Who uses their closers in tough situations?

July 31, 2008

Does it seem to you, like it seems to me, that the only way managers use their closers these days is to start the ninth inning? Usually the best pitcher on the team is the closer. If I were managing, I'd use him when it matters most, whether that's the ninth inning, eighth inning, or even the sixth inning. For example, it's a key game and we're up 3-2. My starter gets me to the sixth, but he gives up a two-out double to put runners on second and third. I want my best pitcher right there. He's much more valuable there than he would be to protect what might become a three-run lead at the start of the ninth.

But that would be the rare early "closer" appearance. I could see where I'd use the closer often in an eighth-inning tough situation, and often in the ninth after my second or third best reliever got in trouble with a two-run or three-run lead.

For the record, here's the percentage of saves this year where the pitcher enters at the start of the ninth inning (or the start of an extra inning).

Percentage of saves – pitcher enters at the start of the 9th inning (or the start of an extra inning): 82 %

Here are the managers who use their closer most often in the toughest situations (enters the game with the tying run on base):

MLB Closers with Two or More Tough Save Opportunities
Team Manager Closer Tough Saves Tough
Save Opps
Marlins Fredi Gonzalez Kevin Gregg 4 4
Astros Cecil Cooper Jose Valverde 1 4
Red Sox Terry Francona Jonathan Papelbon 3 3
Orioles Dave Trembley George Sherrill 2 3
Nationals Manny Acta Jon Rauch 1 3
Brewers Ned Yost Salomon Torres 2 2
Giants Bruce Bochy Brian Wilson 2 2
Athletics Bob Geren Huston Street 1 2

Minimum: 10 Saves
Source: Baseball Info Solutions (through the games of Thursday, July 31, 2008)

The save became an official Major League Baseball statistic in 1969. We looked at Retrosheet data back through 1974 to see the rise of the three-out save (regardless of whether or not they were the only pitcher in that inning). The increase has been steady and strong over the years from a low of 16% to a high of 83%. Here's a clear-cut case where the statistic is determining usage. Is that a win for us analytical types? Maybe so, but I sure don't agree with it. The table below shows the percentage of all saves in a year that were three-out saves:

Year Pct.
1974 17%
1975 16%
1976 19%
1977 19%
1978 19%
1979 21%
1980 18%
1981 20%
1982 21%
1983 21%
1984 24%
1985 23%
1986 25%
1987 25%
1988 30%
1989 36%
1990 39%
1991 46%
1992 50%
1993 57%
1994 57%
1995 63%
1996 61%
1997 66%
1998 66%
1999 70%
2000 65%
2001 73%
2002 76%
2003 72%
2004 75%
2005 78%
2006 79%
2007 81%
2008 83%


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