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Cy of Relief
2003-11-17 22:07
by Mike Carminati

We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.

—Abraham "Nunez" Lincoln

Think not so much of what thou hast not as of what thou hast: but of the things which thou hast select the best... At the same time, however, take care that thou dost not through being so pleased with them accustom thyself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if ever thou shouldst not have them.

—Marcus "Giles" Aurelius Antoninus from his Meditations

He pitched magnificently. In 77 games and 80+ innings he had recorded well over 50 saves and had an ERA well under 2.00. Who cared if his winning percentage was just .400? The Cy Young voters look at his stats and gave the Cy Young to…Bob Welch.

Oh, sorry. I wasn't speaking of Eric Gagne, who won the NL Cy Young the other day. It was Bobby Thigpen's great 1990 season that landed him in fourth place in both Win Shares (behind Clemens, Finley and Stewart and fractions ahead of Dennis Eckersley) and the Cy Young vote (behind Welch, Clemens, and Stewart but again ahead of Eckersley).

Thigpen and his one great season were the precursor to Gagne. Thigpen never had Gagne's stuff but he was used in a similar fashion and produced similar results. Leading up to Bobby Thigpen's record save year in 1990, baseball was pushing the closer limits as much as possible. In 1988, the major-league average closer recorded 25 saves for the same time. Every non-strike year since then, the average major-league closer has exceeded the 25-save threshold. As the Eighties ended teams used their closers in more and more a similar fashion. The standard deviation for team closers' save totals (6.96) dropped to its lowest since 1976 (not counting the strike year of 1982) and the standard deviation as a percentage of the average saves (27.38) was at an all-time low (just 25.41%).

This complacency was broken wide open in 1990 when, even though save totals fell (the average closer had 26.81), the ways that closers were used changed dramatically. The standard deviation of saves per closer nearly doubled and was an all-time high (11.11, which has been exceeded three times since, twice in the last two years). I have already offered my theory on this in my relievers study in the Nineties section. To summarize, the brief offensive onslaught of 1985-87 had subsided and the strategy of using one of your best pitchers as a closer who you hold off on using until late in the game to prevent a late-inning comeback by your opponent fell out of favor.

Tony LaRussa started using Dennis Eckersley in what I have termed the post-modern closer mold, i.e., fewer innings, shorter outings, and more saves. Oakland also had a great supporting cast in the bullpen so limiting Eckersley's innings didn't hurt them. This culminated with his 1992 MVP- and Cy Young-winning season, the second 50-save year for a closer.

Meanwhile, Thigpen's career feel apart: after his record 57-save season he only recorded 53 total saves for his career. Even though by 1992 Eckersley was used less in the post-modern role than he had been in the previous few (80 innings in 69 appearances), the post-modern closer took root. This was accelerated as most of the next decade were spent in an expansion-induced offensive explosion. Closers were held back until the ninth for fear that a lead would be lost in a final walk-off at-bat.

However, as the offensive onslaught slackened, the battle for the preferred usage of the closer role heated up like a debate between Heat Miser and Cold Miser. Since 2000, the varied use of relievers has gone through the roof. The standard deviation of saves hit 11% of the average for the second time since 1990. It's been over 11.25% each of the last two years. Meanwhile, the average number of saves climbed to an all-time high of 32.93 in 2002 only to fall by over four saves (to 28.00) this year. Eric Gagne led all closers with 55 saves, but this year also witnessed a team save leader—dare I say closer—who recorded only 5 saves (Franklyn German and/or Chris Mears of Detroit) and four other AL teams that didn't have a reliever record more than 16 saves (Boston, Seattle, Toronto, and the White Sox). Five saves for a team leader is the least that has been recorded since 1975 in a non-strike year.

By the way, here's a quicky comparison of Gagne's 2003 season with Thigpen and Eckersley's 1990 seasons:

Name     W-L  G SV  IP   H BB   K  ERA Adj WHIP  K:BB K/9IP Win Shares
Thigpen  4-6 77 57 88.2 60 32  70 1.83 210 1.04  2.19  7.11 20
Gagne    2-3 77 55 82.1 37 20 137 1.20 335 0.69  6.85 14.98 25
Eck      4-2 63 48 73.1 41  4  73 0.61 606 0.61 18.25  8.96 20

They all had great years, but only Gagne won the Cy Young.

OK, so where does that leave us? Oh, yeah, I don't think Gagne deserved the award this year (I would have tabbed Mark Prior or Jason Schmidt myself) and I'll explain why.

First, let me explain from an historical point of view. Just as Bill James said in 1991 of Bobby Thigpen's save record, "Obviously, Thigpen's record was brought about in part because of a change in the way that relief pitchers are used-a generalized change, operating th[r]oughout baseball," so too is Gagne's stats brought about by a recent return to that strategy.

Baseball took a slight evolutionary detour after the great success of Dennis Eckersley. This Neanderthaloid evolutionary dead end took a decade during perhaps the game's greatest offensive era, the Mets-ozoic Era, which also encompassed two rounds of expansion.

Perhaps with all the expansion bullpens got too watered down. It became very difficult to build a bullpen as effective as the Eck-era A's pen. There have been very good pens of late, but they seem to be more capturing lightning in a jar than crafting a pen by design.

Perhaps the trend played itself out. I mean, how long can you employ one of your best pitchers for just 50 innings a year? Byung-Hyun Kim moved back to the rotation and then back. Former closer Danny Graves went 4-15 in 2003, his first year as a full-time starter. And of course Derek Lowe successfully moved back to starting last year.

Also, teams started to realize that reliance on a player just because he has recorded 30 or o saves in the past is ludicrous. Big name closers like Mike Williams, Jose Mesa, Scott Williamson, Armando Benitez, and Billy Koch lost closer jobs on their teams or were traded to other teams and no longer closed. Journeymen like Rocky Biddle, Joe Borowski, Tom Gordon, Tim Worrell, Lance Carter, and Rod Beck inherited closer jobs and for the most part performed well.

Needless to say, the job of closer has gone through a reevaluation period the last couple of seasons. In Gagne, the Dodgers appointed a hard-throwing yet highly unsuccessful young starter as their closer in 2002. It revitalized his career to say the least. However, I see Gagne as a throwback to the Thigpen line. It's not that he hasn't pitched well, very well. I just think that his performance looks all the better for the shamples that closer role has become on many clubs, as well as his calling Dodgers Stadium home (though his 2003 home-road splits show no bias to Dodgers Stadium). He happens to be in the right role at the right time.

To illustrate, there have been 87 closers all time with at least 20 saves and an ERA under 2.00, starting with Ellis Kinder in 1953. 53 of them have done it while pitching at least 80 innings.

Well, one can argue that 20 saves is not 55. However, I think that the number of saves a closer records to a very large degree depends on his era and his usage. The Reds' Ted Abernathy recorded a 1.27 ERA in 1967 with 28 saves and a 6-3 record in 106.1 innings pitched. I know it was a pitcher's era, but his league-adjusted ERA is about the same as Gagne's (295 to 335) and he did it in so many more innings. In 1967, 28 saves were enough to lead the majors. So of course Abernathy got a ton of CyYoung votes, right? Uh, no. He didn't receive a one. Mike Mccormick, Jim Bunning, and Fergie Jenkins were the only men to receive any votes that year. Abernathy's season was worthy of 24 Win Shares, one fewer than Gagne this year and fractions behind league leader Bunning.

You say you want someone more recent. How about John Wetteland's 1993 season with the Expos? He was 9-3 with 43 saves in 85.1 innings over 70 appearances. He struck out 113 and walked just 28. His ERA was 1.37 and his adjusted ERA was 304. That's a pretty close match to Gagne. He was awarded 21 Win Shares, but was fourth behind league-leading Greg Maddux and Jose Rijo.

I should also point out that the Dodger bullpen featured two other pitchers with ERAs under 2.00, Paul Quantrill (1.75 ERA in 77.1 innings) and Guillermo Mota (1.97 in 105 innings). I have said that the Dodgers are the anti-Rockies. Pitchers go to the Dodgers and resurrect their careers (e.g. Hideo Nomo's second stint, Wilson Alvarez, Kevin Gross, and Odalis Perez , at least in 2002). Then when they leave they fall flat on their faces (e.g., Hideo Nomo after his first stint, Kevin Gross, Chan Ho Park, Ismael Valdes, Ramon Martinez, and Tim Belcher ). Not that pitching for the Dodgers bars a player from winning a Cy Young, but it should make us a bit leery just like we were of Vinny Castilla's and Dante Bichette's stats in Colorado.

Well, what about Gagne's historic 14.98 strikeouts per nine innings figure? Bill Wagner was the man he beat out (14.95 K/9 IP in 1999), and Wagner finished fourth in the Cy Young vote that year.

The last stat that people will throw out is Win Shares. Gagne led NL pitchers with 25 Win Shares, three more than Mark Prior, Jason Schmidt, and Livan Hernandez. Did anyone notice that Rheal Cormier finished 19th in the NL in pitching Win Shares, ahead of every other Phillie? Cormier had a very good season (1.70 ERA, 8-0 record, 54 hits and 25 walks in 84.2 innings/65 appearances). However, given that the Phils had four men win 14 games and three pitch over 200 innings, few would pick Cormier as their best pitching asset.

