With the close losses the Braves endured this week, partially due to a suddenly thin bullpen, many fans have appropriately started to question the use of Craig Kimbrel. For the most part Kimbrel, as with all closers, is used exclusively in save situations. Sure there are times when he might just need some work or when a home game is tied in the 9th inning and therefore a save situation will never come. But we hardly ever see closers around baseball pitch in the 6th inning or the 7th inning or the 8th inning, even if is apparent that the game is most on the line and the match-ups might favor the closer in those situations.
Most “SABR people” (as Fredi Gonzalez affectionately calls them) understand that relievers need not be tied in to roles defined by the save rule or by inning. It’s best to use your relievers based on the score and the match-ups and for a manger to focus mostly on preventing runs when the team most needs to, believe it or not, rather than mostly saving one of your best relievers for the last inning when your team has a lead of three runs or less. You must get to a save situation, after all, before you worry about which pitcher will get the save. If a team can’t prevent the runs that get them to a save situation, what’s the point of saving one of the better relievers for that situation?
Also, why does a great pitcher, in some cases the team’s best reliever, have to be the reliever to get all the saves. As Bill James put it, “using your relief ace to protect a three-run lead is like a business using its top executive to negotiate fire insurance.” Many teams now seem to realize this. They cater to the you-must-name-a-closer crowd by inserting a veteran guy with perhaps some closer experience in to the closer role while using their best relievers in less determinate roles. I don’t think this is an accident and that front offices actually think they veterans with experience need to be in that role. I suspect that this is a way to prevent the firestorm from media and fans speaking out against the dreaded closer-by-committee or no role definitions while still freeing up the best reliever to work when the game is on the line earlier in the game.
Is the closer-by-committee so awful? The most famous and most blatant recent example of a team flaunting a closer-by-committee approach was the 2003 Boston Red Sox, a team that employed Bill James and a front office full of “SABR people.” The perception is that they had to scrap the idea because it failed, acquiring Byung-Hyun Kim on May 29, 2003. Only one problem: The Red Sox had the third-best record in the American League on the day they traded for Kim and had the third-best record on the day Kim got his first save for the Red Sox. I suspect that the Red Sox simply got tired of hearing about having no closer every time they happened to blow a close game late. At some point maybe it just wasn’t worth hearing the outcry and risk allowing a negative vibe to creep in because they weren’t willing to humor the masses. Every time the Red Sox blew a close game, to many it was confirmation that they needed a closer. Yet it’s probable that none of those people checked to see how many close games were blown late by teams with set closers.
Having closers who only work almost exclusively in save situations makes the game less entertaining and less competitive. I do not want Kimbrel or Mariano Rivera or some dominant closer limited to working the 9th inning of a 6-3 game with the 6-7-8 hitters due up. If Jeter-Granderson-Rodriguez are due up in a tight game in the 7th or 8th inning or perhaps even as early as the 6th inning, I want to see our best against their best. But the save rule deprives fans of that opportunity all too often. Not to mention that it may lead to more losses for the team unwilling to use a certain pitcher except in a very limited role.
Major League Baseball should make adjustments to the save stat to end the present lunacy of teams almost exclusively using closers in save situations. It is in MLB’s interest to do so, to make games more entertaining and competitive. If managers are going to adjust usage because of a rule or a stat, it’s time to adjust the stat to make sure usage makes sense in terms of making games more competitive and entertaining.
There are ways to come up with a stat that takes into account a reliever coming in at some point earlier than the 9th inning, possibly leaving the game before it ends and keeping the score close. If we just add some more criteria to the save rule, perhaps this would solve the problem of agents, managers, fans and the media overemphasizing the save rule.
In addition to the current criteria, a pitcher can get a save if he meets these additional criteria:
1) comes in to the game in the 6th inning or later with a margin of no more than 3 runs
2) doesn’t give up a lead if his team is ahead or doesn’t allow the other team to get more than 3 runs ahead if his team is behind
4) gets at least 3 outs, or gets at least one out without giving up a run with the tying run(s) at bat or on base.
Ideally you want stats to actually measure something related to things that players do to help the team win. A useful stat should just be something to use that is separate from strategy and tactics and used after the fact that help measure the good things the players do to help their teams. Any stat that influences player usage, strategy and tactics is bogus and more of a construct than it is a measure of something related to skills.
Adding these criteria doesn’t make the save statistic all that much better as far as using the stat to tell us all that much about a pitcher’s skills and performance. We would still want to avoid looking at saves (along with pitcher wins) in trying to get in-depth information about a pitcher’s performance, skills and capabilities.
But by adding the aforementioned criteria to the save rule, MLB would get a simple stat that managers, agents, players and the media can use that helps keep a team from possibly using its top reliever mostly in the last inning with a lead of three runs or less. It would free up managers to play match-ups and use relievers more in terms of leverage rather than in terms of making sure one particular pitcher comes in when there is a last-inning save opportunity.
Unfortunately these criteria would allow a pitcher to come in with a three-run lead, give up two runs but get three outs and a save, thereby possibly decreasing the likelihood that his team will win. Or a pitcher could come in to face some glove-only middle-infielder as the tying run, get one out and pick up a save. But this is really no worse than the current iteration of the save rule. Mediocre-performing pitchers get cheap saves quite often.
The idea of adding criteria is not to help measure a pitcher’s effectiveness or keep pitchers from racking up cheap saves. The idea is to come up with a stat or make adjustments to an existing stat so managers aren’t slaves to the current save rule and so that a great reliever’s role is not just to come in for one inning when the game is often already won and when even a mediocre pitcher could finish the job.
I’m not arguing that it is never appropriate for someone like Craig Kimbrel or Mariano Rivera to enter a game in the 9th inning and, in effect, pick up a current rulebook save. If that’s when the game is most on the line, when a team most needs to prevent a run and when the match-ups favor Kimbrel or Rivera, by all means, that’s when they should enter the game. The point is not to keep relievers from coming in to protect leads in the 9th. The point is to open up the possibilities so that relievers can be used in a variety of situations.
There are other statistics that do a great job measuring whether a reliever increased or decreased a team’s win probability and by how much. But these are not simple. And the most glaring situations when the game is on the line are fairly obviously. Managers just don’t often use their closers in those situations because they want to save their closers for save situations. The new criteria for picking up a save would help negate the desire for a manager to save one of his better relievers for later in the game, saving him for a situation that may never come if a lesser reliever blows the game earlier.
Teams should cater to winning more than they cater to a rule or a statistic. If managers (and agents) absolutely need a statistic to cater to, MLB should adjust the stat so that managing to that stat does not mean risking a loss. Part of MLB’s duty is to make sure teams are trying to win. The current save rule puts too much emphasis on statistics, something that ironically the “SABR people” understand.