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August 16, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies

The Origins of the Closer

by Nate Silver

One of baseball's great unsolved mysteries is just where great closers come from. Although it might seem like a J.J. Putz or a Jonathan Papelbon or a Bobby Jenks beams himself straight down from the Great Closer Factory in the Sky, elite relievers have to have some way to get from there to here. That route can alternately involve a resurrection from middle relief, a conversion from a starting role, or an exaltation from the minor leagues. What we do know is that, as far as closers go, the exceptional journeys are the norm. Few closers fit into the Gregg Olson category of a player who was born and bred into his role in the minor leagues, and fewer still of these pitchers were relievers as amateurs.

This article is not going to directly attack the question of the origin of the closer species. But by making a few observations about the closers who have made the leap, we can at least understand the issue a little better. Before we proceed, let's concoct a quick-and-dirty way to evaluate a closer's effectiveness. We can define a Closer Efficiency Index (CEI) as…

CEI = RA+ x (Saves x 2 - SvOpp) x (162 / TeamG)

…where RA+ is a pitcher's run average relative to his league and park average, and TeamG is the number of games that the pitcher's team plays during the regular season (this term is intended to put pitchers from strike-shortened seasons on equal footing).

CEI is not intended to replace something like WXRL, which is a far more informative metric, but it should do well for our purposes. John Smoltz in 2004, had an RA+ of 1.66 (his RA was 66% better than league average), and 44 saves in 49 opportunities; this produces a CEI of 64.8. This is an outstanding score--anything over 50 might be considered a great season, while anything over 100 is a Hall of Fame type season. The highest CEI's of all time are as follows:

        Jose Mesa             1995             183.7
        Dennis Eckersley      1990             178.3
        Eric Gagne            2003             171.1
        Rollie Fingers        1981             163.5
        Mike Jackson          1998             155.9

Jon Papelbon is within striking distance of this group; his CEI is 165 as of this writing.

Since 1985, when reliever usage patterns began to coalesce more or less into their present form, there have been 131 pitchers who posted a CEI of 50 or higher. Of those 131 seasons, 32 (24%) came from pitchers who had never recorded as many as 20 saves in any major league season previous. This is a pretty remarkable statistic: nearly one in four great closer seasons are recorded by pitchers that have no track record whatsoever as a major league closer. How many home run titles are won by players that most casual fans hadn't even heard of the year before? How often is the batting crown won by a player who spent his previous season doing middle infield duty in the International League? Is the closer mystique all its cracked up to be?

What's more, this type of season is becoming more common. Following is a chronological list of the 32 pitchers since 1985 who came from nowhere to have a great season (50+ CEI) as a closer:

1985        (none)
1986        Todd Worrell
1987        Tim Burke
1988        Dennis Eckersley, Doug Jones, Randy Myers
1989        Gregg Olson, Jeff Russell
1990        (none)
1991        Doug Henry
1992        (none)
1993        Rod Beck, Roberto Hernandez
1994        (none)
1995        Jose Mesa
1996        Troy Percival
1997        Mariano Rivera, Jeff Shaw
1998        Mike Jackson, Tom Gordon
1999        John Rocker
2000        Keith Foulke, Derek Lowe
2001        Jeff Zimmerman
2002        Eric Gagne, Eddie Guardado, Byung-Hyun Kim, John Smoltz
2003        (none)
2004        Francisco Cordero, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan
2005        Chad Cordero, Dustin Hermanson, Francisco Rodriguez, B.J. Ryan, Derrick Turnbow

Nearly half of these seasons have occurred since 2000. We may see as many as five more in 2006, between Papelbon, Putz, Jenks, Chris Ray, and possibly Takashi Saito. Of course, there is a logical enough explanation for this: teams are looking at the instant success achieved by pitchers like Eric Gagne and Joe Nathan and are becoming more willing to experiment with in-house options, rather than turning the closer's job over to the usual crusty, overpaid alternative. And it's been working.

