Detroit Tigers v Atlanta Braves

The Closer You Get …

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One question has fascinated me for a while now: How much have modern closers changed the game? I mean, sure, we know they have changed many things SURROUNDING the game in obvious ways. Closers have helped change the salary structure of the game. They have changed the way managers direct a game. They have given us indelible memories — the stomping of Al Hrabosky, the high heat of Goose Gossage, the mustache of Rollie Fingers, the Dan Quisenberry sinker ball, the unhittable pitches of Craig Kimbrel, the wonder of Mariano.

My question is just a little bit different and more focused on results: How much more often do baseball teams win games they lead going into the ninth inning now that closers rule the ninth inning?

I’ve written some about this before, so first I’ll review a bit and then get to some relatively new stuff. We start with a surprisingly simple fact:

When teams lead the game going into the ninth inning, they win 95% of the time.

No, the number is not all that surprising — I suspect all of us would probably have guessed that teams leading going into the ninth win somewhere around 95%. What’s surprising is how constant that statistic has been through the years — teams winning 95% of the time they lead going into the ninth is pretty close to a universal truth. It was true in the 1950s. It was true in the 1960s. It was true in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s.

Last year, 2,206 teams led going into the ninth inning, and 2095 of them won — that’s 95%.

Of course, it’s never EXACTLY 95% — last year, for instance, it was 94.968% — so there are small fluctuations which we will talk about in a minute. But do those fluctuations mean anything? If you fairly flip a coin 2,000 times, it almost certainly will not land on heads exactly 1,000 times and tails exactly 1,000 times. We still know that it’s a 50% chance of heads or tails. And it’s a 95% chance for teams to hold on to their ninth inning leads — the consistency of this number is staggering.

An example: In 1945, baseball was a different game. Almost all the baseball stars of the time were fighting World War II. The game was affected. Nobody in baseball hit 30 home runs that year. Guys like Stuffy Stirnweiss and Nels Porter and Steve Gromek were stars. It was disorienting.

In 1945, teams that led going into the ninth inning won 95% of the time.

The star players came back in 1946. Ted Williams led the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases. Stan Musial hit .365. Hank Greenberg was back and he led baseball with 44 homers. Bob Feller pitched 371 innings (THREE HUNDRED SEVENTY ONE! It looks even more amazing in word form) with 36 complete games (THIRTY-SIX!) and he struck out 348 batters. Baseball was back.

In 1946, teams that led going into the ninth inning won 95% of the time.

The sheer stubbornness of this statistic is pretty remarkable. Baseball teams, through the years, have tried many different strategies to hold on to their ninth inning leads — some interesting, some provocative, some seemingly stupid. And while, in the short term, they might cause a few ripples, the long term percentage never changes. It stays at 95%.

So, you might ask: If the percentage is so constant (and so high), why do teams try all these new strategies? Why do they spend so much money on closers? It’s a provocative question. I do think that the idea of winning every single game you lead going into the ninth is SO tantalizing — it seems SO achievable — that teams just can’t help themselves. And it’s something easily documented. In 2011, the Baltimore Orioles lost four games they were leading going into the ninth. In 2012, they lost only one. It’s easy to say this made a huge difference between 93-loss 2011 Orioles and the 93-win 2012 Orioles.*

*I suspect the bigger difference was that 2011 Orioles led going into the ninth inning 63 times, the 2012 Orioles led going into the ninth inning 76 times. Well, that and the Orioles freakish 16-2 record in extra innings.

There’s something else. I think, that drives teams’ constant effort to cut into that one time in 20 that they blow a lead in the ninth inning: Emotion. When teams DO blow a game in the ninth, it hurts like a monster. Everybody takes these kinds of losses much harder than the garden variety 6-2 loss. I think teams overcompensate  because of that.

