I came across a fascinating baseball trend the other day — or non-baseball trend, I guess — and it’s one of the more surprising things I have seen since I have been tinkering with baseball. I’m pretty sure there have been studies done on this before, but I had never seen them, and so I was blown away with my FTOD — Faux Thrill Of Discovery.*
*I have a friend who is convinced — CONVINCED — that he invented the “throw the ball off the stoop” game. I have told him a hundred times that the game was invented many years before he was born, but he refuses to believe it, he is convinced that one day when he was very young (long before he could have heard of such a game) he was looking at the stairs and thinking, “You know, if one player throw a ball off the stairs, and another player was the fielder…” In a way he DID invent it thought it had been invented a half million times before. That’s FTOD.
So, here’s how it happened: I was looking over the American League rookie of the year match-up, and I was kind of studying Neftali Feliz’s season. Feliz had 40 saves, an .880 WHIP, a 71-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, it was quite a year. And then I saw that the Rangers went 73-6 when they had a lead going into the ninth inning, an impressive .924 winning percentage.
Only … is that impressive? As I thought about it a bit more, I guessed it probably wasn’t impressive. And I was right. That .924 winning percentage with a lead going into the ninth is actually below league average — quite a bit below league average in fact. The league average of games won with a team going into the ninth with a lead was 95.5%.
Top six winning percentages with leads entering the ninth inning:
1. Tampa Bay .988 (81-1)
2. San Diego .987 (77-1)
3. St. Louis .987 (74-1)
4. Oakland .986 (73-1)
5. Detroit .986 (70-1)
6. Kansas City .981 (53-1)
Bottom six winning percentages with leads entering the ninth inning:
30. Baltimore .869 (53-8)
29. Los Angeles .908 (69-7)
28. Milwaukee .914 (64-6)
27. Arizona .923 (60-5)
26. Texas .924 (73-6)
25. Colorado and Houston .932 (69-5)
Feliz was not responsible for all those blown leads, by the way. But my point had shifted. Now, I wasn’t interesting so much in Feliz; I was interested in something else. We all know that the role of the closer has evolved over the last 40 or so years. Even the name has evolved — we really used to call them “firemen,” which was awesome. They used to come out to the mound on those cool little bullpen cars, which was awesome. They used to have mustaches and stomp around on the mound like pro wresters and have nicknames like “Goose” and “The Inspector” and “Sparky” and “The Mad Hungarian” and “Quiz” and “Bedrock” and “The Terminator” — all of which was awesome. Man the closer role used to be so much more awesome than they are now.
But the point is that the closer has evolved, his role has crystallized, his salary has gone up, his importance in the game has obviously increased exponentially. And so I wondered just how much more often teams are winning now when they lead going into the ninth than they did before the closer became such a part of things.
You may already know the answer to this. But if you don’t, I’d like you to take a guess how much more often teams with close out ninth inning leads than they did 10 years ago, 25 years ago, 50 years ago.
I can tell you now the answer shocked the heck out of me. I conservatively estimated that teams win about 5% more often now with ninth inning leads than they did before the closer really came into the vogue. I suspected it was a conservative estimate but that was my guess anyway. Here’s why: One of the things that always surprises me about baseball is how little any one thing affects the percentages of the game.
That is to say: There are charts that suggest how you arrange a lineup will have very little effect on how many runs your team scores in the long run. There are formulas that suggest that stolen bases — once you incorporate the caught stealing — will have a surprisingly small impact on the game. One of the biggest beefs people have with stats like Wins Above Replacement and some of the more advanced defensive stats is that they always seem to come out low, they always seem not only to disprove big swings (like the idea that Ozzie Smith saved 100 runs a year with his defense or that a single great player was worth 25 extra wins) but they actually MAKE FUN of those big numbers. Baseball in the long view is stunningly consistent and predictable and no one thing or one person shifts it much.
