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Closing The Deal

Prior to the start of this season, many of us were pining for the Rays to add Joakim Soria to the roster via trade with the Royals. The reliever had been one of the best in baseball over the past few seasons yet the Rays instead threw everyone the curveball and made Kyle Farnsworth their big free agent acquisition for the bullpen. This season, Soria has blown seven of his 30 save opportunities which matches the same amount of saves that Farnsworth and his predecessor, Rafael Soriano, have blown over the past two seasons. Needless to say, Rays fans have become spoiled with the final inning success as those two veterans have converted 91 percent of their save opportunities. 

Farnsworth's efforts have resulted in a seventh-straight season in which a new pitcher has led the Rays in saves. That list includes Danys Baez, Tyler Walker, Reyes, Percival, Howell, and Soriano. Despite the framework of success that closers are portrayed in as ninth inning surgeons, they are a rather replaceable bunch.

It was the deceased Jerome Holtzman who unleashed this unholy hell of a statistic upon baseball fans in 1960 to better measure the effectiveness of relievers and forever changed the way many look at relief pitching. As Jim Caple so eloquently put it back in 2008, 

The problem is that Holtzman's well-intentioned attempt to measure a reliever's worth has been cheapened, manipulated and bastardized to the point that the save is the most overrated stat in baseball and the closer is the most overrated and replaceable role in American sports.

The quick and dirty way most closers are rated these days in the mainstream is by the percentage of save opportunities the reliever converts. Save percentage is one of the meaningless percentages in baseball to evaluate the effectiveness of a closer because it belittles the quality work done by other relievers on the team. Rays fans need to look back no further than the much-maligned Troy Percival to look for a great example for that. Percival had a negative wins above replacement value, yet converted 88 percent of his save opportunities while the more effective Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell were relegated to working the seventh and eighth innings. The man he replaced, El Asesino Al Reyes, saved 87 percent of his opportunities when he was not busy losing bar fights and he too had a negative wins above replacement value. J.P. Howell had a WAR of 1.3 in 2009 yet converted just 68 percent of his save opportunities. 

Saves are helpful to player agents who can leverage that total in an arbitration hearing to get their client. If Joaquin Benoit would have been a closer last season and put up the numbers he did, he could have potentially netted double the $16.5M the Tigers gave him over the next three seasons. After all, look at what Rafael Soriano, who had the saves, got to be a set-up man with the Yankees. One reason the Rays have cycled through closers as they have is because paying to retain saves or to acquire them is a costly venture. 

R.J. Anderson brought up this example over at The Process Report (RIP) in the offseason.

  • Pitcher A: 656 games, .202/.251/.271
  • Pitcher B: 154 games, .182/.235/.323
  • Pitcher C: 50 games, .184/.298/.263
Those were the slash lines of Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and Howell in save situations over the course of their careers. The first two are paid greater than $10M to do their job while Howell is paid ten percent of what they made. Casting aside the obvious joke that he has pitched ten percent as well as those two this season, Howell had shown to be just as effective as those other two prior to succumbing to his shoulder injury yet he only converted 68 percent of his save opportunities in 2009.  

If we were to go by just raw save percentage, the Rays stack up quite well against their rivals in Boston and New York. The collection of primary closers for the Rays since the start of the 2008 season have converted 112 of 131 save opportunities for an 85 percent success rate. That breaks down to less than five blown saves a season although in your head, it probably feels like you see that happen much more frequently than that. Papelbon has gone 137 for 154 during that same span (89 percent) while The Hammer of God has gone 142 for 155 (92 percent). However, when you throw away the ridiculousness of save percentage and look at wins above replacement value for each, the story changes completely.

Rays 3.1 $14.3M $4.6M
Rivera 8.8 $60.0M $6.8M
Papelbon 7.3 $28.4M $3.9M

While the Rays have been able to stay close to their competition in regard to save percentage, they have been well off the pace in terns of actual value with the closers. The only good news for the Rays is that they have spent significantly less in overall salary for the closer role, but that thriftiness has come at the cost of being four or more wins off the pace of the Yankees and Red Sox and it has not even ensured the best return on investment. The fact the Rays have nearly gotten the same value from Farnsworth this season (1.3 WAR) that Soriano had last season (1.6 WAR) for nearly $5M less shows why the rinse and repeat model the team has taken toward the closer role works and allows the team to avoid repeating the same mistakes that the previous regime did in overpaying pitchers to close out games.

The running joke this season is that Farnsworth is the team's non-closer but the reality is that Maddon understands that the label is much less important than the production and the situation in which that pitcher is used. Farnsworth was not traded this season so he could very well be the guy to break the seven-season stretch of new closers, but he could also be traded during the off-season if the opportunity presents itself. If that happens, the Rays will simply find another guy to come in and do the job as effectively as he did, or the six closers before him did if the measuring stick used the ever popular yet meaningless save percentage.