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Does being proven mean anything?
By: Aidan Flynn

Throughout the years, I have often heard of the notion that teams need "proven" closers in order to succeed. After all, how else would the Yankees have won all those titles without Mariano Rivera? With the reputation of the ninth inning "being a different animal" and more pressure-intensive, it is understandable to see why many fans and more mainstream analysts think that way.

Common sense would say that only those that have "been there, done that" can know the intricacies of shutting down the last three outs of a ball game. How else could it be possible for one to "save" the game without having pure intestinal fortitude and balls of steel? While many still hold onto this belief, I believe the myth of the proven closer is one based more on narrative than proven fact.  
Even though Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon continue to close out games at an alarmingly successful rate, the volatility of major league relievers (that is, reliever performance tends to be unpredictable and erratic) is one that is quite dramatic and noticeable. This volatility is real and can be attributed to the regression to the mean phenomenon,  an occurrence seen when extreme performances tend to balance or stabilize over time.

While this tendency afflicts all players, major league relievers are especially subject to this because their limited innings do not allow for much stabilization over the course of a season. In other words, the outside factors that allow a pitcher to succeed one season (luck, health, weaker opponents, etc), tend to disappear or decline substantially in the following campaign. Of course, with any sort of trend there are exceptions (the aforementioned Rivera, Papelbon, and Craig Kimbrel), but the turnover rate among relievers is staggering.

A study done by Baseball Prospectus' Ben Lindbergh in the book "Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers", found that an average of 60% of the top 50 relievers one season fail to make the list the very next year. Then, when comparing how those very top 50 relievers did three years later, only 26% of remained on the list. Below lists the findings of Ben's research (click to embiggen)
For those that prefer a bit simpler numbers, just look at the saves leaders the past two seasons. Among those in the top ten in saves in 2011, only one (Kimbrel) made the list in 2012. Both show a massive turnover rate and something that prevents even "proven" closers from remaining "proven" for very long. It's not that they cannot handle the heat; it's that their true talents are masked by various factors sometimes not stabilized until years later. 
For those still that still doubt me, let's look at a comparison of two pitchers, one with the "proven closer" label, and another who has been criticized for lacking the ninth inning mindset necessary to close.

2012 Numbers

Pitcher 1: 19 saves, 8 blown saves, 63.2 innings, 8.34 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 5.09 ERA

Pitcher 2: 25 saves, 8 blown saves, 84 innings, 8.04 K/9, 3.32 BB/9, 5.36 ERA

Clearly, both pitchers had a rough time closing out games, and perhaps unsurprisingly, both were relieved of the role by the end of the season. Pitcher 1 happens to be Heath Bell, who averaged 44 saves and a 2.36 ERA as closer for the Padres, but struggled in his first and only season with the Marlins. Pitcher 2 is Alfredo Aceves, who had saved only four games in his career before he was thrust into the role in 2012. One is clearly more proven than the other, yet neither one was any good at closer last year. 

Skeptics will say that despite the struggles, Bell has been successful in the past while Aceves has not. This, although true, is a foolish and  idiotic way to rationalize the proven closer. Essentially, one is assigning "the closer mentality" only after the fact. Since Bell pitched well (even though he perhaps was pitching over his head and was the beneficiary of good luck), he gets labeled with having  the bulldog mindset necessary to finish out games.

Aceves, while a good pitcher in the past, experienced some bad luck in 2012 (admittedly, as did Bell), and gets labeled as lacking the guts to close. Also, his apparent hyperhidrosis (abnormal sweating) probably didn't help his cause with the media and fans alike. This success or failure, whether luck or true skill, acts as a confirmation bias to the "proven" closer hypothesis. This bias completely disregards the actual talent level and makes unnecessary and flawed assumptions based on a limited sample size. More often than not, people mistake past success as proven and past failure as utter incompetence in the role. Clearly, it's just not that cut and dry.
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Evidence of Aceves' hyperhidrosis?
Additionally, if the above evidence isn't damning enough, we see unproven pitchers succeed in these roles every year. This year alone saw the major league leader in saves (the Orioles' Jim Johnson had 51 saves) have previously limited exposure to the closer role. Johnson didn't just pitch decent in this "pressure-packed" role; he thrived in the midst of the Orioles' first pennant run in fifteen years. A situation in which most believers would think he would crumble, Johnson was light's out. And it wasn't just Johnson. First year closers Tyler Clippard, Addison Reed, and Tom Wilhelmson all saved at least 29 games with SV% rates of 85% or higher.

The problem isn't the lack of sufficient pitchers ready to step in the role. It's that, quite often, the failures are given more publicity with the successes, giving the notion that only "proven" guys can succeed. In turn, front offices can succumb to the pressures of the media and fans by going out and spending money on a high-priced closer, just for the sake of a false sense of security. Even if the closer pitches poorly, it is seen more favorably because it shows the fans and media that ownership was "trying" despite having clearly better in-house alternatives. Not only is it bad business, but it only further adds to the legend of the "proven closer".

Often, when inexperienced pitchers are assigned the role of closer, they don't have a very long leash. Given its rising status as a prominent position, closers that fail to do the job (even with limited opportunities) get wrongfully branded as being incapable of the job.

I find it ironic, that before their actual performance is looked at (example: maybe pitcher X just isn't very good), people automatically assume that that pitcher just doesn't have the stones necessary to close. This probably bothers me most of all when I hear people discuss the need for the "proven" closer.

This last point of mine is more opinion than fact, but I always felt that if those that could make it to the major leagues and have the stomach to play in front of 40,000 drunk, obnoxious, obscene, fans every night, with even more watching on live television, they wouldn't be too fazed by three outs at the end of the game. Besides, those that are fazed by that stuff probably don't last long enough to even get the opportunity to close. These people have literally spent their entire lives playing baseball, specifically training their bodies and minds to withstand the pressures of the major leagues. 

Call me cynical, but I have a hard time believing a couple of outs, one of thousands made in their careers, should be any different.
 


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