We can also examine the background of these 32 pitchers. Major league closers can have essentially one of four pedigrees: they can be minor league relievers (like Gregg Olsen), minor league starters (like Papelbon), major league starters (like John Smoltz), or middle relievers (like B.J. Ryan). Although these definitions are somewhat subjective--someone like Derek Lowe might belong in any one of three or four different groups--I'd divide the pitchers up as follows:

  • MLB Middle Relievers (7): Burke, F. Cordero, Foulke, Guardado, Jackson, Ryan and Shaw.
  • MLB Starters (8): Eckersley, Gagne, Gordon, Hermanson, Lowe, Mesa, Russell and Smoltz.
  • Minor League Relievers (9): C. Cordero, Henry, Jones, Kim, Olson, Percival, Rodriguez, Turnbow and Zimmerman.
  • Minor League Starters (8): Beck, Hernandez, Lidge, Myers, Nathan, Rivera, Rocker and Worrell.
Great closers are about as likely to come from the major leagues as the minors, and are also about as likely to have spent their recent past as starting pitchers than as relievers. The latter fact might be surprising--people often talk about pitchers like Dennis Eckersley as though they are once-in-a-generation flukes--but it really shouldn't be. Almost all pitchers begin their careers as starters, and convert to relief as a result of injury or ineffectiveness--not usually characteristics that would lend themselves to closing games for your favorite team.

Do these groups show any differences in their ability to sustain their effectiveness after their initial success? Let's look at the average CEIs in the three years following the breakout season:

Category               n+1        n+2        n+3      Total
-----------------------------------------------------------
MLB Starter           68.4       50.9       20.9      140.2
Minor League Starter  48.4       43.9       31.2      123.5
MLB Reliever          54.0       20.8       32.0      106.7
Minor League Reliever 27.8       22.6       16.9       67.3
(Methodological note: although it is technically possible to have a CEI below zero, negative CEIs are treated as zeroes for this article).

Although the sample sizes are small, it appears that 'new' closers with some major league experience are more likely to sustain their success than minor leaguers, and that converted starters are quite a bit more likely to sustain their success than pitchers who were already working in relief. In particular, minor league relievers don't do very well as a group. Once again, selection effects are important here: if a pitcher is throwing in relief at the age of 22 or 23, it usually means that he has been selected out for his lack of durability. Thus, it shouldn't be a surprise that pitchers like Olson or Byung-Hyun Kim burn themselves out after a couple of seasons worth of high-stress innings.

Finally, regardless of their background, how do the breakout closers hold up as compared to the experienced closers? Here are the CEI progressions for the 32 breakout closers, and the control group of experienced closers who posted a CEI of at least 50 in year n.

Category             n+1       n+2      n+3        Total
--------------------------------------------------------
New Closer          50.2      35.8     24.8        110.8
Experienced Closer  37.3      34.2     27.8         99.3

Not only do the breakout closers keep pace with their experienced counterparts--they actually outperform them (although not by a statistically significant margin). Part of this is because the breakout closers are younger as a group. Nevertheless, this qualifies as a statistical anomaly. Normally, a player who has demonstrated a skill (such as closing ballgames) on multiple occasions is much more likely to repeat that performance than someone who has demonstrated that skill just once. Not so here.

The idea of the proven closer is a myth. This is not to suggest that a pitcher like Mariano Rivera is not extremely valuable. But Rivera is valuable precisely because he is virtually unique in the baseball universe: a closer who gets great results year after year. Most of the time, closers are fickle, and past results are no strong guarantee of future success.

The flip side of this, however, is that it is surprisingly easy to find elite closers from almost literally out of nowhere. While these closers are vulnerable to burnout too--Jeff Zimmerman didn't exactly set the world afire after his breakout in 2001--they are no more vulnerable to burnout than their veteran counterparts. The club is small, but the apprenticeship is short.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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