June 29, 2019

The Red Sox DO NOT need a closer

The "Closers"
I know, I know.

We’ve blown 247 saves just this past month. And at least 89 of those were with a multiple run lead in the 9th inning. Surely if we had a competent closer, such as any of the guys on the left, we’d at least be in striking distance of the Yankees, if not alone in first place.

Wait, some of those numbers above are incorrect you say? My bad, I didn’t look up the exact stats, I was just writing based on what this team’s “fans” whine about on twitter, message boards, sports radio and more. If the numbers aren’t quite accurate, they’re at least a good representation of what has happened this season.

We do have a lot of blown saves and have lost a lot of late inning leads – this fact I’m 100% certain on, without having to google the actual numbers.


Getting. A. Good. Closer. Won’t. Help.

Don’t believe me? Let me explain why:

First of all the “blown save” number is one of the worst statistics out there. It is worse than meaningless, some very good pitching performances result in getting one. Let’s say some fungible middle reliever comes into the game in the bottom of the 6th, with his team clinging to a 4-3 lead. The starter has just been pulled after loading up the bases without recording an out. The reliever does his job, inducing a run scoring double play ball and getting a strikeout to limit the damage, and head to the 7th tied up. Good work by the reliever, he kept his team in the game, and lowered his ERA, getting 3 outs without giving up an earned run. BUT he does get charged with a blown save for his good performance. Confused? Well, if he had kept the lead, and pitched the 7th, 8th, and 9th, he would be credited with a save, therefore statistically it IS a save situation. He came into the game with the lead, and gave it up, therefore he gets a BS added to the back of his baseball card.  Conversely, your $100 million closer warms up in the top of the 9th of a 1-0 game. Your offence scores 3 runs to make it a comfortable 4 run lead. It’s no longer a save situation, but you’re closer is ready, so you might as well use him. But he’s got nothing – gives up 3 runs and loads the bases before finally getting pulled. Now the home crowd is getting nervous, defeat is about to be snatched away from the jaws of victory. Someone warms up quickly, shuts the door and Dirty Water is played, everyone goes home happy. The closer will have to answer some tough questions post game, but he does not get a blown save for 2 reasons. One, it wasn’t a save situation, and secondly, his team still had the lead when he departed. Alternatively, if he’s left in to close his own mess, and gives up a grand slam, losing the game 7-4, he STILL won’t get a blown save – just a loss. tl;dr you can take your blown save stat and shove it next to fielding percentage and RBIs as numbers I don’t want to see quoted in reference to how good/bad a player/team is.

Ok, so we’ve agreed to ignore the blown save stat, but we still have that pesky little problem of blowing a lot of late leads. Let’s say we sign the best closer in the game, and I told you he’d end the season with 18K/9 and an ERA of 1.50. Hands up if you would be happy with that. Great! Now put your hands down before I finish this paragraph and you embarrass yourselves. Because this guy is so good, we are only going to use him in a traditional closer’s role. We want him to get 3 outs in the 9th inning with a 1 run lead – a REAL save. We get into 60 such situations during the season and use him in all of those. How many of those games will he be successful in, given the yearend ERA I referenced above? Well, let’s do some math (sorry!). He pitches 60 innings, and has an ERA of 1.50 which means he gave up 10 runs (60 ÷ 9 x 1.50). If he spread those out equally, that’s 10 times he gave up the lead in the 9th inning. How happy are you, now that we have the world’s greatest closer, and he has 10 “blown saves”? Yeah, didn't think so. 

The point is no reliever pitcher is going to go through a whole season without giving up a run. EVERY team, no matter how good their bullpen or closer blows leads in games, multiple times every year. (*1)  The Red Sox are not alone in this. Our bullpen has actually been VERY good this season (*2). Some recency bias, confirmation bias, echo chambering with other fans, the Van Restorff effect and other cognitive biases are responsible for the fanbase thinking this bullpen is worse than it is. (In layman’s terms, it is far easier to remember that one lead we blew against our hated rivals that was on Sunday Night Baseball that we watched with our friends, than the 10 straight perfect outings where we were clinging to and held on to a one run lead against high powered offences).

So, Dave Dombrowski, if you’re reading this… please don’t make a panic trade to appease the fanbase that may or may not have an actual impact on the team’s record.

(1)  The Indians bullpen which has the best ERA in the majors has been charged with 8 losses. Edwin Diaz who had a sub 2 ERA last season and 57 saves, has blown 4 already. The Yankees "model" bullpen has 3 blown saves each from Britton and Ottavino and Chapman hasn't been perfect either as they've totaled 12 blown saves - not much fewer than Boston's 16.  

(2)  Depending on which poison you choose to measure reliever's effectiveness, the Red Sox bullpen is currently 8th in the MLB in ERA (better than the much vaunted Yankees pen), 7th in value (fWAR), TOPS in K/9, and 10th in WPA.  (However, they're 25th in saves and have the 2nd most blown saves if that is all you are looking at. Also only 6 teams have fewer pen losses than Boston's 11 (Yankees are one of those with 9).

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