The Rays and Proven Closers | The Process Report

The Rays and Proven Closers

After a few days off, I planned on writing a piece countering all the talk about the Rays needing an experienced closer. Joe Posnanski then went and wrote this and sparked me in a different direction. Here was the paragraph that stood out to me:

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.

I stole the concept and did some research work on the Rays’ win percentage by season in games that they carried the advantage entering the ninth inning. The results are below, but perhaps unexpectedly 2010 leads the way. Soriano’s presence and the Rays’ return to the playoffs is an unfortunate correlation. Now the idea is that the Rays cannot win without a set (and proven!) closer. Except, that’s what they did in 2008. Troy Percival was around (and awful) and somehow only recorded eight more saves than the rest of the Rays’ relievers combined.

Season Win%
2010 0.988
2004 0.984
2008 0.977
1999 0.971
2003 0.961
2009 0.959
2000 0.949
2001 0.933
2006 0.931
2005 0.918
1998 0.915
2007 0.898
2002 0.827

In second place is the Danys Baez led 2004 squad. Unlike Percival, Baez didn’t share saves. In 2004 he ate 30 of the 35 available. And why not, he was a proven closer, right? Not quite. Baez had closed with the Indians the season before and he’d blown 28% of his opportunities. He was much improved on a save conversion basis in 2004, however labeling him as proven entering that season is revisionist history.

You know why? Because folks slam J.P. Howell over his career save rate. Howell took the blunt of the blame for the 2009 bullpen falling apart. More specifically, the Rays’ lack of a proven closer became the goat. Saying Howell had proven untrustworthy in save situations then is just as ridiculous an assertion as it is now. The only question about Howell’s ability to pitch in big spots is his health, and that has nothing to do with closer’s mentality or knowing roles or whatever charge folks tried pinning to Howell. Here’s proof:

Pitcher A: 656 G, .202/.251/.271
Pitcher B: 154 G, .182/.235/.323
Pitcher C: 50 G, .184/.298/.263

Pitcher A is Mariano Rivera. Pitcher B is Rafael Soriano. Pitcher C is J.P. Howell. Those are career stats in save situations. Howell is so awful, so unproven, so unworthy that his career numbers in save spots feature a lower batting average against than Rivera and a lower slugging percentage than Soriano and Rivera. The higher on-base percentage makes sense, as Howell has the tendency to be more wild. That’s not good, but Howell hedges the damage as best as he can possibly can through being a hassle to square up.

There’s not much else to add here. Those are real world results. There’s no way an objective person can look at that line and suggest Howell is somehow unfit to close relative to the other two. Those lines include home runs, they include singles, they include walks and strikeouts and everything. This isn’t FIP. This isn’t DIPS theory. There are no assumptions that all batted balls are equal. Or that home run rates normalize. These are just raw, unadjusted results. Raw, unadjusted results that cripple the supposed need for a proven late-innings reliever. The Rays don’t need one, they have one. What they really need is him to be healthy. Oddly enough, that same necessity applied when the Rays acquired Soriano and Percival.



3 Comments

  1. buddaley wrote:

    I think I am correct that 5 of Howell’s 6 “blown saves” in 2009 came before he was the regular closer. Four occurred in the 8th inning and one in the 7th inning. After that he was perfect as the designated closer except for one blown save on August 22 by which time his arm problem was beginning to take its toll. From June 14, when he got his 3rd save to August 22, he converted 13 in a row. After that his pitching deteriorated not due to any sudden loss of the ability to pitch the 9th but because he was hurt.

    • R.J. Anderson wrote:

      Good point. I don’t believe many who would attack him for not being closer material also attack him for being an untrustworthy setup man, despite your point on his blown “saves” coming in that role.

  2. Jason Collette wrote:

    Since 2005, Troy Percival is the only closer that has had as many as a single save the season after serving as the primary closer for the franchise.

    2005 – Danyz Baez 41, 2006 0
    2006 – Tyler Walker 14, 2007 0
    2007 – Al Reyes 26, 2008 0
    2008 – Troy Percival 28, 2009 6
    2009 – J.P. Howell 17, 2010 0
    2010 – Rafael Soriano 45
    2011 – ????

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