Rivera? Guess not. In their bull pen, the Yankees found David Robertson, who became the new closer and miraculously saved 89 percent of his chances. In 2014 Robertson's salary was about $5 million less than the Yankees paid Rivera in 2013. It was about $10 million less than they paid Rivera in 2012. Proving once again that the graveyard is full of indispensable people.
The math tells us that the mystique of the closer is a myth. In reality, if the "closer" is the best relief pitcher, it would be better to use him with say, bases loaded and one out in the eighth inning and his team tied or down by one run than to save him for when his team is up two or three runs in the ninth. Still, the buzz and the drama probably won't go away anytime soon. People want to believe in something and what better than the closer? Never mind the stats. If I were general manger with $15 million to spend, I just might get three good relief pitchers and let them cheerfully share closing duties. Or maybe a good hitter or two would be a better investment.
I am reminded of the lyrics from a folk song from my youth: "Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?"
# # #
Leland Faust is the founder of CSI Capital Management, an in-demand public speaker, author and tri-athlete. Follow Leland on twitter @LelandFaust