The Closers Work Their Magic Yet Again in 2015

I won't let go of the closers. I must admit, I'm obsessed. I just continually see nonsense and I can't help myself. When will I rest content? I guess when the baseball world abandons this newly-minted position and the teams use whom they think are their best relievers when it really matters instead of wasting them in the ninth-inning when most times it doesn't.
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I won't let go of the closers. I must admit, I'm obsessed. I just continually see nonsense and I can't help myself. When will I rest content? I guess when the baseball world abandons this newly-minted position and the teams use whom they think are their best relievers when it really matters instead of wasting them in the ninth-inning when most times it doesn't.

Let's take a look at how teams and closers fared in the just -- completed 2015 regular-season. To see the closers' influence on their teams' performance, I looked at every team's primary closer for the year. The primary closer being the one who had the most save opportunities for his team. Barring injury or trades, for almost all the teams almost every ninth-inning save opportunity was given to their "closer." Obviously we end up with 30 teams and 30 closers. What happened?

A good place to start would be the closing stats for the 10 teams that made playoffs. In 2015 those teams posted a combined record of 926 wins and 694 losses. The closers for these payoff teams converted 91.5% of their save opportunities. So I wondered, how much did that high save percentage add to the teams' success? I took a look at the 10 teams which failed to make the playoffs but whose closers had the highest save percentages. Those 10 teams had a combined 760 wins and 860 losses for the year. That's a difference from the playoff teams of 166 wins, or an average of about 17 wins per team. That's a lot. The closers for these 10 non-playoff teams saved 91.5% of their chances, obviously (and miraculously and coincidentally) the same as for the playoff teams. So whatever the reason for the success of the playoff teams, it doesn't appear to be that their closers are more effective. They were not. As noted above, both groups of closers saved the same percentage of their chances.

But wait, you're going to tell me I've ignored the other 10 non-playoff teams whose closers were not as successful. The remaining 10 non-playoff teams featured closers who on average saved 85.5% of their chances. The combined record for those 10 non-playoff teams with the poorest closers was 743 wins against 875 losses. So the 10 teams with the worst closers won 183 fewer games, or about 18 games per team, than the playoff teams. How much of that 18 games per team can we attribute to the closers?

The entire group of 10 closers with the worst save percentages converted 6% fewer of their opportunities than the best group. In the 317 save opportunities the worst group had, a 6% difference is a total of 19 blown saves. That translates into a combined 10 to 12 losses for 10 teams, or about one more loss per team attributable to poor performance by this group of closers. One game per team difference in the standings of the teams with the worst closers and the playoff teams. Although I have not obtained the statistics, it seems possible that the closers for the playoff teams entered the ninth-inning with larger average leads them the closers for the teams lower in the standings. If that were the case, then the difference attributable to the closers would really be less than one game per team.

What do you get by paying closers a lot? Let's do an audit. In 2015 eight teams used closers who had essentially no experience finishing games with their teams leading. None of them had ever been designated as his team's "closer." The highest salary any of these eight earned in 2015 was $547,000 (major league minimum salary in 2015 was $507,500). The combined salary for these eight neophyte closers was $4.3 million. Let's compare their performance to those of the eight highest-paid closers.

In 2015 the eight highest-paid closers earned a combined $75 million, or about $71 million more than the eight rookies. That's just shy of $9 million more for each of the eight top earning guys. What did the high-paying teams get for their money? They got a combined save percentage of 90.6. The eight rookie closers successfully converted 89.6% of their chances. This is a different of 1% in 316 chances, or about three additional blown saves combined for all eight of the rookie closers over the entire season. This translates into about .4 blown saves per team, which in turn translates into about .2 wins per team. So, on average, by spending about $9 million more, each of the teams with the highest priced closers moved up in the standings by about 1/5 of one game over the entire 162 game season. If you were the team owner, what would you pay for that?

