One of the unchallenged truisms of baseball is that a lights-out closer is a key ingredient for any successful team. The theory is that stellar closers like Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon are so likely to dominate the 9th inning that they essentially give their team more at bats than the other team.
When the Red Sox get to hit for 9 innings but you only get 8, you’re probably toast, the theory goes.
ESPN’s Jim Caple says that theory is nonsense. And he’s got the numbers to prove it:
Don’t believe me? Check out this study by Dave Smith of Retrosheet. He researched late-inning leads over 73 seasons, from 1944 to 2003, and an additional 14 seasons prior to that span. What he found is that the winning percentage for teams who enter the ninth inning with a lead has remained virtually unchanged over the decades. Regardless of the pitching strategy, teams entering the ninth inning with a lead win roughly 95 percent of the time. That was the exact rate in 1901 and that was the rate 100 seasons later. In fact, the rate has varied merely from a high of 96.7 percent in 1909 to a low of 92.5 percent in 1941.
Right now I’m thinking that study applies to all leads, including big ones. But what about slim leads, the ones defined as “save situations”?
But I know what you’re thinking. That study applies to all leads, including big ones. But what about the slim leads, the ones defined as “save situations”?
Glad you asked. Because Smith looked at those leads as well. And what he found is winning rates for those leads have also remained constant — one-run leads after eight innings have been won roughly 85 percent of the time, two-run leads 94 percent of the time and three-run leads about 96 percent of the time.
To be clear, Caple isn’t arguing that Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon are unworthy pitchers. To the contrary, he argues that they are used inefficiently in their current roles. If teams simply put their best relief pitchers in the game to quell threats instead of shoe-horning them into narrowly-defined roles, they might be better off. As Caple points out, teams on a 12 game losing streak may not use their closers at all during that stretch, meaning they’ve kept their best relief pitchers on the bench when they needed them most.
All of this naturally leads to the New York Mets, official baseball team of Pax Arcana. Here’s Caple’s thoughts on the Mets bullpen:
Don’t get me wrong. I realize some pitchers are obviously better than others. And I would rather have six-time All-Star Billy Wagner on the mound for my team in a key situation than, say, Aaron Heilman.
As Caple typed those words earlier this week, Billy Wagner was busy straining his forearm and heading to the disabled list. Sans closer, the Mets decided to emulate the 2003 Red Sox and institute a “closer by committee” strategy.
When Heilman trotted in from the bullpen in the ninth inning, the Mets had a four-run cushion over the San Diego Padres. Heilman was three outs away from helping the Mets end a difficult day with a win. All he had to do was get those elusive outs. He did not come close.
Heilman gave up Jody Gerut’s three-run homer and managed to notch only one out before he was replaced and then booed off the mound at Shea Stadium. Because Joe Smith and Scott Schoeneweis followed Heilman and collected one out each, the Mets exhaled and sneaked away with a 6-5 victory.
Obviously one game does not a trend make. And the Mets may eventually prove that relievers are best used outside of their formalized roles. But damn it would be nice to relax a bit with a four-run lead in the top of the ninth against one of the worst offenses in baseball.