So, I guessed that all the advances — the creation of the bullpen as weapon, the evolution of the closer, the Mariano Rivera cutter, all of it — only made teams about 5% more likely to win games in 2010 than in, say, 1952.
I was wrong.
The truth is that all the bullpen advances have had ABSOLUTELY ZERO EFFECT on how much more often teams win games they’re leading in the ninth inning. Zero. Nada. Zilch. The ol’ bagel.
Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952.
Well, shocked the heck out of me. Well, it’s not quite that simple. There have been a few anomalies, yes. For instance, in 1957, teams won only 92.7% of their ninth inning leads — easily the lowest percentage over the last 60 years. That was a year for comebacks. And the highest percentage was in the strike year of 1981, when teams won 97.6% of their leads — that probably would have normalized over a full schedule.
Other than that, though, the best winning percentage for ninth-inning leads is .958. It has happened four times — 2008, 1988, 1972 and 1965. That pretty much covers the entire spectrum of bullpen use. It doesn’t change. Basically, teams as a whole ALWAYS win between a touch less than 94% and a touch more than 95% of the time. This has been stunningly, almost mockingly, consistent. The game has grown, the leagues have expanded, the roles have changed, the pressure has turned up, but the numbers don’t change.
Here, I’ll give you another example. Most of us would agree, probably, that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in the history of baseball, right? I mean, we can have that argument another time, but I think it’s Rivera, and you probably think it’s Rivera, and since he became a closer in 1997, the Yankees have won a rather remarkable 97.3% of the time when they lead going into the ninth inning. I don’t have an easy way to compare that to everyone over the same time period, but I’d bet that’s the best record for any team. In 2008, the Yankees won all 77 games the led going into the ninth. Most years they lose once or twice.
So that would seem to indicate that Rivera DOES make a difference. And I think he does make a difference — compared to other closers.
But … consider the 1950s New York Yankees. Dominant team, of course. The bullpen was an ever shifting thing, though. One year, Ryne Duren was their main guy out of the pen, another year it was Bob Grim or Art Ditmar or Tom Morgan or Tommy Byrne or Jim Konstanty … well, the names changed all the time. The bullpen changed all the time. Casey Stengel seemed to shift strategies every now and again, probably to keep things interesting, starters finished many more games, and anyway the game was very different then and …
From 1951-1962, the New York Yankees won 97.3% of their ninth inning leads. If you carry it another decimal point, they actually won a slightly HIGHER percentage of their ninth inning leads than the Mariano Yankees.
Well, it shocked the heck out of me, anyway. I didn’t do extremely detailed research on this because (A) The numbers for winning ninth-inning leads are not searchable as far as I know; (B) I’m not researcher. But just the little bit I did do tells me that all of this bullpen maneuvering, these end-of-game innovations, these big money closer contracts, they may make sense for individual teams, but they have had almost no visible impact on the game itself. Teams have always won a very higher percentage of their ninth inning leads, no matter what their strategy for doing so. The good teams win almost every single time.
Well, anyway, I think it’s fascinating. But you may notice that the title of this blog post is about setup men. Well, here is what I came out of all this thinking — there really isn’t much a team can do with the ninth inning. Teams worry about it and fret over it and spend tons of money on it and … it’s really kind of a static thing. In 2010, the Kansas City Royals were all but unbeatable with a ninth-inning lead and they lost 95 games. In 2010, the Texas Rangers were near the bottom of the league when it came to protecting ninth inning leads, and they were in the World Series. It seems to me that there just isn’t much wiggle room here. Teams, good and bad, with great closers and terrible ones, are going to win the game almost every time they lead going into the ninth inning. Sure, you want to maximize the ninth inning, but I think it’s probably a lot more important to HAVE LEADS going into the ninth inning.
And thus … the setup man. In 2010, teams won 91.7% of the time when they led going into the eighth inning. And that was the highest percentage over the last 60 years. It could have been a statistical blip. It probably WAS a statistical blip. But it seems interesting just the same. I think the setup man is becoming the new closer. I think on many teams, managers and general managers think the setup man is even more valuable than the closer for two reasons:
1. As mentioned, the ninth inning is predictable and has been going back at least to 1950. A hot closer can give you a bit of a boost, but if you are a good team you are not going to blow ninth inning leads very often.