The reason is that Win Shares for relief pitchers is inherently problematic. I don't want to take anything away from James: Win Shares is probably the crowning moment of the career of baseball's greatest analyst since Henry Chadwick. However, trying to assign Win Shares to relievers is like trying to hit a moving target. The landscape of relief pitching has changed dramatically since James published Win Shares just two years ago. How can a standard formula be applied to all relievers throughout baseball history, especially when it takes a half dozen just to figure fielding Win Shares for third basemen throughout baseball history?

Given that relief pitching Win Shares were derived basically via a compromise in James' formulae, who's to say they are accurate for the 2003 season? Individual pitching Win Shares are derived from assigning claim points to a team's staff via a set of criteria and then meting out Win Shares appropriately. The criteria are runs allowed (the largest factor); wins, losses, and saves; save-equivalent innings; and batting. The claim point formula for wins/losses is ((W*3)-L+Sv) / 3 (p. 35). That seems pretty straightforward. Of course, one could argue that this formula really doesn’t measure anything, but at least it's straightforward enough. My problem is with Save Equivalent or Crucial innings. That formula is to multiply saves by three, cap the result at 90% of actual innings pitched, and finally add one for each hold (Hello, Rheal Cormier). The save-equivalent innings are then multiplied by the pitcher's component ERA added to a constant (.56) minus the team cutoff to get the claim points. OK, why not? But why 90%? Why not 80%? Or perhaps why not an era-specific percentage? Why multiple by three? Why not 2 or 4? Why not 2 in 2003 and 4 in 1967? To say that a save is a save no matter the era is problematic at best.

Win Shares is a valuable tool, but it's just that, a tool. Sometimes it proves useful; sometimes not. And given that the formulae for starting pitchers' and relief pitchers' Win Shares differ a great deal, it becomes dangerous to use Win Shares as the be all and end all for ranking all pitchers.

I think Win Shares is the shakiest ground from which to build one's argument for Gagne's Cy Young legitimacy. Gagne had a fine season, but I cannot accept an argument that his 82.1 innings were superior to Prior's 211.1 or Schmidt's 207.2 even if they came in save opportunities. And what of save opportunities? James showed in his New Historical Baseball Abstract that a closer is best used in games in which his team leads by one, the score is tied, or possibly if his team trails by one. Only one of those three would even be considered a save opportunity. Using a closer to hold a three-run lead in the ninth is mere overkill.

So, next we will take a look at Gagne's game log to determine if his appearances were indeed that crucial to his team's success to merit winning the award. Here is a table of Gagne's appearances and the situation when he entered the game. A Dodger lead is represented by the number of runs they led by at the time. If the Dodgers trailed, then the number of runs they trailed by is represented by a negative number:

Situation  -3+ -2  -1 Tied  1   2  3+
# Games:    2   0   1  13  24  11  26

Gagne seemed to be used in almost all of the Dodgers extra inning games (16). All of his five decisions came after he entered a tie ballgame. He gave up four runs in a tied game on May 12, one on June 23, and one on July 2, all for losses. He gave a run in a tie game on August 20, but the Dodgers came back to win the game. His second win he garnered when the Dodgers broke a tie ballgame in extra innings that when he was pitching. His other three appearances in which he relinquished a run were a) he gave up two runs when the Dodgers already trailed by more than 3, b) he gave up a run when he was provided a two-run lead, and c) he gave a run with a 3-run lead.

Basically, Gagne made 37 or 38 significant appearances out of 77. His 37 appearances when staked to two or more runs (26 with 3 or more) are the 19-yard field goal for closers. A competent one should be able to hold that lead. Yes, he did not blow any and yes, he only gave up two runs in those 37 games. However, if he were an average reliever, how many of those could he have blown? The Dodgers' team ERA was 3.16. An average Dodger pitcher would not have blown more than a handful of those games.

So it comes down to 13 tie ballgames, 24 with a one-run Dodger lead, and the one the Dodgers trailed by one run, i.e., the close games in which Gagne pitched. He "blew" four of those 13 tie ballgames, but none of the one-run leads. So basically Gagne was given the award for 33 or 34 ballgames in which he pitched mostly one inning. Prior started 30 games and Schmidt 29 and each went significantly longer than one or two innings in those ballgames. Finally, the Dodgers were 26-23 in one-run ballgames, so how significant was Gagne's performance anyway?

Gagne had a stellar year, but the role of the closer is still too marginalized to merit winning a Cy Young award.

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