Major League Baseball Closers

In my commentary of the recent trade of Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers, I closed by saying K-Rod’s replacement in New York had a good chance at succeeding. My thought was that capable closers often appear out of nowhere, and it isn’t necessary to spend big money in free agency to acquire a 9th-inning guy. I decided to research this further. Here is what I learned:

Of the 30 current closers in the majors…

  • 17 had experience as a closer in the minor leagues
  • 19 recorded their first major league save with the team they are with now* (of that 19, four were “raised” by a team other than the one they are with now**)
  • 13 are making less than $500,000 this season***
  • eight are making $6.5 million or more
  • nine are in the $1.4-4.2 million range
  • the age range is from 23-41 (average age is 29, compared to 28.5 for all players)

*Yes, this does include Jason Isringhausen, who had just one save with the Mets before becoming a closer with Oakland and, a decade later, returning to New York. However, it does not include Joe Nathan, who had only one save with San Francisco before becoming the closer in Minnesota.

**By this I mean they spent a significant amount of time in another team’s farm system or major league club before going elsewhere and recording their first save. These players are: San Diego’s Heath Bell (who was raised by the Mets), Houston’s Mark Melancon (Yankees), Florida’s Leo Nunez (Pittsburgh), and Kansas City’s Joakim Soria (Dodgers).

***Includes three players—Isringhausen, Javy Guerra, and Fernando Salas—for whom contract information was not available.

The minor league resumes of the 17 “experienced” closers are not identical. Consider Craig Kimbrel (Atlanta), Chris Perez (Cleveland), and Drew Storen (Washington), who never started a game. Their paths to the big league closer role were far different from the routes taken by Javy Guerra (Dodgers), Leo Nunez (Florida), and Jordan Walden (Angels), whose starts-to-saves ratio in the minors were 2:1, 5:1, and 7:1, respectively. Therefore, while 13 of today’s closers had no minor league closer experience, 18 started more games than they finished, all at a 2:1 or higher ratio.

This should not be surprising. Teams want to develop starting pitchers. They don’t draft a pitcher or advance him through their system because they think he can be a good 7th-inning guy. Perhaps your dad told you this when you first started following baseball: relievers are pitchers who are not good enough to be starters.

That is obviously an oversimplification, but the fact remains that a lot of closers fall into the role for various reasons outside of being groomed for it. That being said, in May of 2006, only 10 closers had experience as closers in the minors, according to research by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. The 2011 numbers suggest the trend is to develop players specifically for that role, and perhaps going forward we will see more players like Kimbrel and Storen, who were drafted as closers—in other words, they were saving games in the minors as soon as they signed and became major league closers relatively quickly after their promotion.

There is no right way to come about a closer, especially when the data for those groomed for the role in the minor leagues is sparse. Save conversion percentage, for what it’s worth, has increased two points (from 66 percent to 68) since 2006.**** We’ll know more in few years when the closers groomed in the minors have had longer major league service time and more teams have had the opportunity to employ this method.

After trading their closer during the All Star break, the Mets turned to Jason Isringhausen. Izzy had all of eight career relief appearances (and the aforementioned one save) when Oakland traded for him and decided to make him their closer. From 2000-2007 he averaged 34 saves a season. Given his experience, he was a logical choice to replace Rodriguez.

I’m confident the Mets could have also turned to Bobby Parnell to close. Parnell, a 2005 draft pick, has five minor league saves compared to 93 starts. When the Mets were long out of the race in 2009, Parnell started eight games (and earned a save for pitching three scoreless innings to end a game), but other than that he’s been strictly a middle reliever. But who’s to say he can’t be the next Heath Bell, or at least the next Leo Nunez?

All he needs is a chance.

****Update: As is stated above, save conversion percentage has been very steady the past several years. In fact, it has been steady since 1975. However, this number refers to team save percentages, and in this article I intended to focus more on closers specifically. Therefore, a better number is the save conversion percentage of closers, defined here as the player who recorded the most saves for their team at season’s end. That percentage has been about 86 since 2006, with the difference between the best year (2009) and worst (2006) being a minuscule .017 percent. In other words, the closer conversion rate is, as expected, much higher than the overall team rate, but just as steady over that time period.

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