Saturday, November 26, 2005

Down with the Greeks, All Hail Closers
By Bryan Koch

This can’t be what Billy Beane had in mind.

Rumors are flying that the Blue Jays are set to sign B.J. Ryan to a forty-seven million dollar contact over five years. In other words, Toronto is committing at least ten percent (and the figure will almost certainly be higher than that) of their anticipated annual payroll to a pitcher who will ultimately be responsible for approximately six percent of their total innings pitched, at most. Mathematically, this makes little sense. Kind of like the Beta Band breaking up. That was stupid. But I digress. Steve Mason’s solo project better be just impeccable.

The initial reaction around baseball, from what I can garner, seems to be that the Blue Jays are overpaying. Granted, they’re guaranteeing themselves an ERA in the low 2’s in those innings pitched by Ryan, but is the former Oriole really worth that fat of a paycheck?

No matter how we answer this question, the move still signifies how greatly JP Ricciardi is willing to deviate from Beane’s philosophy. Ryan is a phenomenal pitcher, but Beane, Ricciardi’s mentor of sorts, has long been a proponent of the credo that closers are simply overrated; that their innings “count,” in terms of long-term expectations, no more than those thrown by any other pitcher.

The theories emerging from the closely-linked Bill James school of thought were largely responsible for the “bullpen by committee” disaster that was the 2003 Red Sox, though Oakland has been extraordinarily successful with its own approach (still, how often do you see Ken Macha using Huston Street in a “relief ace” role?).

However, I simply disagree with Beane’s assessment. I don’t believe that the Yankees would be as successful if they were to throw Mariano Rivera in the first inning all of the time instead of the ninth. It seems to me that talented closers’ innings are more valuable precisely because a team can guarantee that its best pitcher is utilized when it has the highest probability of victory.

As a piece of evidence, consider the Yankees’ teams of the Rivera era:

Year: Expected Wins (Pythagorean)-Actual Wins

1996: 88-----92
1997: 100----96
1998: 108---114
1999: 96----98
2000: 85----87
2001: 89----95
2002: 99----103
2003: 96----101
2004: 89----101
2005: 90----95
Total: 940---982

Note: Rivera was effectively used as an “eighth inning closer” in 1996, when John Wetteland handled the ninth inning duties. Can you believe in ten years’ time, we’ve gone from Rivera pitching in the eighth to Tanyon Sturtze potentially taking over that role? Scary.

In other words, the Yankees have won 42 more games than they “should have” over the past decade, or an average of 4.2 wins per season.
One Iraqi soccer player reflects after learning that Tanyon Sturtze is presently the Yankees’ second best reliever.
I present this information not to decry Pythagorean W-L totals, but instead to bolster my claim that a dominant closer, coupled with proper management of said closer, can account for a team consistently surpassing its statistical expectations. To attribute these extra forty-two wins to luck would be blind; this is far too large of a sample size, and trend, for anyone to point to statistical fluctuations.

I don’t think this at all dismisses the “relief ace” philosophy. If the 3-4-5 hitters are coming up in the eighth inning, then it makes some sense to send out your best pitcher. Still, because one inning is yet to have been played, the security afforded by the knowledge that your best pitcher will likely be preserving victory is somewhat more fallible.

Still, this does evidence to me that an overwhelmingly successful closer can help a team earn more victories than its talent would otherwise produce.

It seems to me that the recent Yankees have disproved the theory that all innings count equally. For years, their middle relief has been absolutely abominable. Still, because Joe Torre understands when to put his top guys - particularly Rivera - on the mound, the Yankees are able to overcome this weakness. Therefore, for teams on the fringe of October, a proven closer is often the difference. However, it makes little sense for teams looking to rebuild to invest so heavily in a guy who won't drastically alter a team's projected win total.

But are the Blue Jays really on the cusp? Though many casual fans are quick to lump them in with the consistently mediocre Orioles, they are deeply mistaken: Toronto’s Pythagorean win total last season was 88. In terms of run differential, their competition in the Bronx was only twenty-seven runs better.