2. Because of the save statistic and current group-think, the closer is pretty much immovable. You have to start him in the ninth inning with the three-run-or-less lead. Every now and again, a manager will go against convention, bring in the closer to finish off the eighth, or start off the ninth with a lefty-lefty match-up before bringing in the closer. But almost every time the closer is used in only one way, and that’s stifling for managers.
But the setup role is not as settled, and so managers can use their setup men in many different ways. They can bring them into the game in the seventh. They can wait until runners are on base in the eighth. They can use the setup man for one out, for four outs, for six outs, when the team is in trouble in the sixth inning, it’s an open canvas.
And, yes, I think some teams (like the Chicago White Sox with Matt Thornton*) are making their best relievers setup men instead of closers.
*Several people pointed this out to me a couple of months ago when I wrote that I really didn’t want to see Matt Thornton pitch in the All-Star Game. I was probably a bit off in trying to make my point — Thornton is a terrific pitcher. I really just meant I would like to see the stars pitch in the All-Star Game, I think only starters should pitch. But that’s just me.
I think I would do this too — put my best reliever as a setup man. I mean, yes, I would still love to see someone tear the whole thing down and try and create bullpen without specific roles. But I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, and I don’t know — human nature being what it is — that it would work. I think there’s a chance it would not work. This isn’t just about people liking to have roles. I think the way it works now, there’s a clear progression for a reliever. You work the middle innings, then if you do that well you work the later innings, and if you do that well you have a shot at being a closer where the big money and fame is. I think that speaks to players ambitions. They have something to shoot for.
So, assuming that we’re not yet in a place where you can go with a no-roles bullpen, I think I would make my setup man my star. Sure, you would want a good pitcher as a closer. But I think that’s enough. Put someone good in that role and you will win 95-to-100% of the games you lead going into the ninth inning.*
*I’ve been thinking lately how utterly ludicrous it was that Dennis Eckersley won the 1992 MVP Award. Eck is a fascinating media creature — he raced in as a first ballot Hall of Famer without anyone really thinking twice about it, and he won the 1992 Cy Young AND MVP award, the last pitcher to do that. He had 51 saves and a 1.91 ERA and an amazing 93-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio that year. No question: It was a terrific year.
But it was really about the same year Bryan Harvey had in 1991 (46 saves, 1.80 ERA, 101-17 strikeout to walk) and Harvey didn’t even get a single first place Cy Young vote, much less any MVP consideration. It was not too different from the year Doug Jones had in 1992 (only 36 saves, but a 1.85 ERA, 30 more innings than Eckersley, a 93-17 strikeout to walk). And Jonesie didn’t even get a third-place Cy Young vote.
To the larger point, the Oakland A’s went 81-1 when leading going into the ninth. A fabulous record. But the Toronto Blue Jays went 83-1, and neither Tom Henke nor Duane Ward (who had a higher WAR than Eck, by the way) got ANY recognition or consideration at all — neither one even made the All-Star Team. And the Kansas City Royals that year went 64-0 when leading going into the ninth, but nobody was pushing Jeff Montgomery for the MVP award.
Eckersley — perhaps because of his amazing story as once-good starter turned into fabulous closer — just had a way of seeming larger than life.
My feeling is: If you put in someone good — your second or third best reliever — into the closer role, then you will have your best pitcher to use in key situations. You will have him to secure the eighth inning, of course, but you could also use him at other crucial times. I think the game is shifting that way now. I think that’s what some of the smarter teams are quietly beginning to do now. Take Boston: There’s all this talk about how good a closer Daniel Bard can be for the Red Sox. But I think they might be better off with him dominating in the role he’s in now and someone else, someone not as good, in the closer role. We’ll keep an eye on that.