Thursday, December 27, 2012

Might as Well Face It, We're Addicted to Saves

First, go and read Jonah Keri’s terrific blog post from Grantland this past April.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Now that we’ve all chewed on Keri’s post,  here are some highlights and extended thoughts that I'll eventually get around to relating to the Red Sox 2013 bullpen:
  • Jerome Holtzman, a Chicago sportswriter, in 1959 created the save statistic, inadvertently creating the way major league teams have structured their bullpens for over fifty years.  Professional pitchers fight for their careers to get into a sacred closer role to accumulate this statistic created by the Chicago sportswriter, in order to cash in on the huge contracts bestowed on successful closers.  Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon get over $10 million a year, Koji Uehara gets 1 year $4.25 million.  Are Papelbon and Soriano three times better pitchers than Uehara?  Or do they just have better entrance music and happen to get the 25th-27th outs in a game rather than the 19th-21st?  The baseball powers that be has added incredible importance to the final three outs, and the established closers have a vested interest in keeping it that way.  Managers, for their part, are afraid to go away from the traditional model, lest they be labelled as trying to use a “bullpen by committee” when guys don’t know which inning they may be used in and when the approach results in a blown save or two by Holtzman’s statistic, the manager gets shamed back into announcing a “closer”.
  • The biggest argument for the traditional closer role is that there are certain pitchers who can handle the stress of the “clutch” situations with the game on the line getting those 25th-27th outs.  That there is an “ice in the veins” mentality to great closers that some guys just don’t have.  I don’t buy this argument.  I think it would be more stressful to come into a game in the 7th inning with the bases loaded and only one out than it would be to enter the 9th inning with the bases empty and no outs.  The key is to have your best pitchers on the mound during those moments when a game can potentially swing dramatically to one side or the other (or a team’s Win Probability begins to swing).  
  • Two of the best closers in the game last year, according to Keri’s statistic SD/MD, which we’ll get to in a moment, were Fernando Rodney and Jim Johnson.  Both were AL East pitchers, and both came into 2012 with huge question marks.  Johnson had been a middle relief or setup guy for most of his career and Rodney had sucked so bad in Anaheim’s bullpen the year before they let him go.  Were these two guys known for having ice water in their veins?  No!  For whatever reason, they fixed their control a year ago (Johnson and Rodney had a sub-2.00 BB/9 for the first time in their careers a year ago, Rodney down from 7.9 in 2011. 7.9!!!).  These two guys were not good closers in 2012 because they have ice water in their veins, they were good because they threw strikes.