Now, I am absolutely certain that the baseball establishment (and about a gazillion fans too) will tell me that these 30 closers represent the best relievers on their teams who are able to withstand the unbearable pressure of the ninth-inning. Could it be this pressure is just manufactured in their minds and just the result of baseball's orthodoxy? Tell me, which of the following situations has the least pressure on the pitcher:

1. Enter a game leading by three runs with no one on and no one out in the ninth-inning.

2. Enter a tied game with no one on and no one out in the ninth-inning.

3. Enter a tied game with bases-loaded and no one out in the seventh inning.

If I'm the pitcher, given the choice of these three options, I cheerfully assume the pressure of situation 1 any day, any place, any time. If the closer really is the best reliever on the team who can withstand the most pressure, why would you use him in situation 1 when the chance of winning the game is over 96% regardless of who's pitching? In situation 2 the odds are 50-50, while in situation 3 the team is really in trouble and needs a truly great performance to save the day.

It's now been two long years for the Yankees since their star closer, Mariano Rivera, retired. How have they managed without him? How do you replace the guy who is rightfully called the greatest closer of all time?

You do it by handing the ball to a major-league reliever and giving him the job and the title. For 2010 through 2013, Rivera's last four seasons with the Yankees, his save percentage was between 83 and 90. The 83 was achieved in 2012 when he was injured and only able to save five of his six chances that year. If we eliminate that low year, his average for the remaining three years was 87. In 2014 the Yankees took David Robertson from middle relief and turned him into their closer. His save percentage was 89. Robertson became a free agent after 2014 and moved on to the Chicago White Sox. They cheerfully paid him $11.5 million for 2015. He responded with second-lowest save percentage of any of the 30 major league closers.

In 2015 the Yankees, trying to recover from the loss of their closer for the second consecutive year, picked up Andrew Miller and turned him into their closer. Did they sign him because of his vast experience as a major league closer? Before he joined the Yankees, Miller had recorded one save in three chances over his entire 8 year major-league career. But not to worry. With the Yankees he saved 95% of his chances - 36 games in 38 opportunities. Over 2014 and 2015 the Yankee closers saved 89 and 95 percent of their changes, while Rivera's career average was 89. It's like they say about the graveyard - it's full of indispensable people.

After Rivera, the other recent God of closers is Joe Nathan. He has one of the highest save percentages of all time and closed for the Tigers in 2014 as they won their division with a 90-72 record. I guess he had an off year in 2014, saving only 35 games in 42 opportunities for a rather dismal save percentage of 83. But the Tigers won their division anyway.

Nathan pitched only one third of an inning in 2015 before injuries sidelined him for the rest of the season. That year the Tigers finished last in their division, with a record of 74-87 - 20 1/2 games out of first place. They must have sorely missed him. His replacement, Joakim Soria, saved 88% of his opportunities. But we just saw that Nathan saved only 83% of his chances in 2014 as the Tigers won their division. Soria had a higher save percentage, yet the team won 16 fewer games. Maybe it's just Nathan's presence in the clubhouse that's worth 16 games. Or could it be that a major league baseball team carrying a lead into the ninth-inning has a very high probability of winning, regardless of the closer?

2015 was not the first time a team lost Nathan for the year without any significant decline in performance by his replacements. In 2009 Nathan saved 47 games for the Twins, following on the heels of 39 saves in 2008. But in 2010 he was injured and forced to sit out the whole year. His two replacements saved 86% of their chances, or about 3% less than Nathan had saved over the prior two years. Since the two replacements had 43 save opportunities, this 3% difference translates into about 1.3 additional blown saves. Since not every blown save results in a loss, the difference in the Twin's win total was statistically less than one game. If the two replacements were just 1 game less efficient, what's the fuss over Nathan?

Aristotle, in about 350 BC, said that the sun revolved around the earth. That view held sway for about 2000 years until Copernicus demonstrated otherwise. I hope we don't have to wait that long for baseball to wake up in evaluating the importance (or lack thereof?) of the closer.

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Leland Faust is a financial expert, author, speaker and triathlete. He is the founder of CSI Capital Management and served as Chief Investment Officer for 33 years,managing over 1.5 billion. He is one of only two investment advisors to be included in the list of 100 most powerful people in sports by the Sporting News. He's was selected by Barron's as one of the top independent investment advisors in the country. He is first book is scheduled to be released in 2016. Follow Leland on twitter @LelandFaust

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