From Mariano Rivera to Craig Kimbrel, Trevor Hoffman to Joe Nathan, the game of baseball has seen many great closers come and go. Recently, it seems as if the role of closer has been magnified as bullpens specialize more and more. Closers have a certain mojo. Rivera came out to “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. Hoffman came out to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.” It sends the crowd into a frenzy. It’s their calling in life, to close out the ninth inning and send their team and crowd home with a victory.
Closers usually have “shutdown stuff.” This means they either have a devastating slider or a changeup that could make the greatest hitters in the league fall forward and whiff. Or perhaps it’s because they can consistently touch 100 MPH. Whatever it may be, the “closer” has a special role in baseball.
As baseball fans, we have all seen it. The game is tied. It’s an important game. Maybe it’s against the division leader or that team is trying for a sweep or it could even be the playoffs. It’s a tie game in the ninth inning and the manager decides to put his best reliever on the mound to hold the score as it is. Usually, the best reliever is the closer. Seems like a solid plan right? The numbers say otherwise.
I sampled five closers over the last 15 years. I examined their ERA, batting average against and walks per nine innings in save situations and in tie games.
My biggest experiment was with the San Diego Padres’ current closer Craig Kimbrel. He has been one of the most dominant closers in the last four years. I looked back to when he first became a closer for the Atlanta Braves in 2011. Each year the gap widened between his numbers in save situations (when he appeared late in the game with a lead of one, two or three runs) and when he came in during a tie game. His tie-game numbers have gotten progressively worse.
In 2013, he led the major leagues with 50 saves and posted a 1.21 ERA. In that dominant season, Kimbrel posted a 2.7 walks per nine innings pitched (BB/9) in save situations. That number increased to 3.48 BB/9 when he appeared in tie games. Hitters posted a .152 batting average against him in save situations. That average is 23 points higher when it was tied.
The next season, the gap widened still. In save situations, Kimbrel posted a dominating 0.89 ERA, hitters batted just .113 off of him and he had 3.22 BB/9. When he appeared in tie games, his ERA soared to 4.91. Hitters then hit .241 off of him and his walks per nine innings went into another atmosphere at 11.05 BB/9. That is almost eight more walks per nine innings in tie games.
This season it’s even worse. He posts a 7.36 ERA and averages an astounding 17.1 walks per nine innings. Hitters are also hitting nearly .300 against him in tie games. He still has notched 18 saves and only blown one with an overall ERA of 3.54.
Think it is just a Kimbrel problem? Think again. The two greatest closers in major league baseball history Rivera and Hoffman show a similar trend.
I examined Hoffman’s 1998 and 2005 seasons, which were both stellar years with 40+ saves and an ERA under 3. In his 1998 season, he set the single-season mark at the time for saves at 53. He posted an incredible 0.49 ERA in save situations, along with just 1.78 walks per nine innings. That same year in tie games, his ERA went up to 3.48 and he averaged 5.23 walks per nine innings.
In 2005, it was substantially worse. In tie games, he had a 15.19 ERA and hitters posted a dizzying .468 average against him. This is the same pitcher who notched 43 saves with a 2.97 ERA.
The great Rivera, the all-time saves leader and infallible playoff master, suffered a similar fate. In 2001, a year where he led all of baseball with 50 saves and a 2.34 ERA, he posted an ERA of 6.44 when pitching in a tie game. He also had a .333 batting average against him and walked 4.91 batters per nine innings, when in save situations that number is a minuscule 0.83 BB/9.
In 2004, he had a career-high 53 saves and a 1.94 ERA. In save situations that season, he only walked 1.69 batters per nine innings and hitters posted a .220 average on him. Those numbers go up to 5.59 BB/9 and .262 when pitching in a game that is tied.
An example from more recent years is Greg Holland of the Kansas City Royals. Last season he was second in the AL in saves and was part of a team that went to the World Series. In save situations in 2014, he had a 1.17 ERA and hitters hit only .152 off of him. When he came in to tie games, his ERA explodes to 7.50 and hitters hit up to .269. This is the same pitcher, just a different situation.
Glen Perkins of the Minnesota Twins is having a fine season so far this year. He leads the AL with 23 saves and as a 1.48 ERA. This season in tie games, he has an ERA of 13.50 and hitters are hitting .400 against him in that situation.
The moral of the story is don’t put your closer in when it is tied. Even the greats have shown, it doesn’t usually work. Why is that the case? It is hard to tell. It may be because it throws them off of that mojo of being “the man” to win it in the 9th. It is impossible to win a game when you are pitching while it is tied. But you can lose it.
So this is a message to all managers, perhaps putting in your fourth or fifth reliever instead of your closer when it is tied in the 9th would be more beneficial.
Baseball is a funny game. Guys get into roles and niches. We have closers, cleanup hitters, leadoff hitters, aces and situational lefty relievers. If you place a guy outside of this role, he may not perform like you are accustomed to seeing.
Sometimes this will not be the case and it will work out. Sometimes your closer might be a better option than the rookie reliever with an 8.50 ERA.
It is understandable to put the closer in non-save situations when it’s the 12th inning or he has not worked in a week or more. You want him to be fresh. But these numbers suggest maybe one is better off leaving the closers to close games. That is what they were bred to do.