How should closer’s be utilized

Baseball Prospectus (premium) has an article abouthow the save statistic, and not game situations dictates the usage of closers. They use the Tigers as an example of this:

One way to chip at that is to compare the situations in which closers are being used, as opposed to their teammates. For example, the Tigers have Ugueth Urbina closing and Jamie Walker pitching in many of the high-leverage non-save situations. This year, Urbina has six saves, Walker none. Without even getting into the issue of which pitcher is actually better, look at how each has been deployed this season. Walker has inherited 12 baserunners, Urbina just three. Walker has been brought into games in which the tying or go-ahead run was at bat, on base or in the on-deck circle seven times; Urbina, eight times. Walker’s first batter has been in the top four lineup spots 12 times, Urbina’s eight times.

And…

That’s what the closercentric bullpen gives us: lesser pitchers being used against better hitters in higher-leverage situations. Just yesterday, the Tigers let Esteban Yan pitch to the heart of the Rangers’ lineup up 3-1 in the eighth, then brought Urbina in to face the 6-7-8 hitters with that same lead in the ninth.

Now I don’t post this to be critical of Trammell, and if you read the rest of Sheehan’s article he’s not picking on the Tigers either. He’s just using them as a point of illustration. Sheehan’s main point is that the closer isn’t necessarily the best pitcher in the bullpen, and that managers use the closer position as a crutch. No one will question using Urbina in the 9th of a close game, so it’s an easy decision.

Trammell is definitely an old school manager, who subscribes to old school theories, and I don’t expect him to change anytime soon. But thinking back to the debacle in Texas, when the bullpen was faltering, why not bring in your closer in the 5th inning to stop the bleeding, instead of recently called up Craig Dingman. I know that Urbina actually lost the game later, and Dingman did end the inning. However, was Dingman really the best option at that point?

I must admit that it didn’t occur to me to put in Urbina in the 5th inning either, but it makes sense. If you get those outs in the 5th inning, then maybe the outs in the 9th inning aren’t as important.

9 Comments

  1. Jeff M

    May 17, 2004 at 10:28 pm

    There’s a lot truth to that, but there’s another side that he (or atleast your summary of his article) doesn’t point out. Only in hindsight can you possibly imagine that four members of your pitching staff are going to combine to blow a 10 run lead in one inning. A manager has to assume that even his worst reliever can get out of that situation 95 times out of 100. If not, what’s he doing making more than $50k/yr?? If you’re not going to use your mop-up relievers in a 10 run ballgame, when are you going to use them? I think we can all agree now that you wouldn’t bring in your closer early in that fateful 5th inning, but you might argue that as the lead started to dwindle, you should bring him in. But again, shouldn’t you expect that Danny Patterson (one of your proven relievers) can get the job done with minimal damage? If you’re not going to use him in a semi-serious situation, when are you going to use him? This is all besides the fact that your closer is going to go one inning and only one inning in atleast 60% of his outtings. This number is much higher for most closers. So, if you’re only going to get one inning out of him, you have to rely on your other relievers for a few innings anyways. If they can’t get the job done, you’re going to lose. It’s just that simple. I understand the argument that he could have prevented the momentum swing, and that isn’t without merit. However, how hard would you kick yourself if you used him and still lost, but then couldn’t use him when you really needed him the next day? Aside from all of that, how many times have we seen a closer that does significantly better during save situations than in non-save situations? These are the guys that thrive on the make-it-or-break-it adrenaline. A “well, we really could use your help, but we still have another chance if you fail” situation just isn’t the same for these guys. Bottom line, when you find a true closer, you save him for the 9th (or 8-9 if his name is Rivera).

  2. Billfer

    May 18, 2004 at 5:36 am

    Jeff,

    Thanks for posting, you raise some good points. I guess that I wasn’t clear on when it might have been a good idea to bring in Urbina. I wouldn’t have brought him in with the six run lead, but when Levine was pitching and the tying/go ahead runs were getting up to bat, maybe that should have been the time. It would have been a save situation at that point anyways. The other consideration, is that the Tigers offense has been resilient, and that they had already scored 14 runs in that game. It was perfectly plausible to expect them to pile more on.

    The main point is that there are several save situations that occur during a game, and yet the closer is only brought in in the 9th inning (which is typically the last save situation). Often times they come in to start the 9th, with nobody on base, regardless of who is due up. Conversely, situational guys and set up men are coming into games with go ahead runs on base or at-bat, which are much tougher situations. The problem being that there are many save situations in a game (and many blown save opportunities) and yet only the player who has the ball at the end of the game gets credit.

