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Too close for comfort

So azruavatar's story a week ago Friday got me to thinking about bullpens and they way they're used in today's game. How are/should bullpens be structured? The 1-inning closer, largely patterned by LaRussa's use of Eckersley in the late 80's and early 90's, is here to stay, of course. Much has been made of the poor way in which closers have been used - very often in lower leverage situations than the setup men or 7th inning relievers who precede them. Too often managers wait until the 9th inning w/ no one on base to use the closer rather than bringing him in during the 8th when the leverage index may be higher. Maybe the setup man will get out of it; maybe he won't and then there's nothing left for the closer to close. There's nothing new in that.

If the closer is the most important member of the bullpen, possibly as important as a #1 starter, does it not make sense that the closer should be the best reliever? In fact, the majors' best closer last season had as many win shares as Johan Santana did. Too often, however, managers select some relatively inferior reliever to close games all the while wasting their best reliever in the 7th or 8th inning. I suppose the term "wasting" is a relative term - by that I mean using him in a lower leverage situation than is optimal.

Quickly, name the 5 best relievers in baseball. Billy Wagner or Mariano Rivera on your list? They shouldn't be. The top 5 closers by saves last year were Jose Valverde, Joe Borowski, Francisco Cordero, Trevor Hoffman, and Bobby Jenks. Any of them on your list? They shouldn't be yet Cordero parlayed his 44 save season into a 4 year, $46 million contract from the Reds and the Astros gave up 3 players in a trade for Jose Valverde (back to that one soon).

Only 2 of last year's 8 playoff teams had closers who earned more than Brett Myers' $5 million (Rivera and Rodriguez). Most of the highest paid closers - Wagner, B.J. Ryan, Izzy, Hoffman, Lidge, and Nathan - watched the playoffs on TV w/ the rest of us.

Below is a chart of the top 15 relievers as measured by lineup-adjusted win expectation above replacement, win shares, and win productivity added. You should notice a lot of similarity between the 3 lists.

Putz Putz Putz
Betancourt Saito Betancourt
Saito Betancourt Saito
Bell Jenks Bell
Papelbon Nathan Soria
Nathan Bell Papelbon
Soria Capps Nathan
Okajima Rodriguez Rodriguez
Lyon Accardo Okajima
Valverde Izzy Neshek
Rodriguez Papelbon Marmol
Izzy Valverde Lyon
Corpas Corpas Izzy
Pena Lyon Corpas
Capps Wagner Pena

The undisputed top 3 relievers in baseball were J.J. Putz, Rafael Betancourt, and Takashi Saito - not exactly household names, though 2 were actually closers last year. In fact the one who isn't (Betancourt) sets up one of those (Borowski) who finished in the top 5 in saves. As for consistency of measurement, the minimum number of different pitchers on these 3 lists is 15 while the maximum is 45. There are exactly 20 different names on these 3 lists so we can say that there's certainly a lot of uniformity among the lists. In fact, 10 of the 20 names are on all 3 lists and Joakim Soria probably would have been if the list had been expanded to include 18 names.

Still we see no Rivera, no Hoffman, Wagner's only included once, Lidge - well, nevermind.

There's a lot of dispute about what makes a good closer. A lot of people like experience in their closer. Need I point out that Jonathan Papelbon had absolutely 0 experience as a closer before being turned to out of necessity last year and he ended up as 1 of the best in the game - he finished '06 #2 in WXRL. Takashi Saito, though he had experience in Japan, had none here and the Dodgers turned to him out of necessity. He's become outstanding. J.J. Putz had none, in the majors or minors, before turning into one of the game's best in '06. Joe Nathan, who'll hit the jackpot when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season, had no experience as a closer when the Twins traded for him. He was a middle reliever w/ a good K rate who they plugged in and all of a sudden they had a premier closer. The Reds, on the other hand, believing that they had no one else, gave Cordero nearly $12 M per year for 4 years b/c he had experience.

There are several problems w/ contracts such as these. The first is that, of course, that's $12 M the Reds won't have to spend on starting pitching. Granted, there's none available via FA this offseason but it still inhibits their ability to trade for a high-priced pitcher. Another problem is that closers, generally, have very short windows of success. Because their success is largely predicated on having superior stuff and the ability to blow hitters away doesn't generally last that long, they tend to be very successful only for a short time. It's important to remember that the Riveras, Wagner, even the Izzys are the exception, not the rule. It's far more common to have people like Mark Wohlers, John Rocker, and Brad Lidge than the 3 success stories. (I'm pulling for Lidge, by the way - not sure why, probably b/c he's no longer an Astro.)

