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Inside Mr. Met's Head


November 17, 2009 7:38 PM

The Danger of the Closer Mentality

As we boldly go into the offseason, an important thing to remember is past offseason blunders. In the last off season, Omar Minaya made two important moves relatively early on. First, he signed Francisco Rodriguez to a 3 year, $37 million contract. It was a move for a relief pitcher that the Mets needed considering Billy Wagner was then considered all but done for the 2009 season although many criticized it saying he was vastly overpaid. The second move was a massive three team trade that netted the Mets former Mariners closer JJ Putz, a fireballing but oft injured righthander. A discussion on a sports website I frequent (the wonderful Sports Argument Stadium) has piqued my curiosity: in retrospect, which move was worse -- overpaying for K-Rod or mortgaging the farm for Putz?

It seemed that at the time of the signing of K-Rod and the trade for Putz, both moves were necessary. The Mets have had a terrible history with late inning meltdowns (some could argue that the failures in 1998, 2007, and 2008 were directly related to a horrible bullpen). Guys like Armando Benitez, Braden Looper, and, to some extent, Billy Wagner will always be remembered as the guys who blew pretty big games. Omar Minaya is a problem solver. When a problem arises within his team, he does pretty much anything he can do solve that problem. In 2005, when the team didn't have any real superstar players, he went out and signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. When they needed a solid catcher and 1B after Piazza left and Doug Mientkiewicz couldn't hack it with the bat, he traded for Paul LoDuca and Carlos Delgado. When one of his relievers, Duaner Sanchez, got injured, he traded for Roberto Hernandez (and got Oliver Perez as a throw in, pretty much a hero in the 2006 postseason if not a goat now). When the starting pitching was an issue in 2007, he traded for Johan Santana. When the bullpen imploded in 2008 he knew that he had to solve that problem.

Francisco Rodriguez was coming off of his record setting 62 save year when he hit the open market which definitely bumped up his value. Now, the "closer" position and the "save" in baseball are both vastly overrated. When you look at the winning probability of a team with a lead, no matter who is in there pitching, the odds of a team winning is roughly 95%. This has remained unchanged from almost the very beginning of baseball before the days of "closers" and Enter Sandman (Dave Smith of Retrosheet did a great study back in 2004 confirming this). The lowest win percentage is obviously one run. Even this is around 87%. Two runs is around 93%, three is around 97%, and four or more runs is at 99.5%! The invention of the "closer" has done nothing to change these numbers.

A closer is usually, but not always, the best reliever on a team. Common sense says that the best relievers should be used in the toughest situations, when the odds of a team retaining a lead is the lowest. This doesn't happen, however. Usually the best reliever is saved only for "save situations." For instance, say we're back in 2008. If Oliver Perez has a 2 run lead with 2 men on late in the game (say the top of the 7th) and you have to pull him, who would you rather go to -- a mediocre reliever with a high FIP and poor control (like Aaron Heilman) or someone like Billy Wagner (arguably the best reliever on the team)? In a situation that actually mattered, with runners on base, where one bad pitch could be the difference between having a lead and not, why would a manager go to a worse pitcher just because the other guy is your closer? It's ridiculous.

At the same time, this closer mentality leads to issues if your closer is struggling. Look at Brad Lidge of the Phillies this year and Charlie Manuel's stubborn inability to bench him. Although Lidge did have 31 saves this year, he blew 11 games in the regular season (and one really important one against the Yankees in the World Series). According to fangraphs, every time Lidge came into pitch, he cost the Phillies nearly 5% in win probability. Saves are a useless statistic when your closer is giving up almost a run an inning. Considering how situational saves really are, it's useless to use them as a metric to showcase how good a closer really is.

K-Rod's 62 saves for the Angels are meaningless especially when you consider the situations he was used in. The Angels played a record number of close games in 2008 and many of the situations when he would come in were 3 run leads with a runner on and multiple people all ready out, or a cushy two run lead. Even though he "saved" 62 games, he blew 7 of them (a high number for a supposedly elite closer) and his FIP was nearly a full point higher than his ERA (helped obviously by the Angels' very good defense). His K/9 was down and his velocity sharply declined. 2009 showed an even more staggering decline and he was even worse. These alarming trends about his overall talent should have set off alarm bells before the Mets overpaid for him (his value this season, according to fangraphs, was only $1.5 million). Also remember, the Mets lost their first round draft pick that year since K-Rod was a type A.

The JJ Putz trade was so much worse than overpaying for a 26 year old with declining statistics. Although nothing really of value was lost outside of Mike Carp (Endy Chavez was a fan favorite but a 4th outfielder. Aaron Heilman was terrible. Joe Smith wasn't really going anywhere. Jason Vargas and the other minor leaguers projected to be organizational filler) and Carp really didn't have the ability to play 1B due to his poor defense so he was trade bait. Sean Green and Jeremy Reed were both under replacement level players this year so essentially the trade was absolutely useless. Even more mind boggling was the fact that the Mets had all ready acquired a "closer" in Francisco Rodriguez. Why go after another expensive reliever with declining peripheral statistics, except this guy came with an injury history? The trade was redundant and made little sense even then. The Mets were another victim of the closer mentality.

The reason why I'm bringing this up now is because the Mets have to look at their past mistakes and be very careful with how they spend money. The team is obviously on a budget for whatever reason and cannot throw around $12 million a year on overrated commodities. Someone like Matt Holliday is not an overrated commodity, but someone like Jason Bay is. The Mets need to look at the whole picture before they leap into the pool so they don't repeat the same mistake they did last season and overpay or trade for overrated talent.

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