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Last week, I found myself asserting into a camera that one reason closers are overrated as a class is that they often face the lower part of the the lineup, as opposed to the middle of the lineup that set-up men have to retire to do their job. While I believed this to be the case, it was just an assertion, and I had no real evidence to back it up.

So I decided to check it out. If what I’m saying is true, one effect would be that that setup men would have a better quality of batters faced than closers on the same teams. The differences might be small–remember that these pitchers are facing the same teams–but I would expect any differences to at least point in the right direction. What I’m looking for is teams where one guy pitches the eighth inning and the other one the ninth.

I identified 12 sets of stable closer/setup tandems for the ’05 seasons, in three cases choosing two relievers as “setup” men based on usage patterns. What I found was very small differences, ranging from 17 points of OPS in favor of the set-up pitchers’ opponents (Dustin Hermanson vs. the tandem of Damaso Marte and Cliff Politte) to nine points in favor of the closer (Braden Looper vs. Roberto Hernandez. The overall split was 7-4 in favor of the set-up pitchers facing tougher hitters, with one tie (the Angels).

I expected small differences, but these are so small that I don’t think they can be considered significant. The full data set runs at the bottom of this page.

While I was working on this article, researcher Tom Fontaine sent me some data about batting orders, and what spots most frequently led off innings. The data is from 1997, but as he puts it, it’s “very consistent” from year to year.

This information makes the case a bit more forcefully. The eighth inning opens most frequently with the #3 batter, followed closely by the #1 batter, then the #9. In any of those circumstances, the set-up man is facing the top or the middle of the order, a dangerous spot to be in. The ninth inning, on the other hand, is most likely to open with the #6 spot, followed by the #7 and #8 spots. That’s an easier row to hoe. Here’s the complete list:


Eighth inning     Ninth inning

1    12.49%       1    10.47%
2    11.61%       2     9.78%
3    12.71%       3    11.43%
4    10.52%       4    10.52%
5     9.73%       5    11.15%
6    10.33%       6    12.42%
7    10.17%       7    11.94%
8    10.28%       8    11.91%
9    12.16%       9    10.38%

Looking at the quality of batters faced is something of a blind alley, given the tiny differences, but when you consider what part of the lineup typically bats in the eighth inning versus the ninth, it supports the argument that set-up men do have a much more difficult job than closers. Despite the last 20 years of building up the final three outs of the game to be the be-all, end-all of relief pitching, it’s apparent that the eighth inning is where much of the action is.

The data set for the first study:


               PA    AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS  Diff
Hermanson:    209   .261  .322  .411   733   -17

Marte:        199   .265  .332  .422   754
Politte:      240   .266  .327  .420   747


Wickman:      243   .265  .331  .420   751    -4

Howry:        240   .268  .330  .425   755
Rhodes:       175   .260  .327  .412   739


Rodriguez:    252   .264  .329  .424   753     0

Shields:      351   .262  .330  .423   753


Nathan:       258   .262  .325  .417   742   -16

Rincon:       287   .267  .329  .429   758


Rivera:       279  .267  .330  .423    753    -7

Gordon:       303  .269  .333  .427    760


Guardado:     215  .266  .329  .423    752    -5

Putz:         254  .265  .332  .425    757


Lidge:        257  .264  .335  .424    759    +5

Wheeler:      237  .263  .333  .421    754


Wagner:       264  .261  .326  .414    740    -5

Madson:       342  .262  .330  .415    745


Isringhausen: 215  .264  .333  .419    752     0

Tavarez:      251  .259  .326  .420    746
King:         169  .267  .340  .419    759


Hoffman:      208  .266  .334  .420    754   -11

Otsuka:       262  .267  .337  .428    765


Cordero:      303  .263  .334  .424    758    +3

Majewski:     333  .266  .336  .419    755


Looper:       267  .265  .335  .422    757    +9

Hernandez:    241  .263  .334  .414    748

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