The biggest problem, however, with throwing tons of money at an older closer who has "experience" closing games is the one I've already alluded to - the opportunity cost. Each team likely has 1 or 2 or even more people who can do the job at least as capably, and probably better than the present closer and can do it much more cheaply. Why, exactly, do the Indians continue to turn to Borowski and the Tigers, for the love of all that is holy, to Todd freaking Jones? B/c they have "experience" closing games. Do they have someone better? Unquestionably. Would the Rockies have made it to the playoffs, and then the World Series, if they hadn't turned to unknown Manny Corpas as their closer? Doubtful. The Cubs went into the playoffs w/ Ryan Dempster as their closer. Fortunately for them they never got close enough vs. the D'backs to have him blow a game, b/c he certainly would have. They think so much of Dempster as their closer that they've moved him back into the rotation. I don't know who'll close for the Cubs. It should be Carlos Marmol and maybe with the dearth of "experienced" closers out there, it actually will be but I'll believe it when I see it.

We know by now that the Astros are mortgaging about 5 years in the future at a halfway decent chance of winning in the next 2. In doing so, they traded Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and their #4 prospect (in an admittedly horrible system), Juan Gutierrez, for Jose Valverde. Let's examine this for a moment. What made Chris Burke, their #1 draft pick in 2001 (#10 overall) expendable? -- the signing of Kaz Matsui to a 3 year, $15 M contract. I'd bet my next paycheck that Burke would have been as good or better than Matsui at about 25% of the price. So they traded him, their #4 prospect, and Chad Qualls for Valverde. Isn't it likely that Qualls would have been as good as Valverde in the 9th for the Astros?

Qualls 3.12 1.09 57.7
Valverde 3.00 0.98 36.7

Granted, Qualls' HR rate is a little higher than Valverde's but he gets a ton of ground balls to go w/ a pretty stout K/BB. His K rate is a little lower than Valverde's but so is his BB rate. Which would you rather have? - Valverde and Matsui or Qualls, Burke and your #4 prospect. Remember, you have to take Matsui's contract as well. Did I mention that Valverde is 2 years until free agency and Qualls has 3? Why didn't they just plug Qualls in? - "experience."

The bottom line is that teams need to be willing to think outside the box when looking for closers. I'm not saying that any jackass can do it b/c that's simply not true. But neither is it true that you have to find someone who's done it before. Most every team has someone w/ the requisite skills to be able to handle the job. This becomes particularly important as, at the end of the season, the Cards are going to have to figure out what to do about Izzy. He's a free agent for real this time. He currently earns $8 M and, if he has a good year again, he'll get a good contract when he becomes a free agent.

The Cards do have Chris Perez in the minors with an eye toward making him the closer of the future and Ryan Franklin was superb last year. Franklin's '07, I feel, was a mirage, however. The only reliever in the top 30 in WXRL w/ a lower K rate than Franklin's 4.95 was Brandon Lyon's 4.86. Franklin's not an extreme GB pitcher (49.4%) and the his BABIP against was .251 - probably unrepeatable for someone who allows so many balls to be put into play.

Will Tony feel comfortable going w/ Perez in `09? I wonder. Perez's problem to this point has been throwing strikes. His career minor league BB/9 is 6.33. He doesn't, however, have a problem missing bats as his career minor league K/9 is 10.73, for a K/BB of 1.70. The most similar pitcher to those numbers in the majors last year was Seattle's young pitcher Brandon Morrow who finished w/ a WXRL of 2.346 despite walking 7.11 per 9 innings. Does Perez need to bring down his walks? Unquestionably. Nevertheless, he needs to be given every chance this spring to make the roster and should pitch in the big leagues in '08. Having a high walk rate, b/c of the very high K rate, shouldn't preclude him from making the Cards' pen. It appears that relievers can survive in the major w/ high walk rates (Morrow, Derrick Turnbow, Luis Vizcaino) if they also have a high K rate. To be a closer, he's going to have to get it (the BB rate) down. But it doesn't mean he can't be successful in the majors now.

The Cards have other players in their system who should be considered for this role in the event that Perez is traded or doesn't pan out. Kenny Maiques, Jason Motte, and Josh Kinney, if he returns healthy, all seem to have the ability to miss bats - the primary skill needed to be a closer, and one much more important than experience. Additionally, if Mozeliak looks outside the organization for Izzy's replacement he should expand his search to include those, like Chad Qualls or Joe Nathan, who have the skills to close even if they've never had the opportunity. Being able to replace an $8 M closer w/ one earning closer to $1 M will be a key toward replenishing the roster and getting the Cards back to the top of the NL Central.

On a completely unrelated note, I want to wish everybody out there a Merry Christmas. I'm a high school teacher in my spare time (i.e. -- when I'm not posting on VEB) and the sponsor for our National Honors Society. Saturday we took over $1200 in food and Christmas presents to 2 families that we "adopted" for Christmas. These families had little food in the house and nothing under the tree for the 12 kids total. The looks on these parents' faces were probably the best gifts I'll get this Christmas. To me, it's what Christmas is all about. The Cards are important, of course, but they're not THAT important. I apologize for the unsolicited preachiness but I hope we all remember how fortunate we are, that we can commisserate and bitch (if necessary) about the Cards. Many aren't so fortunate. Merry Christmas. I hope each of you has a holiday that is as rewarding as mine has been and that each of you gets the gift that you wanted most.