Is the "save" what it used to be?
         Nasty does not begin to describe the stuff Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel possess.  The two young fireballers have turned into two of the most dominant relief pitchers in all of baseball.  Notice I said “relief” pitchers, not closers.  Although technically they are perceived as closers, they should not be used in the ninth inning exclusively to “close” out games.  Kimbrel is leading the National League in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), while Chapman is right behind him at 16.35 K/9 and 15.60 K/9 respectively.  So, if your team has a one run lead in the 7th inning with the bases loaded and 1 out, why would a manager not go to his best strikeout guy? This is because of the save statistic and the fact that closers are defined by how many saves they can record. 

            Nowadays, you see a closer, someone who is generally regarded as the team’s best reliever, come into a game more often when the team has a 3 run lead at the start of the ninth inning.  The amount of pressure in these situations is drastically different.  One way to measure different pressure situations is with leverage index. Leverage index determines the weight of a particular situation due to the inning, score, and outs present at the time. This simplifies pressure-packed or pressure absent at a certain point during the game. For example, the leverage index for a reliever coming in the bottom of the ninth with nobody on and nobody out with a three run lead is 1.0, or in other words, a low leverage situation. On the other hand, a bases loaded, down two, nobody out scenario in the 7th assigns a high leverage number of 4.1. "Firemen" like Chapman and Kimbrel should be used when the pressure is at its highest point in the game. Yes, more often than not, this situation arises before the ninth inning, often representing the turning point of a ball game. However, some teams have done a better job of maximizing their pitcher's ability in pitching higher leverage circumstances. Guys like Fernando Rodney of Tampa Bay and Jim Johnson of Baltimore have emerged as the game’s best relievers and have become poster children for pitching with increased pressure. For example, Johnson leads the league in games entered with high leverage present (leverage index greater than 1.5). On the other hand, Rodney leads all relievers in situational wins saved, a computation of win probability added divided by the leverage index or pressure at a given time. Also, both pitchers rank in the top ten in terms of pitching with high leverage index. In other words, they have pitched the most in pressured packed situations. By maximizing a pitcher's ability and bringing him when the "fire" is its hottest, teams are better able to preserve and secure victories. Again, it is not a coincidence that these teams are either in the playoffs or were in contention until the last week of the season (Tampa Bay).

            Clearly, pitchers that can come in and shutdown a rally or strikeout somebody out when necessary is crucial to any team’s success.  A shutdown or meltdown would be a better way to look at a reliever’s success rather than just look at the save statistic. Shutdowns and meltdowns offer an alternative to the save statistic by simply analyzing whether a pitcher helped or hurt his teams' chances of winning. If a pitcher improved his team's chances of winning by at least 6%, he gets a shutdown. If he hurts his team's chances by 6% or more, then he is awarded a meltdown. This has no silly rules (rule 10.19) to follow and treats all relief pitchers equally (instead of favoring closers like the save statistic implies). Not surprisingly, the aforementioned “closers” have some of the best shutdown ratios in the league (Kimbrel: 37 SD, 4 MD, Chapman: 41 SD, 6 MD, Johnson: 46 SD, 3 MD, Rodney: 34 SD, 2 MD). Yet, even with these excellent numbers, it does not necessarily mean that pitchers are capitalizing on their talent. Would you rather have a middle relief journeyman pitching in a high leverage situation, or a talented flamethrower capable of getting a much needed strikeout? I think the answer is quite obvious and just further illustrates why the current status quo must be changed.



Leave a Reply