The Closer Role Is Alive and Well

Perhaps it’s felt to you like it’s been a year of bullpen uncertainty. You wouldn’t be alone. Not only are certain bullpens wildly under- or over-achieving; there’s been a good number of jumbled roles. In some cases, there might not be any clear roles at all. I’m not just making that up. It’s essentially a direct quote:

There’s been some weirdness in, for example, Los Angeles. The same could be said of Oakland. Also, Toronto. Also, Tampa Bay. And so on and so forth. It feels like things have been unusually unconventional. It feels like perhaps we’re edging ever nearer to the end of the set closer role. That’s one of the oldest subjects in sabermetric commentary.

And there’s reason to think there’s something bigger going on. Consider what’s taken place within the Dodgers organization. The Dodgers have tried to spread around the saves, so that young pitchers grow accustomed to working out of different roles. This way, they teach their pitchers versatility, and everyone’s subjected to every situation. What that seems like is the future of bullpens. And, you wonder, is the future arriving today? Are we seeing different usage patterns at the major-league level?

Not so much. Not in a way that’s easily observable. The closer role is very much alive, and it’s hard to spot any statistical trends.

Let’s think about the 30-team era, stretching back to 1998. We can look at how saves have been distributed. Saves will always be there, even if they’re claimed by different guys. Who’s been doing the claiming? In the plot, the number of guys each year with at least 20 saves, and the number of guys with at least five. Those cutoffs are arbitrary, but useful. The former captures regular closers. The latter gives us an idea of saves being spread around.

saves and closers

Not a lot to see there. You might expect to see the 20+ guys diminish in number, with saves being spread around to more different relievers. There’s no such pattern. There are still just as many regular closers, if not more. We’re not suddenly seeing dozens more relievers pick up the occasional save.

How about some more on usage? The following plots consider gmLI, or Leverage Index when a pitcher enters a game. I’ve looked at average gmLI for groups of relievers, the groups being the top 30 in gmLI, the next 30, and the next 30. In the second plot, these will be referred to as Groups 1, 2, and 3, respectively.


That’s a pretty good picture of consistency. The top 30 have pitched in roughly the same situations. Same with the other groups, with a little bit of fluctuation. Maybe it would be easier to look at this same data expressed as differences between groups. So:

gmLI differences

The difference between Group 1 and Group 2 is the same as it was in 2005. There’s a bit of a wider difference between Groups 1 and 3, suggesting that maybe high-leverage situations have been given a little more exclusively to the top arms, but it’s a very small effect, if it’s real. And it very well might not be, since it’s only the middle of May.

This is a simple plot to examine. Maybe this is all we need to look at. For each year, I grabbed the top 30 relievers in total saves, then I calculated a rate of saves over appearances. It’s a proxy for save situations vs. non-save situations, and what you might expect is a downward trend over time as ace relievers show up in other innings and tighter spots. Frequently, the highest leverage takes place in a save situation, but it’s not always like that.

save game rate

We’re actually at a high point, for the period examined. The guys getting the saves have been doing more of that, and less of the other stuff. This is the opposite of what you might think, and what seems clear is there’s at least not a trend the other way.

Consider the landscape now. There’s not that much closer uncertainty. David Robertson just got a big free-agent contract. Andrew Miller was paid well and installed as a closer. Same with Luke Gregerson. Francisco Rodriguez got significant money. Huston Street just signed an extension. The Dodgers went against the grain only while Kenley Jansen was sidelined. The A’s talked about jumbled roles only with Sean Doolittle hurt. The Rays talked about how they didn’t consider Brad Boxberger the closer, but he’s been used like a closer, and only while Jake McGee has been out. Blue Jay uncertainty came out of Brett Cecil uncertainty. Marlins uncertainty came out of Steve Cishek struggling. Rangers uncertainty came out of Neftali Feliz being bad. Addison Reed was closing for the Diamondbacks until he was too ineffective. The teams that’ve been without set closers planned on having closers. It’s just that plans have gone awry.

It’s 2015, and we’ve still got closers. Those closers, by and large, are used roughly as they have been used before. Sometimes, you’ll see a closer enter a tie game, or maybe a one-run game in the seventh or the eighth, but that isn’t real common. There are still closer roles, and there are still other roles built around them. Now, granted, there might be differences in how they’re paid. There might be less emphasis on experience. There have been some changes within the role itself, but the role is still present. The ideal might be a group of relievers ready to go at all times in all situations, and the Dodgers appear to be working on that, but in the majors, people like to know when they can expect to be used. And so we see that, generally, bullpens are used as they’ve been used. What trends there are will be gradual.

In a sense, the closer role is dying like we are. As we sit here today, we don’t think about the certainty that there will come a day we’re not sitting here. We know that we will meet our ends, but if all goes well, it’s going to be some time, so much time that it’s not worth fretting over. Every now and then, you might notice a new ache, or a new spot. Aging is ceaseless, and we age to a known end, but typically those little signs turn out to be nothing. We know where the closer role is headed. I just wouldn’t plan around a funeral.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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The Save/Game rate is likely somewhat affected by the overall decline of offense/rise of pitching phenomenon over the last few years. Fewer runs scored = less variance = fewer saves blown = more saves by closers.

Jason B
Jason B

And I would think you would see more save opportunities in a 4 runs/team/game environment than in a 5 runs/team/game environment. Slightly more 3-2 and 4-2 type games, fewer 11-5 and 10-3 types.

Jason B
Jason B

Or not! Should have read the next post 🙂