September 28, 2010
Closing in on the Bases
To watch the top of the ninth inning of Sunday night’s thrilling (in a minimal-postseason-implications kind of way) Yankees-Red Sox game was to witness the great Mariano Rivera’s undoing, at least to hear ESPN’s broadcast team tell it. Though the Yankees salvaged an extra-innings victory to ensure the addition of at least a 163rd game to their schedule, Rivera failed to protect the lead he inherited, turning a single-run advantage into a one-run deficit, and forcing his teammates to fight for their lives against Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom half of the inning.
Rivera’s rare show of weakness didn’t result from anything as anxiety-inducing as a drop in velocity or a lapse in his customary near-impeccable control. Rather, the Achilles’ heel that the Red Sox allegedly exposed in front of a national audience was Rivera’s lackluster approach to controlling the running game. Granted, the Sox made Rivera look bad, but they managed all of two singles off of the future Hall of Fame closer. Should his performance be considered a cause for concern as his most important innings of the season draw near?
After hitting the first of those singles with one out in the inning, Sox center fielder Ryan Kalish stole his way to third base. The rookie trotted home on a single by Bill Hall, who promptly stole both second and third himself. The combined impact of those four steals was a roughly 30 percent increase in the likelihood of a victory by Boston, according to the WPA figures from FanGraphs’ play log. Though none of those successful Red Sox sprints matched the impact of Eduardo Nunez’s swipe of third in the bottom half of the inning (which contributed .121 WPA to the Yankees’ cause), that series of steals significantly impaired the Yankees’ efforts against their American League East rivals, and came close to costing them a fairly important game.
Although the “Sandman” bore the brunt of the blame for the success of the Boston ground attack, having apparently succumbed to his own somnolent medicine on the mound in neglecting to throw over or otherwise check the runners, it’s worth noting that Rivera wasn’t helped by his battery mate. Jorge Posada’s attempt to thwart Kalish’s first theft made a beeline for the dirt on the shortstop side of the bag, and his challenge to Hall’s second steal traveled approximately 45 feet down the third-base line before abandoning all pretense of flight. Posada didn’t even bother to oppose the second and third steals of the inning, failing to get a good grip on the ball on one, and admitting defeat on the other. Of course, even had Posada reacted as well as could have been expected, his efforts might have been in vain; as Joe Morgan remarked after the damage was done, “From my perspective, they’re all against Rivera.”
Morgan didn’t stop there. The much-maligned broadcaster saw a deeper significance in the inning’s events, opining, “Mariano’s going to have to be more conscious of these baserunners, and if you’re going to go into the playoffs, I think all the scouts are here watching. You’re going to see guys just take off.” After Hall slid into third, Morgan continued, “There’s more going on here than just stealing a base. Psychologically, this is going to put a lot of pressure on Mariano when he comes into a close ballgame in the future.”
My first interior reaction to Morgan’s remarks went something like, “Wait, so Rivera feels pressure now?” Per every article ever written about him, I’d thought that the 100 percent ice-water content of Rivera’s veins had been established circa October 1995. Morgan’s comments also seemed to contradict the old saw that states that good closers cultivate short memories, and never let prior failures stand in the way of a good save. Was the “Little General” right to express concern about Rivera’s post-season fortunes, in light of his inability to keep Boston’s baserunners where they were?
First, we might want to determine whether a lack of attention to baserunner larceny has plagued Rivera through his career. If he’d suffered from such a weakness for some time, surely those aforementioned scouts would’ve seen enough of Rivera for their teams to start exploiting it long before he turned 40. However, prior to the events of Sunday night, Rivera had never allowed more than two stolen bases in a single outing, even though he’d made more than a few multiple-inning appearances over the years.
Predictably, the uncommon spectacle of multiple Red Sox steals (even after that outburst, Boston’s non-burners rank only 26th in the majors in stolen bases, though they place 11th in EqSBR), coupled with the prospect of the upcoming postseason, prompted Jon Miller to raise the specter of the famous Dave Roberts steal with Rivera on the mound in Game Four of the 2004 ALCS. As momentous as that swipe may have been (really, you can read all about it), it didn’t represent the beginning or continuation of a trend. In fact, that was the first stolen base Rivera had ever allowed in post-season play; opposing baserunners have added only two more to their tally against him in the playoffs since. A grand total of three stolen bases allowed in 133
Normally, we might be able to dismiss Morgan’s concerns by explaining that the broadcaster hadn’t seen the player in question play. Given that the Yankees headline Sunday Night Baseball roughly every other week, that can’t be the case in this instance, but Morgan’s criticism of Rivera’s ability to hold runners seemed to stem from a more familiar complaint about closers in general. Shortly after the onslaught of steals began, Morgan observed, “Very rarely does a closer hold runners well, or keep people from stealing bases. Most of the closers that I’ve ever watched allows [sic] you to steal.” Later on in the inning, he echoed his earlier statement, noting, “Your closers are not concerned with the baserunners as they should be.”
Do closers actually underachieve at suppressing the running game? The archetypical flame-throwing fireman who focuses all of his barely restrained aggression on the hitter and ignores the pesky batters who’ve already reached base may seem like a player we come across with some frequency, but let’s go to the numbers. Here’s how closers (defined in a rather unscientific manner as relievers with a minimum of 20 in-season saves), non-closers (all other relievers), and Mariano Rivera (who constitutes his own reliever type) have fared at limiting the efforts of opposing baserunners, from 2000-10:
Closers do allow slightly more stolen base attempts than non-closer relievers (on a percentage basis), and the runners who try to swipe bases against them succeed at a slightly higher rate. Closers also succeed in picking off runners slightly less often. Differences that minute would seem to fall below the just-noticeable-difference threshold, but baseball men can be quite perceptive, including Joe Morgan, when he’s not expounding on the authorship of Moneyball. For what it’s worth, this facet of Rivera’s game (in addition to many others) appears to be above average, by closer standards (although this table doesn’t include Sunday’s stats), despite the fact that he’s been saddled with something less than a defensive specialist behind the plate for much of his career.
Perhaps a few especially inattentive closers have colored the perceptions of observers like Morgan. If so, we might be able to identify a few of the culprits. Here are the closers with the highest SBA/Opp rates from 2000-2010:
The following table lists the leaders from 1974-2010, a span which includes some of Morgan’s MLB contemporaries:
It gives me some pleasure that disgraced former Nationals broadcaster Rob Dibble doesn’t appear to have been much of a multi-tasker on the mound. Of course, hard throwers with high legs kicks like Dibble’s are more susceptible to the derogatory effects of speed on the bases. As I brilliantly observed earlier this month, closers tend to throw hard (which has something to do with the fact that they tend to be effective pitchers), so that may explain most of the difference between their statistics in the first table above and those of the less elite relievers, without resorting to assigning any credit (or blame) to the “closer mentality.”
While steals against closers often come in high-leverage situations, making them more potentially damaging (as we saw on Sunday), closers do have one powerful advantage when it comes to counteracting the running game: they allow fewer runners to begin with. In light of his 1.01 career WHIP—not to mention his 0.77 mark in the playoffs—it’s no surprise that a four-steal performance like Sunday’s was so out of character for the man they call “Mo.” Although extreme anxiety about his ability to hold baserunners would be—if you’ll pardon the weak pun—baseless, Rivera can alleviate any lingering concerns by preventing them from reaching base in the first place, as he has with such regularity in the past.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance