Over the past few days my eyes and ears have been bombarded with discussions about the Pirates Closer for the 2021 season, and in some of instances the Closer of the Future. It all began on Sunday when the guys over at the North Shore Nine were having a Q&A with Matt Gajtka from Pittsburgh Sports Live. During the course of the conversation he unknowingly asked if Keone Kela was still on the team and followed it up with a statement about the bullpen not being something he focuses on at the present time. I am in agreement with Matt here, because the Pirates bullpen is near the bottom of the list of concerns I have for the ball club. Then on Monday I tuned into Dejan Kovacevic’s Pirates Daily Shot , which is something I suggest you all should do on a regular basis, only to hear about the Pirates Closer situation again.
After that I sat down for a dose of Pirates articles and blogs from beat reporters and amateurs alike. Yes, I read and listen to information other than my own. Almost immediately, staring me straight in the face was a post that asked me oWho Is The Pirates Closer Of The Future? over at the Bucco Cove. I couldn’t escape it. The next day I tuned into Derek Shelton’s media session media, only to hear DK ask Shelton about the Closer for 2021. I respect DK, I honestly do. If you don’t believe me go check out the accolades I bestowed upon him after a recent article. It’s nothing personal against anyone, I just couldn’t understand the obsession.
Then today came, and I finally reached my breaking point. As I listened to DK’s Daily Shot of Pirates, with the main topic being the exploration of Jameson Taillon’s potential role as a closer, my mind drifted back to an article that I wrote a little less than a year ago about the need for a Pirates, or any other team for that matter, to have a closer. Now some may say my opinion on the matter is a little jaded because of this previous piece, however, it is based on a decent amount of research on the topic and the usage of closers for all teams around Major League Baseball.
Before we get into the numbers, I always like to remind people that the “save” and the “closer” are completely made up statistics and/or terms. The designation of closer in the bullpen was not widely used until the early 1990’s and the idea of a save was developed in 1959 by a young writer named Jerome Holtzman, who laid out the rules for exactly what constituted one. To Holtzman a save was awarded to a pitcher if his team wins and he is not the winner of the contest and that he faced the tying or go ahead run. The only two exceptions were if the pitcher came into the final inning with a two-run lead and pitched a perfect inning or if he comes in with a three run lead and pitches two or more innings, finishes the game and does not give up the lead. Major League Baseball and other writers made adjustments to Holtzman’s requirements/guidelines over the next 15 years or so until the official definition of a save was set in 1975. The save rule as it stands today requires that the pitcher has to enter the game with the tying or go ahead run on the bases, at the plate or in the on deck circle and that when the pitcher comes into the game his team is ahead by 3 or fewer runs and pitches at least one inning. If a pitcher pitches at least three innings and does not qualify for the win, he can also be awarded the save. A central requirement for a save is that the pitcher must finish the game, so only one pitcher can earn a save.
I realize this got us nowhere near determining whether or not a closer is needed by the Pirates (or anyone else), but I feel it was a necessary sidebar to give everyone some perspective of the origins of the save and the closer position.
At this point in time I dove into the numbers and as a numbers guy it should be no surprise to anyone that I opened up FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, amongst other sites in an attempt to answer the question in the most educated way possible. I also looked back on the research I performed while writing my previous article, which focused a lot on the outcomes of the 2018 and 2019 seasons. During those years there was a split in philosophy as to how the closer position should be utilized among the most successful teams of the time. The St. Louis Cardinals used 3 different relievers in the closer role; Carlos Martinez (48 Games, 24 saves, 3 holds and 3 blown saves), Jordan Hicks (29 Games, 14 saves, 3 holds and 1 blown Save) and Andrew Miller (73 Games, 6 saves, 28 holds and 5 blown saves). The Yankees leaned on Aroldis Chapman (60 Games, 37 saves and 5 blown saves) for the overwhelming majority of their team’s saves. The Twins operated a bit of a time share between Taylor Rogers (60 Games, 30 saves, 10 holds and 6 blown saves) and Blake Porter (37 Games, 10 saves, 9 holds and 1 blown Save). The Brewers called on Josh Hader (61 Games, 37 saves, 6 holds and 7 blown saves) more often than not, in spite of some struggles. And finally, the Rays used a closer by committee approach that involving 11 different pitchers. Emilio Pagan (20 saves, 7 holds and 8 blown saves), Diego Castillo (8 saves, 17 holds and 2 blown saves) and Jose Alvarado (7 saves, 8 holds and 2 blown saves) led the way, while 8 other pitchers combined for 11 saves, 69 holds and 9 blown saves.
As far as the calculations for the 2020 season go, it was a little bit of a crapshoot. However, there is still knowledge that can be gained if you focus on two separate statistics, WPA (Win Probability Added) and SVO (Save Opportunity), while giving some credence to SV% (Save Percentage) and Appearances as well.
In 2020 nine relief pitchers accumulated double digit saves, for a total of 101 between them in 162 appearances. Of the 162 appearances they had a save opportunity 130 times, so in the end the SV% of these relievers works out to 77.7%. The fact that not every appearance was a save opportunity, high leverage or successful (not that anyone expects that) probably explains why only three of the nine showed up in the top ten of WPA, the highest being Alex Colome of the White Sox who recorded 12 saves in 13 opportunities and 21 appearances; good for a WPA of 2.11. Brand Hand, who was perfect in his 16 save opportunities, leading the league saves, over 23 appearances barely made the top 10 with a 1.27 WPA or just slightly above average. So, chances are Colome was either put into more high leverage situations when he wasn’t closing or was just more successful in his non-save situations; because we know many times designated closers are put into situations just so they don’t have to go to long between appearances.
As far as the Pirates are concerned their leader in saves was Richard Rodriguez with 4 in 24 appearances and 5 opportunities. However, he did not have their highest WPA. That honor goes to Geoff Hartlieb, who came in at 27th amongst relievers at .76, while RichRod was second at .59. And if you are curious who was third, Sam Howard holds that honor at -.61. As a bullpen, they earned a combined -5.14 WPA, which isn’t much of surprise.
Based on all of this research, in 2018 and 2019, there was almost equal success deploying an assigned closer versus utilizing multiple relievers, as well as the fact that the closer was often used in situations where a save was not the ultimate goal. The same thing rings true in the truncated 2020 season, as even the most successful closer in Major League Baseball was not deployed in enough high leverage situations to allow him to influence the game more than a barely above average reliever. And in some instances, if a reliever is forced into the closer role it can have a detrimental effect on the game. Houston Astros relief pitcher Ryan Pressly had just as many save opportunities as Hand and ranked 6th in total saves, but earned a -.77 WPA.
Now I know I probably didn’t change anyone’s mind as to whether or not the Pirates should have a closer or even who it should be, I just hope everyone can be a little more open-minded about not forcing players into roles that may not be a part of the Pirates’ plans; whatever those plans might be. Also, maybe someone can explain to me why this became such a popular topic in middle of December.
As you are thinking about that, first and foremost, to those of you who say that Dejan, North Shore Nine, Matt Gajtka, Pittsburgh Sports Live and Bucco Cove are more reputable and know more than me, you are probably right and it’s why I listen to and/or read a lot of things other than what I put out.
Furthermore, to those of you who say that the Pirates don’t need a closer because they aren’t going to be in that many games anyway, this is not anywhere near the point of this article.
And finally to those of you who say I forgot to mention Rob Biertempfel’s article on the subject; first of all it came out after I started typing and had no bearing on my reasoning for writing this article and secondly I stopped paying to go behind The Athletic wall a few months back.