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The Proven Closer Myth

First of all -- head on over to future redbirds beginning tomorrow as they start their Cards' prospect rollout. Erik and the others do a super job over there and provide a great forum for discussion of the Cards' minor league prospects.


I wanted to follow up today on yesterday’s post w/ a further discussion about "provenness" vs. "unprovenness," for lack of better terms. Yesterday I was critical of Rick Hummel’s comments re: trading "proven" players for "unproven" players and, w/ the Fuentes situation up in the air, there’s been a lot of discussion about the necessity of going w/ "proven veterans" in the closer’s role. I suppose the idea is that the 9th inning is special and only certain guys have what it takes to succeed in the 9th inning. The beginning of the 9th is often the highest leverage situation – at least, highest leverage to begin an inning – and some guys who are successful in the 7th and 8th just can’t handle the pressure of the 9th. Chris Perez, Jason Motte, and Kyle McClellan may be great 7th and 8th inning guys but there’s no proof that they’re capable of handling the 9th on a consistent basis.


The idea behind having a "proven" closer is based mostly on the idea that some guys don’t have the mental or emotional fortitude to be able to handle these high-pressure situations. They may have great stuff. They may be great setup relievers or situational guys but not everyone has what it takes to close the door in the 9th. But is it really true? Is success in the 9th based on this "mental fortitude" – some might call it toughness or guts (there are lots of other synonyms as well)? Are there some people who, b/c they lack this trait, can be successful 7th and 8th inning guys but shouldn’t be trusted w/ the 9th?

Let’s start by looking at 2 relievers. These 2 relievers were traded for one another last offseason (there were others involved in the trade as well). One guy is seen as a "proven closer" while the other is seen, by those who are aware who the hell he is, as a decent middle reliever. Both are pretty good pitchers.

Saves ERA FIP tRA pRAA FIPRAR OPS against 08 salary
Pitcher 1 44 3.67 3.38 3.10 11.1 12.9 .686 4.7 M
Pitcher 2 9 2.81 2.77 2.99 12.1 17.7 .601 1.3125 M

Both, incidentally, are arbitration-eligible again this year. Pitcher 2 has 2 years until free agency while pitcher 1 has just 1. What do you think the respective salaries will be this year? Pitcher 1’s team gave up pitcher 2, a good, young pitching prospect, and a decent middle infield prospect in order to acquire pitcher 1 and pay him an extra $3.5 M yet it’s pretty clear from these numbers that pitcher 2 had the better season. The only stat that would lead to dispute that statement is the fact that pitcher 1 had 44 saves and pitcher 2 had just 9. You’ve probably figured out by now that pitcher 1 is the Astros’ Jose Valverde and pitcher 2 is the D-backs Chad Qualls. It’s strange that Astros’ GM Ed Wade gave away Brad Lidge for the profoundly mediocre Michael Bourn and then decided that he needed a "proven closer" and gave away 3 valuable commodities to obtain Valverde, but let’s set that aside.

The idea behind this "proven closer" meme as it relates to Valverde and Qualls is that, presumably, Qualls couldn’t have done the job in the 9th – or might not have been able to – b/c he’s never "proven himself" in this role. Maybe he can; maybe he can’t but if the Astros were going to make a playoff run they needed a "proven guy" shutting the door in the 9th and that necessitated the trade. Sure, he’s got a good career K rate (7.27) and gets people out but that’s in the 6th, 7th, and 8th. The 9th is a whole different ballgame and they needed someone proven to finish the job. Having a "proven closer" will make the starters settle down and pitch better games. Hitters will be more relaxed at the plate and fielders will field better b/c they know it’s an 8-inning game if they can get a lead. Uncertainty about the 9th, so the argument goes, will lead to anxiety that will affect all the other elements to the game. But is it true?

