As I was racking my brain as to what to write about this week, I heard a discussion on sports radio regarding closers and it gave me the inspiration for my rant. We live in a time where the culture of baseball has changed dramatically from how it was just 10-15 years ago. Gone are the days where scouts opinions are the be all, end all evaluators on baseball talent and ability. They no longer are the sole gatekeepers as to who is considered a legit prospect and who is considered an organizational filler. Instead we now rely on multiple evaluations, including those provided by evaluating numbers. As a result, we’ve seen a pretty severe schisim come about between “statheads” and “traditionalists”. The former will claim that their way is the best way to evalate performance whereas the latter will claim that you have to trust your eyes. As a result, there are frequent arguments as to what stats are meaningless and worthless and which are not. Stats that have been traditionally been relied on for decades are not being challenged and subsequently disgarded as rubbish, which has in tern infuruated the traditionalists. Norms widely accepted by the baseball community as long standing truths are no being questioned and teams are beginning to try new things, which leads to my soap box rant today on the opinion of the closer role in baseball today.
The sabermetric standpoint would argue that the save stat is meaningless and that there is no difference in the outs that are required in the 9th inning as compared with those in the 7th and 8th. Managers and players alike become ill at this statement and have argued accordingly. My question is, why can’t they both be right? Let me explain.
I took a look at the leaders for saves so far this season and found the following. Currently 13 relievers have at least 10 saves on the season, with the leader (Jason Grilli) posting 17. I then took a look at the top 10 pitchers in terms of the average leverage index when they entered the game so far this season. Given that closers are typically reserved solely for the 9th inning save situation, we should see the top 15 list littered with closers. After all, the 9th inning is the most important inning according to traditional thinking. Of the top 15 players in terms of that metric, only six were closers. The other nine names in the top 15 were standard relievers. What that tells us is that the majority of pitchers who come into the game in high leverage situations are NOT closers. Seeing that a manager would not use a non-closer in a save situation unless he absolutely has to, we can reason that perhaps “closer” usage may need to be re-evaluated as the most critical inning of a game may not be in the 9th inning. Stat folks love this argument, and it makes perfect sense from a logical, numbers driven standpoint.
However, and it’s a really unfortunate however because I’m a very logical person, we’re factoring out the human eliment. What the stat folks forget to factor in is the human element. It’s easy to package the 9th inning in a nice box with a ribbon on it and say it’s exactly the same as every other inning in the game, but the fact is that until the game is played by emotionless robots, that will never be the case. Humans are riddled with emotion and cause the vaccuum tube to be burst wide open. It can’t be looked at that way. The fact is that players do feel more pressure based on the situation. The mind is a blessing and a curse. It can do wonderful things, but it can also psyche you out of a lot of things, so the argument that a guy needs to have the stomach for a 9th inning role, unfortunately, is true.
So who’s right? Is there a right answer? Not really, but for either side to argue that their right and the other side is wrong is completely irresponsible and ignorant. It’s time we get along on this and stop fighting as if either side is going to abandon their way of thinking. Ideally, every situation would be perfectly setup for the best reliever to pitch in the most critical situation with that situation being the 9th. Until that happens we need to all just shut up and let a manager manage his team the way he feels is best. When you get your shot, do it how you want.
(steps down from Soap Box)