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August 12, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Using the Closer to Keep a Deficit Small

by Russell A. Carleton


Here's a question. Which late-inning situation is more important: When your team is up by three runs, or down by one? In the past, I've argued that closers should come into tie games far more often than they do now and that teams might use their closer for two innings to protect a one-run lead in the eighth, rather than a three-run lead in the ninth. Should a team actually use its closer/best reliever sometimes when it is behind? If a visiting team finds itself behind by a run heading into the bottom of the eighth, it will have one last chance to either tie or go ahead in the top of the ninth, but it has to get through the eighth inning first. A home team trailing going into the top of the ninth might have the same conversation. Should they use the best that they have to keep the score close in the hope of pulling off a comeback?

We know that because closers are rarely brought into non-save situations, someone else will generally come in when the team is behind. That someone probably won't be as good. In fact, teams seem to bring in their third- or fourth-best reliever in these situations. Standard sabermetric orthodoxy suggests that the third-best reliever should handle the three-run save while the closer might handle more delicate situations. Well, what would happen if they did switch?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
For this study, I relied on Retrosheet game logs from 1993-2012. Retrosheet for the Hall of Fame!

Let's start with the beginning-of-the-ninth-inning, three-run save. For the home team faced with that situation, this is what has historically happened. Most likely, the closer was on the mound.

Runs Scored

Percentage

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