After the news of the Craig Kimbrel deal came down, Jeff Schultz of the AJC Tweeted the following:
Attn. Sabermetricians: Teams need a great closer and #Braves needed Kimbrel. He gets $42 million-plus.
Braves’ AJC beat writer David O’Brien Tweeted this:
#Braves Wren: “I’m not in the camp that says anybody can close games.”
Kimbrel receives a $1 million signing bonus, then gets $7 million in 2013, $9 million in 2015, $11 million in 2016, $13 million in 2017, and a $13 million option for 2018 with a $1 million buy-out.
The Braves paid for saves and a closer, right? Well, sort of. It’s hard to imagine a team like the Braves giving this kind of deal to any closer, even a closer with a lot of saves under his belt. But if we ignore saves, and look at Kimbrel’s WAR converted to dollars, per Fangraphs, we see that Kimbrel was worth $14 million in 2011, $15 million in 2012 and $11.1 million in 2013. Obviously this is not his value according to saves, save percentage or how often he closed out games. This is based on his WAR, which is essentially based on things a pitcher has direct control over that helps him prevent runs, stripping away defense and luck, and factoring in ballpark and run environment.
So, no matter how you feel about reliever usage, the Braves are getting Kimbrel at a fair rate, maybe even a discount, as long as he can stay reasonably healthy and productive. This is based purely on his win value and has little or nothing to do with the fact that he’s a closer. Ignoring all the closer stuff, as much as the signing of a reliever by the Braves was to me, Kimbrel got market value.
Do teams need a great closer, as Jeff Schultz suggested? Of course it doesn’t hurt but great teams need wins more than closers. What teams try to do is buy wins. According to research, the key situations in which a relief ace can most impact a game are often before the 9th innings of games and are not in save situations. So a team would be better off with a relief ace that could be more flexible than mostly entering games in the 9th inning or in save situations. So a team would be a little greater if it had a great flexible reliever instead of a great closer.
What about Frank Wren’s quote, “I’m not in the camp that says anybody can close games”? Surely Wren has seen the research regarding when games are most often on the line not being in the 9th inning or in save situations, generally. And is there truly a camp that says anybody can close games? I don’t think there is such a camp, any more than there is a camp that says anybody can play firstbase. Maybe there is a camp that thinks closing out games in save situations, at a high success rate, is relatively easy for decent major league pitchers but I don’t think there is a camp that thinks anybody can close games.
Does Wren perhaps mean that he doesn’t think anybody can close as many games at a high rate and be as dominant a pitcher as Craig Kimbrel? I think this is possibly what he meant and why he said it. He wanted to point out the unique greatness of Craig Kimbrel, and what an advantage he gives the Braves. I suspect that Frank Wren or at least someone on his staff knows that ideally relievers would be used in more flexible manner. But the save stat and viewing relievers through the lens of closing rules the day. So he focused on Kimbrel as a uniquely great closer, obviously the role in which he’ll continue to take on, instead of a reliever who would be uniquely great, regardless of role.