Still, the Blue Jays missed their expected win total by eight games last season. I’m going to attribute that to a combination of misfortune and shoddy closing: Miguel Batista posted an ERA over 4 last season; not bad for an average reliever, but disappointing for a closer.

Is B.J. Ryan worth forty-seven million dollars over five years? Absolutely not. Thirty-four million over four would have been more reasonable. However, in order to fill in a critical part of the puzzle, sometimes teams must overpay. Financially, this doesn’t look so great for the Jays, but if Ryan continues to produce at this level, Toronto will be dangerously close to surpassing both the Yankees and Red Sox.

New York and Boston, beware: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. That the Blue Jays have new payroll flexibility this season has been well-documented, and they are still considered the front-runners for AJ Burnett. I think the former Marlin is vastly overrated, but the bottom line is that the Blue Jays will upgrade further before Spring Training approaches. Most of their talent is young and should only improve.

B.J. Ryan may not quite make the difference of a player who annually is paid ten million dollars. However, considering the Rivera example, he may be the player who pushes the Blue Jays over the top: and certainly, the city of Toronto will forgive management if it requires a few extra dollars to get there.


Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Interesting post Bryan. Consider also the Mets, who if they played to their run differential last year, were not only one of the best teams in the NL, but would have been one game worse than Houston. But Braden Looper was their closer. Was he the reason they played below their expected totals? Food for thought.

However, I don't think Billy Beane hates closers. Remember he's always tried to have a clear cut guy on roster (Izzy, Billy Koch, Keith Foulke, Dotel, Street). The Red Sox closer by committee was the argument that since they didn't have a dominate closer, it didn't matter who would close. If the Sox had Rivera, believe me they would close. It's the same argument the White Sox used this year. They didn't have a dominate closer so they went by committee.

With the Beane's teams, it's usually been an issue of cash; could they afford to pay a closer or would they be better going with a cheaper alternative. The A's have been able to get by. The Jays have more money than Oakland, so they were able to break the bank for Ryan.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Bryan Koch said...


Point taken on the Mets. I really think Wagner makes them a playoff team next season, assuming they acquire one of their two targets at catcher. And if Beltran returns to his old form? Forget about it.

Beane doesn't hate guys who we call "closers," per se. Instead, he hates the notion that we deem closers more valuable because they are pitching in the ninth inning. My point is that ninth-inning performance (on a well-managed team) is slightly more correlative with win totals than, say, seventh-inning performance. I'm hardly completely convinced of this notion, but as of yet I haven't come across anything which convinces me otherwise, and the Rivera years seem quite indicative that there's some significance here which might transcend long-term statistical expectations, which value each inning equally.

As for the Red Sox, of course Rivera would have thrown in the ninth inning, but the more important point was that their front office didn't believe it necessary to have a ninth-inning dominator.

Consider the following two bullpens:

Group A: 6 pitchers with a 4.00 ERA

Group B: 2 pitchers with a 2.00 ERA, 4 pitchers with a 5.00 ERA

Of course, the two bullpens (assuming each pitcher throws the same number of innings, for argument's sake) will allow the same number of runs.

The Red Sox front office saw no difference between these two groups. My contention is that Group B is more valuable.

Of course Beane has built his reputation on a dearth of funds from above. Still, do you think he gives Ryan this contract if he's in charge in Toronto? I'm not so sure.

11:08 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

The real question is why the Mets wouldn't offer the H2-load of money to Ryan, as opposed to Wagner. Four years younger, is he? Yeah, I want BJ for five years, not Billy for four.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Beane might not, mainly because it's a pretty big contract to be handing out. I'm not in favor of any contract over 4 years; they tend to blow up in the face of the team. Think about it, Kevin Brown, Mike Hampton, Mo Vaughn, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Manny even... heck Carlos Beltran? The only long term deal I remember being useful for most of the deal was Mike Piazza's and even his last two and a half years were bad.

As for the Sox, I don't remember if there was someone available that year to acquire. When that guy came on the market next year in Foulke, they got him.

And the Mets should have made Ryan a four year offer instead of one for Wagner. But if its Ryan for five and Wagner for three, I'd probably call it a wash. Of course Ryan for five and Wagner for four, I'd take Ryan.

12:55 AM  

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