    Also, I’m not totally convinced this is the best way to go, but it makes for an interesting discussion.

  3. Jason R.

    May 18, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Another of Sheehan’s points was that often times the set-up guy is not only coming into a tighter situation, he’s also facing better hitters than the “closer” does in the ninth.

    A 16-15 game is an outlier. Tram had every right to expect Patterson (or anyone else he called on) to do his job with a 10-run lead. It misses the point, however, to ask whether or not Urbina should have entered in the fifth, unless Urbina is the best reliever in the pen, which I dont know that he is. As Sheehan notes, a guy may be labeled Closer, and by default might be considered The Best Reliever on the Team. But does that make it so?

    The real problem is that saves have morphed into a number from which guys can make serious money in contract talks. Jim Tracy may want Eric Gagne in the really tight 7th and 8th inning situations, but Gagne and his agent will certainly get pissed if he starts missing out on accumulating this number than an arbitrator values.

    If somehow the Save as a stat could be devalued or tossed away completely, we may see a shift to what Sheehan is calling for: using your best available pitcher in the highest-leverage sitautions.

  4. Jeff M

    May 18, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    It certainly does make for an interesting discussion, and I can see that I did miss a large part of the argument by being too cheap to pay for the whole article. :) I have also pondered this question in the past, so I understand where you’re coming from.

    Your point regarding the quality of the batters due up has some merit. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to using your best guy in the 8th, if that’s when the best hitters are coming up, and then using your #2 guy to mop up the bottom of the order in the 9th. It really comes down to knowing your pitchers then. If you have a true, prototypical closer, you have to use him to finish games, and finish games only. He won’t have the same success in the earlier innings that he will in the 9th. I’m not positive, but I’d bet that the numbers support me on this. If you have a “closer by committee” arrangement like the Tigers had during the post-Jones and Pre-Urbina days then it makes sense to use the best pitchers in the tightest spots, because none of them have that innate ability to step up their game when its all on the line. They’ll give you their best effort every time, but even Gibby in a wheel chair will take them deep when all of the money is on the table.

    The value of the Save statistic is a completely different matter. It is overvalued, but not a whole lot. The bigger problem is that the Hold and the Inherited Runners Scored % statistics are undervalued. You’ll get a dumb look out of all but the most intense fans when you mention these stats, yet they are every bit as important the save. (Don’t even get me started on ERA for relievers… it’s useless.) I have almost, if not as much, respect for a guy with 40 holds as I do for a guy with 40 saves. I don’t know what the league average is, so I’m making up numbers here, but I also have a huge respect for the pre-injury Danny Pattersons of the world that are able to summon double-play balls at will, and hence have an IR/IRS of 5%. Any reliever that is in the top 10% of the league in any of those three stats is going to get $3million+ from me. The rest of my relievers will be near the league minimum :)

    Oh, and as for the Gagne example (i know it purely fictitious), if I’m his manager, that boy’s gonna go out and pitch for me any time I call on him and he’s gonna be happy about. If not, I don’t want him on my team. :) As stated above, I’ll see that he’s fairly compensated for his talent, but the decision as to when he pitches is 100% mine.

    That’s the end of my rant. Please don’t read any malice into it, because there certainly is none. I enjoy your site and respect your understanding of and dedication to the game. I’ve been a regular reader for almost a year, though I usually just lurk. Thanks for all of your time!

    Jeff

  5. Tim D

    May 18, 2004 at 7:16 pm

    The present closer usage pattern seems to have arrived with Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley. LaRussa was really the first guy to reserve use of his closer to situations where he could start the 9th inning with the lead and nobody on. Prior to that time you saw a lot more of the “ace reliever” pattern, where the ace was brought in in late innings, often with runners on base, to get the 5 or 6 outs needed to close out the game. Set-up men didn’t really exist until everybody went to the 9th inning closer. If you look at the careers of Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, Bruce Sutter, etc, you’ll see that they pitched a lot more innings than today’s closers. A closer today might get 60-70 IP whereas those guys were frequently over 100. Look at the 1984 Tigers: Hernandez and Lopez pitched 277 innings between them, the equivalent of a workhorse starter.

    I for one think the present closer usage pattern is nuts. You are limiting your best reliever’s IP and many of them come in games when you have a three or four run lead in the 9th inning. I’d like to see my best reliever throw at least 90-100 IP and I’d like to see him used in high leverage situations: 7th inning on in tie, one and two run games. Trammell should be familiar with this pattern: most teams, including his own, did it when he was a player. The current closer usage is designed to do exactly what Billfer pointed out right at the top; protect the manager from second-guessing. The more astute fan should second guess using Urbina in the ninth of 5-2 game as opposed to not using him in the 8th of a 4-4 game. Saves be damned, let’s win the game.

