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On Relievers, Saves, and Closers

Clay Carroll

Closer, Stopper, Fireman, Saves. It’s all a bit confusing.

Responding to a recent post, Examining Reliever Ballots, reader and friend of the site, Gerry, asked about a particular line. I wrote that closer was a role created to support a statistic, and Gerry disagreed. On one level, Gerry is very clearly correct. There’s a whole story with Red Holtzman, J.G. Taylor Spink, Elroy Face and quality of pitching that I’ll spare you at this time. Suffice it to say that the boys came up with the idea for the save in response to something that was already happening in the game, not the other way around as it seemed I indicated. Baseball’s first official save was recorded by Bill Singer after three shutout innings in support of Don Drysdale on Opening Day of 1969. It was the only save he would record that year. In fact, it was his only relief appearance during a season in which he would win 20 games.

So there you have it. Gerry is right. But I want to be right too. And I believe that I am. It’ll take me a while to explain, but I think I’ll get there.

Back in 1969, Ron Peranoski led the bigs in saves with 31. He put up those saves in 119.2 innings over 75 appearances. And such numbers were not so unusual for a few years of MLB saves leaders.

Year Pitcher             SV   G    IP
=======================================
1970 Wayne Granger       35   67   84.2
1971 Ken Sanders         31   83  136.1
1972 Clay Carroll        37   65   96.0
1973 John Hiller         38   65  125.1
1974 Terry Forster       24   59  134.1
1975 Goose Gossage       26   62  141.2
1976 Rawley Eastwick     26   71  107.2
1977 Rollie Fingers      35   78  132.1
1978 Rollie Fingers      37   67  107.1
1979 Bruce Sutter        37   62  101.1
1980 Goose Gossage       33   64   99.0
     Dan Quisenberry     33   75  128.1
1981 Rollie Fingers      28   47   78.0 (remember the strike)
1982 Bruce Sutter        36   70  102.1
1983 Dan Quisenberry     45   69  139.0
1984 Bruce Sutter        45   63  122.2

And then it happened. Bruce Sutter signed a six-year contract worth $10 million with the Atlanta Braves. Oh, and his arm fell off. For their $10 million, the Braves got 152.1 innings, 40 saves, and a 4.55 ERA.

Usage might have dropped because of Sutter’s money and injury. Or maybe it was just going to head in that direction anyway. But drop it did.

Year Player              SV   G    IP
=======================================
1985 Jeff Reardon        41   63   87.2
1986 Dave Righetti       46   74  106.2
1987 Steve Bedrosian     40   65   89.0

And then came what some like to call the LaRussaization of baseball. The one-inning closer was being born.

Year Player              SV   G    IP
=======================================
1988 Dennis Eckersely    45   60   72.2
1989 Mark Davis          44   70   92.2
1990 Bobby Thigpen       57   77   88.2
1991 Lee Smith           47   67   73.0
1992 Dennis Eckersley    51   69   80.0

I like to blame La Russa. He’s an easy target, I suppose. But the real “closer” role might have started closer to 1993 than 1988. And this is where I’m claiming my initial remark from the Hall Logic post on reliever ballots to be correct. I do think these pitchers – these closers – exist because of a statistic. Note the decreased innings over past saves champs. Also note that the closers pitched just about one inning per appearance. In fact, of the six season below, there were 375 appearances totaling 373.2 innings. To me, the statistic driving the position had been cemented by about 1993.

Year Player              SV   G    IP
=======================================
1993 Randy Myers         53   73   75.1
1994 Lee Smith           33   41   38.1 (shortened season)
1995 Jose Mesa           46   62   64.0 (shortened season)
1996 Todd Worrell        44   72   65.1
     Jeff Brantley       44   66   71.0
1997 Randy Myers         45   61   59.2

And for the last 19 season, we’ve seen usage stay pretty much the same. The top saves guys generally come into a game in the ninth inning when their team is up by one, two, or three runs. They pitch 65-75 games per year. They pitch 65-75 innings per year.

