The Evolution of the Closer
In his Hall of Fame career,
Rollie Fingers recorded 36 saves of three innings or more.
Neither Trevor Hoffman nor Mariano Rivera has ever recorded one
save of three innings or more.
With Bruce Sutter recently elected to the Hall of Fame and Goose
Gossage moving closer to election, the question of how to evaluate
relievers seems more elusive than ever. This is the first of several
studies comparing top relief pitchers as a way of illustrating the
shifting in relief roles which has occurred over the past few decades.
One useful way of comparing relievers is to look at how hard they
worked. A common criticism leveled at current closers it that they have
it relatively easy when they pick up saves by working the 9th inning
with a two- or three-run lead. Is this actually the case? Did the elite
relievers of the 1970s work that much harder, and do they deserve more
respect for doing so?
The seven pitchers in this study provide a vivid cross-section of the
37 seasons since 1969, when saves became an official statistic and the
way we look at relievers began to change. Three of the seven have
already been elected to the Hall of Fame: Rollie Fingers, Dennis
Eckersley, and Bruce Sutter. Two others were the top vote-getters among
relievers on the 2006 ballot who were not elected: Goose Gossage and Lee
Smith. The final two are active pitchers with the most career saves in
their respective leagues: Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman
ranks second to Smith on the all-time saves list, and Rivera holds the
all-time record for saves in the post-season.
The subject of this study is how hard relievers work to get saves.
Just as a starting pitcher who completes the game has worked harder than
one who lasts only six or seven innings, so can a reliever's workload -
his contribution to the team's winning effort - be measured in terms of
innings pitched. One argument in favor of enshrining Bruce Sutter is
that even though his career lasted only a dozen years and 17 pitchers
rank ahead of him in career saves, he worked harder for his saves, often
pitching two or three innings to do so. So I tallied exactly how many
outs were recorded in every one of these pitchers' saves.
For each pitcher, the chart shows the number of saves recorded
pitching a certain number of innings, and below that figure is listed
the percentage of his overall saves that figure accounts for. For
example, 10.6% of Rollie Fingers' saves were recorded when he pitched
three or more innings.
Saves by Innings Pitched
The numbers tell us quite a bit. Sutter pitched at least two innings
in 43.3% of his career saves, more than any of the others. Gossage and
Fingers weren't far behind, with Fingers the only pitcher who pitched at
least three innings in more than 10% of his saves. Sutter and Gossage
had more saves where they logged at least two innings than saves where
they pitched an inning or less.
Contrast their innings with those pitched by Eckersley, Rivera, and
Hoffman. The great majority of their saves involved pitching one inning
or less, with few appearances outside of the 9th inning. Look at it this
way: from May 27 through July 4, 1984 (39 days), Sutter had more saves
where he pitched at least two innings (nine) than Hoffman has in his
whole career, and the same number as Rivera has in his career. Gossage
did the same thing from August 15, 1980 through the end of that season,
and Fingers accomplished it in a 53-day stretch in 1978. These pitchers
acted as their own "set-up" men. They joined the fray in the
7th or 8th inning when the lead was threatened, put out the fire, and
finished the job themselves.
What separates Rivera from the pack of recent closers is his stalwart
work in postseason play. In these most crucial games, his manager, Joe
Torre, has not hesitated to bring him in early. In 27 of his 34
postseason saves (79.4%), Rivera has entered in the 8th inning. A dozen
times (35.3%), he has worked two full innings for a save. Throw in a
career E.R.A. of 0.81 in the postseason, and that makes him the most
likely current reliever to make the Hall of Fame.
The change from multiple-inning to one-inning closers is seen most
dramatically in the career of Lee Smith. From 1981-1990, he carried a
load similar to the trio of Fingers, Gossage, and Sutter. However, from
1991 through the end of his career, he was used much the same way that
Hoffman has been. The statistical breakdown shows the shifting trend.
From 1981-1990, 44.2% of Smith's saves took one inning of work or less,
a little more than Fingers & Co.; from 1991 on, that figure
increased to 90.1%. His saves of 2+ innings went from 34% all the way
down to 1.9%. It was during the second phase of his career that Smith
recorded his top four seasonal totals for saves. He was no longer
putting out troublesome fires in earlier innings; like most closers of
the past 15 years, his duty was limited to the 9th inning.
Pitchers and statisticians will tell you that apart from coming in
simply to get the final out of the game, the least stressful save
involves coming in at the start of the 9th inning (or an extra inning).
There's nobody on base, no imminent threat, and no reason to attempt
anything besides overpowering three batters before a run or two (or
three) can score. The study reveals some revealing trends in this
category. Fingers and Gossage enjoyed this relatively carefree entrance
in only one-sixth of their saves. It happened a little more often for
Sutter, but still only 22%. For Smith, it was 27.2% in the first part of
his career, but 78.9% in the second part, nearly four-fifths of the
time. Hoffman has recorded three-fourths of his career saves in this
Modern managers are making things as easy as they can for their
closers. For Eckersley, Rivera, and Hoffman (and Smith after 1990), when
they worked the 9th inning, more than 95% of the time they started the
inning. That was not the case with the earlier workhorses. When Fingers
recorded three outs for a save, he started the 9th inning only 65.4% of
the time. That is, more than a third of the time, Fingers got the call
with nobody out and runners on base. Gossage got to start the 9th in
72.9% of his three-out saves, and Sutter in 80.5%, all well below the
more recent save specialists. No matter how you look at it, the earlier
trio worked much harder for their saves.
NOTE: This study is limited to games in which saves were recorded.
There are more contexts to be examined, such as the size of the lead
when relievers enter the game, inherited runners, and other measures of
how dangerous the situation is. Those will be the subjects of further
studies, as will success rates and blown saves. Most of this work is
possible because of the widespread gathering of information for the www.retrosheet.org
website. Thank you to Dave Smith and Retrosheet for providing this data
to the public and for providing more detailed files to me to facilitate
Gabriel Schechter is a Research Associate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and
Museum, and author of Unhittable: Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons.
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