  • So if you read the Keri post that I linked to above, then this is redundant, but he brings up a very interesting statistic called SD/MD, or Shutdowns and Meltdowns.  The statistic is dependent on another statistic called Win Probability, which measures the probability of a team winning a game after every out is recorded in a percentage.  A pitcher gets a Shutdown if his team’s Win Probability is 6% higher or more when he leaves the game than when he came into it.  A pitcher gets a meltdown if his team’s Win Probability is 6% lower or more when he leaves the game as when he came into it.  What this stat does effectively is measure all bullpen pitchers, regardless of what inning they pitch in or what number out they record in a game.  Check out the list of most Shutdowns in 2012.  The guys we think of as the best relievers in the game (Chapman, Kimbrel, Papelbon, etc) still get their due with SD/MD.  
  • The Red Sox should do away with saves.  The Sox should train their relievers to be ready to pitch in any inning.  If a starter is tiring in the 6th and there are two runners on with a one-run lead and the opponent’s 3-4-5 hitters coming up, then Hanrahan should come in right then.  Why do teams employ their fourth-best bullpen pitcher in this situation when it could very well end up being the highest-leverage situation of the entire game?  Instead, why doesn’t it make sense to bring in your best pitcher in the sixth inning described above, and have the rest of your guys get clean innings in the 7th-9th?  By that time your offense may have added insurance runs if you kept the lead in the 6th.  The Sox should adopt Keri’s SD/MD statistic to track the performance of each bullpen pitcher, since there are no good stats to determine how good bullpen guys have been beyond saves and holds (Quick! Define the hold stat.  I bet you can’t.  I can’t either.), and then match their pitchers’ performance with identifying high-leverage situations when the Win Probability chart has potential to swing, regardless of inning!
  • Alas, the Red Sox will not do away with saves, or the traditional closer role.  John Farrell already announced that Hanrahan will be our traditional-role closer in 2013.  This means Bailey will probably be traded or asked to take on a traditional setup man role, risking his earning potential in the save-driven bullpen pitcher contract market.  As a compromise, I propose the following as a stopgap before petitioning the Sox to banish the save again in 2014:
  • The Red Sox should make Andrew Bailey their “Stopper”.  They insist on having Hanrahan handle the 9th inning, and the starters should be able to most nights handle the first five innings, so the bullpen’s job boils down to the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings.  If our starting pitching is as competent as it has potential to be, then this may be reduced a lot of nights to just the 7th and/or 8th.  So the Stopper role is to come in during what is most likely to be the highest defensive leverage situation in the 6th-8th inning, based on score, baserunners, opponents’ batters due up, and teammate/pitcher already on the mound.  For instance, if there is a tiring Ryan Dempster on the mound in the 6th, and he just walked a batter to put two on with two outs with the 4-5-6 hitters coming up, it’s Stopper Time! But if Dempster looks fresh, and there two on and two out with the 8 and 9 hitters coming up, then wait on the stopper.  Each situation within the 6-8th innings are weighed for their potential to impact Win Probability, and the Stopper is deployed when it is likely that the WP hangs in the balance.  Instead of waiting to use Bailey in the 8th inning because he is our main setup guy, bring him in when the game has the highest potential to be on the line.  
  • To link The Stopper back to Keri’s post, the Sox could use SD/MD to track how well Bailey is doing in his role, since there really wouldn’t be a good traditional stat to cover it.  That’s where the Red Sox PR Machine kicks into gear.  Make The Stopper commercials for Bailey.  The Stopper t-shirts (insert funny t-shirt idea here for The Stopper as the opposite of a Wing Man, basically a person you bring to the bar with you to keep you from going home with someone you’d regret in the morning), beer mugs, hats, you name it.  Bailey gets huge publicity for this role.  Other teams, other players, and most importantly other agents notice.  Other players want to be their team’s stoppers.  Stoppers are given contracts based on SD/MD totals.  A new market is created.
So there you have it.  If the Sox are unwilling to banish the save statistic to the bloody baseball hell it deserves, then at least make the small step of creating.....(insert dramatic movie music here)......THE STOPPER!!!!


  1. I love the stopper idea especially the part about the public relations campaign complete with the t-shirts. When I first starting reading the post I thought this was going to be another "closer by committee" argument. When I read the Red Sox should do away with saves and traditional closer role I started to disagree with the idea, but then the next three bullet points hit the nail on the head.

    Despite what baseball stat geeks say the closer role and the save are not going to "go away". So if you can't beat them join them. The idea of the stopper is the perfect way to counteract the saves/closer dilemma. Create a second role called "the stopper" and perhaps it will become more important than the closer thus making the closer role less relevant, as it should be. Then ten years from now Bobby Valentine can claim to have invented it when he was working for the Red Sox!

  2. Interesting read from Brian MacPherson at the ProJo

  3. If the Red Sox and the rest of MLB are to wean themselves from saves, the first small step may have all ready begun. It is becoming more and more accepted that even though it is felt each team needs a reliable closer, that closer can be anyone that any team can grab on the fly. The Tampa Bay Rays have especially illustrated this by changing closers and whole bullpens nearly from year to year but still having a top notch corps.

    The long term established closers are down to an amount that you can count on one hand. Rivera, Paplebon, Joe Nathan, JJ Putz or Heath Bell ( maybe). I am forgetting anyone else ( Soria, hurt and Velvarde, crashed and burned).

    If baseball grasped the idea of not needing or paying for a lpng term closer, maybe the acceptance of a relief stopper will not be too far behind.