In the wake of yesterday’s horrendous performance by Kevin Gregg I started thinking about closers. Watching him nibble around the strike zone, walk batter after batter, and finally completely break down gave me mixed emotions. In fact, the closer position has always given me mixed feelings.
On one hand, it should be simple. You are a major league pitcher and all you have to do is record three outs. In most cases, you are coming into the game 100% fresh. You haven’t been on the mound for several innings and logged over 100 pitches. How hard can it be?
On the other hand, it is the most difficult time of the game. Sure only three outs are required, but the game is close, and all eyes are upon you. Failure is not an option as you will not have the opportunity to come out in the next inning and fix your mistakes. Starting pitchers can do that, closers can not.
So to me closers are a mixed bag. They really should have great numbers, but all it takes is one bad outing and the stats go haywire. It takes a lot of three-up three-down innings to repair the damage done to an ERA by a blown three-run save.
After Gregg’s failure I decided to hunt for how many truly elite closers are out there, by using the incredible data at baseball-reference.com. According to their wealth of statistical information, a 30-save season has been accomplished 368 times in major league history. But after sweating though many of Gregg’s saves this season, everybody can clearly tell that there is a difference between a good save and a bad save, and by extension between a good 30-save season and a not-so-good 30-save season.
So what defines a good save? Obviously, a three-up three-down inning is best. Putting runners on base, via hit or walk, brings a closer face-to-face with disaster – the blown save. But clearly a three-up three-down inning can not be accomplished each and every time out. So what defines a good season for a closer?
To me, ALL of the following criteria have to be met:
– 40+ saves in the season (showing reliability)
– a sub 2.00 ERA (showing the ability to prevent runs)
– a sub 1.00 WHIP (showing dominance – preventing runners from getting on base)
My original hypothesis was that after inputting all of those parameters I would see approximately 75 or more individual seasons on the list, or about three seasons each year from the mid-80’s when closers started to become fashionable.
I was WAY off.
A season that sees a closer save 40 or more games with a sub 2.00 ERA and 1.00 WHIP has been accomplished only 21 times in MLB history, by 15 different men:
– Armando Benitez (2004), Billy Wagner (2003), Bryan Harvey (1991, 1993), Chad Cordero (2005), Dan Quisenberry (1983), Dennis Eckersley (1990, 1992), Eric Gagne (2002, 2003), J.J. Putz (2007), Joakim Soria (2008), Joe Nathan (2004), John Smoltz (2003), Mariano Rivera (1999, 2005, 2009), Michael Jackson (1998), Robb Nen (1998, 2000), Trevor Hoffman (1998)
Two things strike me about that list. One – there are no Blue Jays on it. We thought that Tom Henke and Duane Ward were lights out dominant. I guess they were a bit below that. Two – there are only 15 players on it!!!! That tells me that for every save that we have had to bite our nails for with Kevin Gregg, or Billy Koch, or BJ Ryan, or Jason Frasor, virtually EVERY OTHER TEAM IN BASEBALL is doing the same thing!!!
So don’t feel so bad Mr. Gregg. Though you screwed up royally yesterday, you are definitely not alone.