Is there anything more overpriced in the world (not just baseball) than an experienced closer? Well, actually there is. Someone just paid $450 million for a Leonardo da Vinci painting. But aside from that, we will be hard-pressed to find other examples.
My definition of a prized closer – a player on whom an owner of a major league baseball franchise throws away millions upon millions and gets essentially nothing in return. I know many fans as well as baseball executives refuse to face reality, but every year that's what happens. Let's take a look at the performance of the elite, highly-paid closers last season and see how they and their teams fared. And we will take a peek at the totally inexperienced closers too.
Let's begin with the two highest paid closers –Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees and Mark Melancon of the Giants. Chapman pulled in $21 million for his 22 saves, while Melancon was rewarded with $15.5 million (average of his 4 year contract) for his 11 saves. (Yes, he was injured for a while and couldn't play, but don't let that be an excuse, as we will see.) Chapman consistently throws at 100 mph. Fans love that and maybe hitters quake in their boots; but so what if that's all theater and does not produce results in the long run. In 2017 he saved 84.6% of his chances, which ranked him 20th in major league baseball for each of the leading closers on the 30 teams. The average save percentage of those who finished ahead of him was about 88.5%. Maybe Yankees’ fans and their management feel confident or excited when Chapman comes into a game, but he's really not producing or helping in the standings.
Melancon was an absolute, total, and complete bust last year. He saved just 69% of his chances. I can't begin to tell you how terrible that is. Batters hit .301 against him. That performance would make his average opponent was an All-Star!
Each major league season obviously includes some rookie closers. For purposes of this analysis, a "rookie closer" is a pitcher who has had little or no major-league experience as a closer and who is paid close to the major-league minimum salary. Last season eight pitchers who qualified as rookie closers had the most saves on their respective teams. All eight of them were paid less than $560,000. Collectively they had 292 save opportunities and successfully converted 251 of those, for an 86% success rate. The success rate for the eight highest-paid closers (including Melancon who did not lead even his own team in saves) was 90%. This 4% difference in the success rate on the 226 save opportunities for the highest-paid closers translates into a difference of about 10 more saves for 8 teams, or about 1.25 saves per team. That in turn results in less than one more win for the season.
What did that one game improvement cost the owners? Average salary for the eight rookies – $550,000. Average salary for the eight highest paid closers – $12 million. Conclusion: one game per team in the standings cost $11.5 million per team. Is it possible that money could have been spent better elsewhere?
I live in San Francisco. For so many years we Giants’ fans have suffered through a series of overpaid closers who didn't deliver and the hype surrounding them. Apparently management seemingly failed to notice that lower paid closers did just as well. In 2016 the Giants had an awful run at closing, and it seems management refused to believe that it was just a streak of bad luck. So what to do? Sign Mark Melancon for four years and $62 million. He saved 11 that this 16 opportunities. His replacement, Sam Dyson, saved 14 of his 17 opportunities. This is a total of 25 saves in 33 opportunities, or a miserable 76%. Worse than the year before. Dyson and Melancon had a combined WAR (for the non-statistically interested fans: a measure of how much a player contributes to his team’s wins when compared to a top minor leaguer) of negative 1.17. That means that on average 2 minor league players would have produced better results. My suggestion for the Giants— take a look at Hunter Strickland and Corey Gearrin. Last year they had a combined WAR of about 4 and cost a whole lot less a combined $1,600,000 versus a combined $18,750,000 for Melancon (using his average guaranteed salary) and Dyson).
I know lots of people could not care less about history and statistics, but for the last 60 years major league teams leading going into the ninth inning have won about 95% of their games. If major league baseball teams really want to win, they should spend more time, effort, and money trying to get ahead early in the game rather than protecting the last inning by which time most games are already decided.
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Leland Faust is the founder of CSI Capital Management where he served as chief investment officer and managed 1.5 billion. He has represented over a hundred of MLB, NFL and NBA All-Stars. Barrons has named him four times to its annual list of top 100 independent investment advisors in the country. He has also been named to the Sporting News list of the 100 most powerful people in sports. Leland is the author of A Capitalist’s Lament: How Wall Street is Fleecing You and Ruining America (Skyhorse). He is also a public speaker and tri-athlete. Follow Leland on twitter and Instagram @LelandFaust.
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