Detroit Tigers v Atlanta Braves

The Closer You Get …


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.

White Sox sign catcher Alex Avila to a one-year deal

Detroit Tigers' Alex Avila, right, is congratulated by third base coach Dave Clark after his solo home run in the third inning in the second game of a baseball doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
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There have been a lot of articles published in the past few days about how to navigate awkward Thanksgiving conversations with your relatives. Heck, we even wrote one.

But there’s always room for more! Such as “How to talk to your father at Thanksgiving dinner about the fact that he let you walk away from the only team you’ve ever known to sign with a division rival.” Which is what Alex Avila will likely be talking about with his father, Tigers GM Al Avila:

The older Avila can’t even say he did it because he’s opposed to nepotism. After all, he just hired his other son — who has had his law degree for just over a year — as the Tigers assistant legal counsel for baseball operations. Though I’m sure that wasn’t nepotism. He probably just aced the interview and impressed everyone more than the other candidates did.

OK, those are jokes. In all seriousness, this is a good move for Alex and Al and, probably, the White Sox. With the emergence of James McCann, there really is not space for Alex Avila in Detroit in anything other than a backup capacity. In Chicago, he’ll get more playing time. At least if he can (a) stay healthy; and (b) not hit .191/.339/.287 again like he did in 2015.

Pirates sign outfielder/first baseman Jake Goebbert

Jake Goebbert
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The best thing about minor Thanksgiving week transactions is that they are almost certainly done by GMs frantically looking for some work to do rather than go pick up their in-laws at the airport. I mean, sure, the player in question could very easily be an important player who fills a key role in the organization, but it’s not like it couldn’t have waited until Monday, right? This is the GM equivalent of you pretending you have to run into the office on Wednesday afternoon and, in reality, driving around in your car, listening to Neil Young and promising that NEXT YEAR you’re just doing a small Thanksgiving dinner with no family and, maybe, might even go on a little trip, just you and the wife.

Or is that just me? OK, maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, that’s how I’m choosing to view the Pirates activity today. First they traded for Allen Webster and now they’re signing minor league free agent first baseman/outfielder Jake Goebbert, according to Adam Berry of

Goebbert, 28, hit .294 with an .844 OPS and 10 homers for Triple-A El Paso last season. He has 115 plate appearances in the bigs, all for San Diego in 2014. Overall he has a line of .282/.386/.465 with 30 homers in 997 Triple-A plate appearances in the Astros, Athletics and Padres organizations.

Not a bad depth move, especially given that the Pirates are looking to trade Pedro Alvarez and otherwise re-jigger their first base situation.

Blue Jays sell Triple-A MVP Matt Hague to Japanese team

Matt Hague Blue Jays
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Matt Hague got a cup of coffee in Toronto this year after winning the International League MVP, but the 30-year-old first baseman/third baseman found a better opportunity in Japan and the Blue Jays have sold him to the Hanshin Tigers.

Hague hit .338 in 136 games at Triple-A this past season and is a career .301 hitter in eight minor-league seasons overall, but his lack of power limits his opportunities in the majors and he’s received a grand total of 91 plate appearances as a big leaguer.

Ben Nicholson-Smith of Toronto Sportnet reports that the sale price for Hague is $300,000, which goes to the Blue Jays. And then Hague will no doubt sign a deal for a lot more than he could have earned at Triple-A and perhaps more than the MLB minimum salary.

Diamondbacks trade Allen Webster to the Pirates

Allen Webster
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The Arizona Diamondbacks just announced that have traded righty Allen Webster to the Pirates for cash considerations.

Webster, who turns 26 in February, was DFA’d by the Dbacks a few days ago. He pitched in nine games, starting five, in 2015, posting a 5.81 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 17/20 (eww) in 31 innings. Before that he pitched 89.1 innings for the Red Sox over two years with numbers not too terribly more impressive than that.