StrategyMay 5, 2008

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Closer Kool-Aid?

By Scott Swanay

So, you convinced yourself that this year was going to be different. Rather than grab a second closer before anyone else in your league’s draft or auction, you decided to wait. And wait. And wait some more. Finally, when you couldn’t take it any more, you grabbed Eric Gagne, Jason Isringhausen, or Trevor Hoffman to go along with the top-shelf closer you claimed earlier in the proceedings.

Now what? Gagne has a 6.14 ERA and a 1.70 WHIP in 14 2/3 innings pitched to go along with his 9 saves and 17 strikeouts. Isringhausen has a 6.59 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP in 13 2/3 innings pitched to offset his 10 saves and 11 strikeouts. Hoffman has a 6.52 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 9 2/3 innings pitched and has somehow managed to rack up 5 saves and 9 strikeouts along the way.

Just how much will these lower-tier closers impact your pitching staff over the course of a season? Obviously, if they lose their jobs, the decision is pretty much made for you – it’s time to cut bait. However, suppose that doesn’t happen – what should you do then? Do the saves these closers rack up outweigh the damage they do to your team’s ERA and WHIP?

Let’s assume that you’re playing in a league that requires a 9-man pitching staff. Suppose that you go with 6 starting pitchers, 2 closers, and 1 middle reliever. Let’s assume that your starting pitchers average 180 innings pitched, 14 wins, 160 strikeouts, a 4.00 ERA, and a 1.32 WHIP. Let’s assume that your middle reliever pitches 80 innings with 3 wins, 6 saves, 70 strikeouts, a 2.50 ERA, and a 1.10 WHIP. Let’s also assume that your stud closer will wind up with 75 innings pitched, 3 wins, 40 saves, 75 strikeouts, a 2.25 ERA, and a 1.00 WHIP.

Finally, let’s assume that your consolation-prize closer has 70 innings pitched, 3 wins, 35 saves, 60 strikeouts, a 4.50 ERA, and a 1.40 WHIP. Quite honestly, any of you who currently own Gagne, Isringhausen, or Hoffman would gladly settle for that contribution – you might even be downright ecstatic!

Your pitching staff’s year-end totals with your second closer: 1,305 innings pitched; 93 wins; 81 saves; 1,165 strikeouts; a 3.83 ERA, and a 1.292 WHIP.

Suppose that at the beginning of the season, instead of picking your bargain-bin closer, you had selected a second middle reliever with identical stats to your first one. Then your year-end team totals would look like this: 1,315 innings pitched; 93 wins; 52 saves; 1,175 strikeouts; 3.72 ERA; and 1.275 WHIP. That’s a net loss of 29 saves, but a gain of 10 strikeouts, an ERA improvement of 0.12, and a WHIP improvement of 0.017. In a 12-team roto league you’d probably give up approximately 6 points in saves, compared to a gain of 1 point (maybe) in strikeouts, a 3-4 point gain in ERA, and a 2-3 point gain in WHIP. It’s more or less a wash.

Now suppose that at the beginning of the season, instead of picking your bargain-bin closer, you had selected a seventh starting pitcher with identical stats to your first six (easier said than done!). Then your year-end team totals would look like this: 1,415 innings pitched; 104 wins; 46 saves; 1,265 strikeouts; 3.82 ERA; and 1.291 WHIP. In a 12-team roto league you’d probably gain 4-5 points in wins and 2-3 points in strikeouts, offset by a 5-6 point loss in saves. Again, I’d call it a wash.

This is just one admittedly contrived example, but the conclusion here has wider applicability: even with all the hand-wringing over the supposed harm a below-average closer does to your team’s pitching stats, as long as your second closer is able to hold onto his job for the course of the season and rack up the saves, the net impact of his contributions (or lack thereof) to your team will be negligible.

And cheer up – at least you didn’t pick Joe Borowski or Manny Corpas!

Scott is a huge Yankees' fan; his girlfriend is a huge Mets' fan. Somehow, it works! Fortunately, they didn't meet until well after the 2000 World Series. Catch up with Scott in the Cafe's Forums where he posts as The Sherpa.
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