I went digging around for some relievers who, in the last 5-6 years have been tried at one time in the closer’s role but never could handle it. These are guys who have/had good stuff and just really never stuck as a closer. Their mental toughness has been called into question. These guys can be trusted in the 7th and 8th but you need better pitchers for the 9th b/c they don’t have the "stones" to get it done late. This is not a complete list, to be sure, but I was able to find some names of guys who have blown a lot of saves over the last 5 or 6 years. I wanted to look at their OPS against in high, medium, and low leverage situations as well as how they’ve performed in the 9th inning vs. how they’ve performed in the 8th inning and how they’ve performed overall. We should witness good performances in the medium and low leverage situations and relatively poor performances in the high leverage situations. We should see strong performances in the 8th inning and earlier and relatively poor performances in the 9th. Most importantly, however, we should see pitchers who are worse in high leverage situations and worse in the 9th than they are overall. All the numbers below are career numbers.

Overall OPS Low Medium High 8th 9th
Danys Baez .711 .702 .683 .744 .650 .717
Octavio Dotel .687 .652 .729 .682 .563 .686
Kyle Farnsworth .752 .769 .768 .710 .766 .682
Tom Gordon .683 .685 .681 .682 .631 .640
Danny Graves .769 .774 .851 .695 .857 .716
LaTroy Hawkins .776 .762 .817 .744 .648 .702
Matt Herges .765 .743 .753 .815 .783 .803
Jorge Julio .744 .743 .597 .816 .687 .764
Braden Looper .723 .742 .728 .690 .748 .693
Mike Timlin .700 .652 .666 .794 .681 .705

To top it off, the sponsor of Octavio Dotel’s b-r page says, "Our stance is that Octavio Dotel is the worst closer of alltime and a disgrace to the Green and Gold." Obviously, these guys have never heard of Matt Herges or Jorge Julio.

Now the list isn’t exhaustive, of course. I took a sampling of players I thought might fit the role we’re describing. There are undoubtedly others. As you see, 7 of the 10 players were better in the 8th inning than in the 9th but isn’t it interesting that perceived "chokers" like Farnsworth, Graves, and Looper were all better – considerably so – in the 9th than in the 8th. Five of the 10 were better in high leverage situations than in medium leverage situations. 5 of them were better in high leverage situations than they were overall and Gordon was basically the same pitcher regardless of the situation’s leverage. Most importantly, 5 of the 10 pitchers actually pitched better in the 9th than they did overall. 3 others – Baez, Dotel, and Timlin – were basically the same pitcher in the 9th that they were their entire careers. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence here for the "choker" appellation with which many of them have been labeled.

While some were worse in the 9th than in the 8th, others were better and 80% of them (I know, extremely small sample) were as good or better in the 9th than they were overall for their careers. The point is this – what were you (the teams’ GMs or fans) expecting? Some of them were pretty bad pitchers; I won’t argue they were good. But they weren’t any worse (for the most part) in the 9th than they were in the 8th, the 6th or the 3rd. Yet they have all been perceived as pitchers who were more suited to the role of a setup man than the role of a closer b/c they didn’t have the "mental toughness" to close the door. It wasn’t the "mental toughness" they were lacking. It was good stuff and good pitches. It was the ability to throw strikes or keep the ball in the ballpark. By and large, if you can throw strikes and keep the ball in the park in the 8th, you can do it in the 9th as well. I’ll bet you Chad Qualls could do it if anyone ever gave him the opportunity.

Does this mean that one of Perez, Motte, and McClellan is the solution? Not sure. Perez has issues w/ strike throwing and Motte has issues w/ the lack of a 2nd pitch. But it’s not like Motte will have a 2nd pitch in the 8th and lose it in the 9th. It’s not like Perez won’t have the same strike throwing issues in the 8th than he would in the 9th. This idea that some who are successful in the 8th can’t be successful in the 9th is a myth and so is the necessity of a "proven closer." What we need is a guy who can get people out.

Lastly, I’m not arguing against bullpen roles. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a closer or a guy Tony turns to in the 9th when we have a 3 run lead or less. I’m just saying that the guy we believe can get people out in the 8th can do it in the 9th, regardless of age or experience.