  6. Spaceman

    May 19, 2004 at 5:58 am

    I will say this in Trammell’s defense, he has used some atypical relief pitcher patterns, a few four inning saves, pitching guys more than one inning. As much as I like to jump on him from the privacy of my own home, he isn’t a slave to the modern day relief pitcher pattern.

    That said, to reiterate and draw out some of the points Tim makes, its interesting that a guy who played ball for Sparky, with Willie and Aurelio, wouldn’t adopt a different strategy for “relief ace”, though it may be an organizational thing, or an Urbina thing, I don’t know.

    I’d like to think he thinks Jamie Walker is the equal of Urbina (according to VORP they are close, with Walker ahead, and I think Sheehan was hinting at this) and pitches them accordingly.

    And I think people are right about the save stat, that’s where Urbina is going to make his money.

  7. Jason R.

    May 19, 2004 at 12:37 pm

    Without too much evidence to back this up, I think it very well could be an “Urbina Thing.” Like you say, Spaceman, that’s where he makes his money, fairly or not.

    I failed to mention this in my first post, but I thought it was interesting that Billfer referred to Tram as “old-school”. In a lot of ways Tram certainly fits the description, but isn’t it funny that the current closer usage pattern (1 inning, 3-run lead, etc.) has been around for less than 20 years and yet a manager is “radical” if he shuns the strategy? The one-inning cloer has made a lightning-quick leap into the Old School Managing Manual!

  8. Billfer

    May 19, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks everyone for chiming in on this. I think this topic has illicited more conversation than anything else I’ve posted.

    Jeff-No malice was taken. Thanks for reading for the last year and I’m glad you enjoy the site. Your point about Patterson is right on as well. Before the injury, which seemed to have sapped his control, he was a solid “stopper.”

    Tim-Thanks for bringing up the 84 Lopez/Hernandez points. I knew that Willie often pitched a couple innings, but I didn’t realize that the two guys combined for nearly 300. Given so much of Tram’s managing is reflective of the Sparky years, its surprisng that this hasn’t shown up as well

    Jason- As for whether Urbina is the best in the pen, I don’t know. I was just playing out the role of “if he’s your guy in the 9th…” I was also thinking about the old school tag after reading Tim’s post. I tend to lap old school in with conventional, as opposed to progressive/new. Maybe in this case conventional would be a better tag. However, Spaceman also raises some good points as well.

    In the end there needs to be better, widely accepted metrics for relief pitchers. BP has some stuff with expected runs and inherited runners. Unfortunately, the links for the stats glossary and descriptions are broken. If there were other non-save metrics, then maybe the other bullpen guys could be more fairly evaluated by the fans, as well as contract time. Even looking at the All Star game rosters, you typically have starters and closers. When the occasional set-up guy gets a nod, it is usually newsworthy because a. he must be really good, or b. what’s he doing on the roster.

    Maybe there needs to be a “Stopper” role created. It gets a cool title, and has a somewhat specific role, which could help at contract time. Whereas a set-up guy basically bridges the time the starter leaves until the closer comes in and is often dictated by lefty-righty matchups, the stopper would be the guy coming in in those high leverage situations. If you ran into mulitple situations like that in a game, of course he could only be used once. But he’s the guy you turn to, regardless of the matchup to come in and get the tough outs. I’m sure that person happens already on a lot of teams to a certain extent (like Spaceman said, maybe it’s Walker), but with all the emphasis on closers and saves they don’t garner the attention.

    Thanks everyone for reading, and livening up the discussion.

  9. Brian

    June 4, 2004 at 4:19 pm

    I’m a little late to this party, but after reading all of the input, I have to put my two cents in.

    I’m with Billfer and Tim. In 1984, there were a number of games where the starter would get shelled, and Sparky would bring in either Hernandez or Lopez, and let them pitch three innings. In fact in a couple of games, the starter would go three, Lopez would pitch three, allowing the team to come back while pitcking up the win, and then Hernandez would throw the final three to get the save. Both were even used when the Tigers were down on several occassions.

    I know it’s a few years out of date, but in Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, in the section about Dennis Eckersley, he wrote about the most valuable relief seasons ever. John Hiller’s 1973 season was rated the best, and he was used everywhich way you could imagine.

    Basically, you use your horses when you need them. If Gagne can throw three shutout innings that would allow your team to get back into the game when down by two runs, then that’s how he should be used that day.