Year Player              SV   G    IP
=======================================
1998 Trevor Hoffman      53   66   73.0
1999 Mariano Rivera      45   66   69.0
2000 Antonio Alfonseca   45   68   70.0
2001 Mariano Rivera      50   71   80.2
2002 John Smoltz         55   75   80.1
2003 Eric Gagne          55   77   82.1
2004 Mariano Rivera      53   74   78.2
2005 Francisco Cordero   47   74   74.1
2006 Francisco Rodriguez 47   69   73.0
2007 Jose Valverde       47   65   64.1
2008 Francisco Rodriguez 62   76   68.1
2009 Brian Fuentes       48   65   55.0
2010 Brian Wilson        48   70   74.2
2011 Jose Valverde       49   75   72.1
2012 Jim Johnson         51   71   68.2
2013 Jim Johnson         50   74   70.1
     Craig Kimbrel       50   68   67.0
2014 Fernando Rodney     48   69   66.1
2015 Mark Melancon       51   78   76.2
2016 Jeurys Familia      51   67   77.2

Certainly today, and probably since 1988 or so, closer has been a position based on a statistic. But maybe all of that is changing? Maybe?

Andrew MillerIt wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Andrew Miller was the best reliever in the game last year. He began the campaign as the Yankee closer while Aroldis Chapman served his suspension. And in April, he was used as the traditional closer. In all nine appearances, he came into the game in the ninth and threw exactly one inning.

Chapman was back in May, so Miller slid into the set-up role. Still, this was pretty traditional. He was called on the get one out once, four outs once, and exactly three the other ten times. June saw a six-out hold and another twelve outings where he retired exactly three batters. July, ho hum, nine outings with exactly three outs and one with five.

Then Miller was shipped to the Indians where things changed. Terry Francona began using him as a weapon. Check out his IP by outing.

One out      1
Two outs     6
Three outs  11
Four outs    2
Five outs    3
Six outs     3

Once the playoffs got going, Miller was deployed even more frequently and more strategically. He pitched ten games for the Indians in the post-season. Never did he pitch as little as one inning, getting four outs twice, five outs once, six outs five times, seven outs once, and eight outs once. He entered the game in the fifth inning three times, the sixth twice, the seventh four times, and the eighth once. He totaled only one save.

Sadly, I don’t think Andrew Miller’s usage since July will catch on. First, there aren’t a lot of Andrew Millers out there. And second, baseball is slow to change. But Miller was indeed a weapon. And he’s the type of guy Gerry was thinking about with his message. The save statistic was created because of excellent relievers like Miller. However, the closer position was created because of the save statistic. Teammate Cody Allen saved 32 games in 67 appearances over 68 innings. Once he got to the playoffs, it was six saves over 10 outings, totaling 13.2 innings. Because that’s the way closers go.

Miller

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “On Relievers, Saves, and Closers

  1. You’d think a Miller type would be more common in the AL where there’s a DH allowing a stopper, or long man, or whatever they decide to call it, to pitch longer without needing to pinch hit for him.
    Nice article, man.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | March 29, 2017, 8:19 am
    • I think it’ll take one manager with courage, perhaps Terry Francona, to use a pitcher in an uncommom, but closer to optimal role, before we can see thether spread to the AL or NL would (will?) be quicker. But I do agree with your theory. The relative disadvantage of having your pitcher hit makes this more likely in the AL. As for Andrew Miller specifically, he just can’t hit at all.

      Thanks for reading!

      Posted by Miller | March 29, 2017, 8:26 am
  2. I think it’ll take one manager with courage, perhaps Terry Francona, to use a pitcher in an uncommom, but closer to optimal role, before we can see thether spread to the AL or NL would (will?) be quicker. But I do agree with your theory. The relative disadvantage of having your pitcher hit makes this more likely in the AL. As for Andrew Miller specifically, he just can’t hit at all.

    Thanks for reading!

    Posted by Miller | March 29, 2017, 8:26 am

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