So, how much can new strategies affect the game? Well, if you look at the big picture, you have to go to the next decimal to find the differences:

1950s: .948
1960s: .946
1970s: .948
1980s: .951
1990s: .949
2000s: .954
2010s: .952

You can see that the last dozen or so years, the win percentages HAVE gone up slightly … the closer might deserve some of the credit. We’ll get into that in a second. But, how much of a difference are we talking about? In the 2000s, teams held on to 95.4% of their leads against, say, 94.8% in the 1970s. That’s roughly 135 extra wins in the 2000s. That’s 13.5 per season. That’s fewer than half a win per team. It’s not nothing. But you might argue that it’s not worth the many, many, many millions teams spent to get it.

This is how far I got last time … looking at this thing through a wide-angle lens. But, as many of you pointed out, looking at “ninth inning leads” as one entity is a very incomplete way of looking at things. Obviously a five-run lead going into the ninth is very different from a one-run lead going into the ninth. Before, I had no idea how to break down the leads by runs — Baseball Reference doesn’t yet give that option (though Sean Forman says it’s something they might try to do in the future) and I just don’t have the dexterity to manipulate the amazing Retrosheet database that way.

Well, Tom Tango and Baseball Prospectus to the rescue. Tom pointed out that by using the Baseball Prospectus expected win matrix, you can go back to the 1960s to find what a team’s win percentage would be when leading with 0 outs and 0 base runners in the ninth inning. Great, great information. Now, finally, I would see just how much closers have affected the game. Right?

Well, first thing I found is something obvious: Teams up five runs or more going into the ninth inning win just about 100% of the time. There’s a fluke comeback every now and again, but it’s pretty close to 100%.  Teams up four runs going into the ninth win 99% of the time. So we’ll throw those out for now.

How about three runs? Well, Goose Gossage said one time that if he got a save for pitching one inning with his team up three runs, he would be “embarrassed.” He’s not wrong there. Teams up three going into the ninth almost always win.

Winning percentages when team leads by three runs going into the ninth inning: 

1960s: .974
1970s: .977
1980s: .975
1990s: .963
2000s: .976

You will note that the lowest win percentage is in the 1990s. This is a big theme. Yes, teams obviously were using closers in the 1990s, but teams were also scoring runs at a historic rate.

Winning percentages when team leads by two runs going into the ninth inning:

1960s: .930
1970s: .925
1980s: .941
1990s: .936
2000s: .931

The numbers are kind of all over the place — but as you can see the winning percentage in the 2000s, with closers and setup-men and all that, almost precisely matches the winning percentage of the 1960s, when runs were hard to come by and starters often finished what they started. I’m not sure what you can learn from this. Now, to the big one.

WInning percentages when team leads by one run going into the ninth inning:

1960s: .844
1970s: .850
1980s: .852
1990s: .846
2000s: .848

And … yeah, the stat kind of pops like wet firecrackers. Not a lot to see here. Apparently, the win percentage when teams are up one entering the ninth leading doesn’t change much no matter what managers do. It was .850 in the 1970s. It was .848 in the 2000s.

Sure, yes, there are many variables here, and if you wanted to do an in-depth study of comebacks you would, as Tom Tango points out, take into consideration the run scoring environment. You would also consider ballparks and many other things. But I wasn’t really interested in that. I was really interested in knowing if closers have made it more likely that teams will win games they lead going into the ninth. And the answer, I believe, is no.

Now, wait a minute: You could argue that the game is constantly evolving and that teams need to use closers JUST TO MAINTAIN the status quo. That is to say, if teams tried to stretch their starters like they did in the 1970s or use their bullpen the way managers did in the 1960s, teams might come back in the ninth inning a much higher percentage of the time. Maybe the comeback rate would be 10% instead of 5%. I don’t know. It’s a great topic of conversation and somewhat beyond my own meager analytical skills.

But I just find it fascinating that no matter how much everyone tries to fiddle with the last inning of a game — closers, match-ups, specialists, pinch-hitters, whatever else — those overall ninth-inning win percentages just do not move. I would guess that teams with great closers having great years might help a team squeeze an extra win or two in a season. Maybe. But I do wonder if all of the ninth inning tactics are about as useful as rearranging furniture.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: