Tag Archives: 2011 MLB season

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.

New York Mets: Trade Deadline Nears

There has been a lot of talk about a potential New York Mets fire sale. This intensified after Francisco Rodriguez was traded, with fans and writers suggesting Sandy Alderson would gut the roster in order to cut payroll and build for the future. While I certainly don’t think the Mets should or will be buyers at the July 31sttrade deadline, I realize a significant roster makeover is also unlikely.

With a little more than a week until the deadline, let’s examine the Mets’ roster—taking into account talent, contract, and team needs—to show why this is the case.

Carlos Beltran, right fielder
Beltran, a free agent after this season, will likely be traded before the deadline. He will be 35 next April, is a free agent after the season, and is represented by Scott Boras, so it is nearly impossible to imagine Beltran in a Met uniform come August.

Jose Reyes, shortstop
Reyes, another free agent after the season, will not get traded. If he were dealt, well, given that I know the location of Alderson’s suite I’d probably have to stay far away from Citi Field. In all seriousness, fans would make the Mets pay for dealing Reyes by not showing up for the meaningless games in August and September. Also, more importantly, Alderson has all but guaranteed Reyes will not be traded. Whether he is re-signed at the end of the season is another story.

David Wright, third baseman
Wright is owed $15 million next year and has a team option for $16 million in 2013. That team option only applies to the Mets, a fact that can’t be stressed enough when discussing Wright’s trade value. Any team that wants to deal for Wright realizes it will only get one full year out of him, while the Mets, if they keep him, will get two years. That makes him a lot more valuable to the Mets than to any other team. In other words, I see very little chance that Wright gets traded. (Note: Wright is currently on the disabled list and an interesting MLB rule states that players on the DL can not be traded.)

Mike Pelfrey, starting pitcher
Pelfrey is earning nearly $4 million this season, so the Mets were hoping for a lot better than a 5-9 record and 4.67 ERA from their Opening Day starter. Pelfrey is not a free agent until after the 2013 season, but his salary could increase through arbitration the next couple of seasons. Considering the Mets had to offer just $1.5 million to acquire Chris Capuano (8-8, 4.12 ERA), Pelfrey is not cheap. I just don’t see the Mets getting much in return for Big Pelf, making him an unlikely trade candidate.

Beltran will be traded. Wright (back left) will not. Brian Schneider (back right) was once part of a deal for Lastings Milledge. (Credit: Keith Allison)

Jonathon Niese, starting pitcher; Daniel Murphy, infielder; Bobby Parnell, relief pitcher; Ike Davis, first baseman
These players are valuable to other teams, but they are more valuable to the Mets because they are inexpensive. All of them make a figure close to the MLB minimum of $414,000 (Niese is the highest paid at $452,000). These players won’t be arbitration eligible until 2013, yet they are valuable contributors to the club right now (except Davis, who is on the DL).

Johan Santana, starting pitcher
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Santana, who is on the DL as he recovers from elbow surgery. Even if Santana were to return late this season and pitch well, do you think any team would take on $49.5 million for two years’ worth of a 33-year-old pitcher?

Jason Bay, left fielder

That leaves the “tweeners” like Jason Isringhausen and Tim Byrdak, who won’t cost a trade partner more than a low-level prospect (or a significant financial commitment). They have showed they can be of value to a contending team looking to bolster its bullpen down the stretch.

I’d have to agree that the trading of Rodriguez, Beltran, and Reyes would constitute a fire sale (despite involving just three players). I just don’t see it happening. K-Rod’s departure was necessary, everyone has seen the writing on the wall with Beltran since last year, and Reyes will not be traded. Alderson could plant an “Everything Must Go” sign in front of Citi Field and it wouldn’t make a difference.

Francisco Rodriguez Traded to Milwaukee Brewers

Earlier this season my friend Jon, a Mets fan, shared with me his theory on closers: “Every fan hates their closer except Yankee fans.” The basis behind the theory is that no blown save is a good thing, since by definition it prevents your team from winning a game. Some sting more than others, but whether you’re going for a series sweep or trying to stop a three-game losing streak, a blown save is a terrible way to end a game, especially if you invested the full three hours and change into watching it unfold.

Therefore, Jon suggests, only the greatest closer in the history of baseball gets the benefit of the doubt when he blows a save. Everyone else? Well, when all you have to do, generally, is record three outs without giving up the lead, fans expect you to do it.

Francisco Rodriguez, traded last night from the New York Mets to the Milwaukee Brewers, did this much more often than not in his two and a half seasons with the Mets, saving 83 games and blowing 15 for an 85 percent conversion rate, just about the league average for closers over that span.

Memories of games he failed to close—the first Subway Series game of 2009, though it certainly wasn’t his fault; the July 3rd game in Washington last year; the final game in Atlanta earlier this season—are far more vivid than important games he did finish, but that is largely because there weren’t that many important Mets games the last few years.<

No, “K-Rod” was not traded because of poor performance. He was traded because, in the aftermath of 2008, a year in which a shaky Mets bullpen frittered away a playoff spot, Omar Minaya gave Rodriguez a three-year, $37-million contract.* And, in case that wasn’t enough, he threw in a $17.5-million option for next year that kicked in if Rodriguez finished 55 games this year.

*“Shaky” in the same way an 8.7 earthquake is “shaky.”

Having already closed out 34 games this season, the Mets had to deal their closer if they aim to slash payroll next year and re-sign Jose Reyes (the Mets owe $55 million total to David Wright, Jason Bay, and Johan Santana next year).

What exactly the Brewers are getting with Rodriguez, 29, is debatable. His velocity started to decline during his record-setting season with the Angels, and his fastball now tops out around 90 miles per hour. Watching him this year is like watching the relief pitcher version of Tom Glavine (in his Mets years), a guy no longer as confident in his stuff so he nibbles and nibbles and refuses to give in to the hitter. I suppose a pitcher can be effective this way, but Rodriguez’s WHIP this season is an unsightly 1.41, third worst among closers and the highest of his career.

Mets fans know it was never easy with K-Rod, but then again, was it ever easy with Armando Benitez? How about John Franco? Rodriguez made for a better target because of his celebratory antics and off-field altercations, but he was no worse, and in many ways much better, than most of his predecessors.* I’m not saying Rodriguez didn’t underperform in New York, but the team had so many other problems during his tenure that most of the time his performance didn’t matter all that much.

*There was also the huge wad of chewing tobacco that ballooned his cheeks to a cartoonish size, the nearly full water bottle he chucked before exiting the bullpen, and the violent pitching motion that prevented him from fielding anything but a weak tapper to first base side, but those are things that may have bothered me more than other people.

So if, like many Mets fans, you were happy to hear about the trade, the top reason had to be that ugly vesting option for 2012. Now it is gone, but of course, so is the Mets’ closer. Who will step in to replace him—Bobby Parnell and his 100-mph fastball? Jason Isringhausen and his…guile? I’d play the match-ups and ride the hot hand, what is often referred to as a closer by committee. It is unlikely manager Terry Collins will do this. Even in last night’s All Star Game we saw Bruce Bochy manage to the save statistic, and Collins will likely tab one of his relievers as the 9th-inning guy, at least to start.

Whoever takes the reins won’t have his own intro music or paychecks with as many zeros, but there’s no reason he can’t be just as effective as Rodriguez was these past few years.