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Praised Be The 40-Save Closer?
Is a team with a 40-save closer more likely to reach the playoffs?
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
February 22, 2010



Steve Henson of Yahoo! Sports recently got some pretty interesting quotes from new Braves closer Billy Wagner.  The one that really caught my eye concerned the value of a 40-save closer:

"If I get 40 saves, there is a great chance the Braves are going to the playoffs.

Wagner said that in the context of needing 40 saves to surpass John Franco as the all-time saves leader for left-handed pitchers. Most likely, Wagner made the statement in order to appear as concerned with his team's success as his own personal accomplishments, rather than a selfish athlete just playing for himself. 

Still, as someone who has followed Chicago baseball for the past 25 years, I couldn't help but take exception to the statement.  In 2005, the Chicago White Sox had their best season since World War I using three closers over the course of the year.  Bobby Thigpen held the single-season save record for nearly 20 years, establishing the mark while pitching for a 1990 White Sox team that missed the playoffs.  Randy Myers still holds the single-season saves mark for the Chicago Cubs from a season in which his team won 84 games and finished 13 games out of first place.

But the game is ever evolving.  The Sox' 94 wins in 1990 would have all but guaranteed them a postseason berth in the current eight-team playoff format; they had the second best record in the American League that year.  The Cubs' 84 victories in 1993 was only one fewer than the 2007 Cubs team that won the NL Central division accumulated.   Could it be that baseball as it is currently structured does allow teams with 40-save closers a "great chance" at making the postseason?

Of course not.  We've seen time and time again closer's being supplanted mid-season by a setup man and the setup man outperforming the usurped closer in the 9th inning.  Heath Bell had two career saves before leading the NL with 42 last year.  Also, even though teams with more wins generally tend to have more save opportunities, there is no reason that a 70-win team cannot find 40+ save opportunities for a single reliever and a 90-win team does not need to give all of its save opportunities to a single reliever in order to succeed.

Or so I thought.

Teams with a 40-Save Closer
Year Made
Playoffs
Missed
Playoffs
% That Made
Playoffs
2009 3 1 75.0%
2008 3 3 50.0%
2007 3 4 42.9%
2006 2 2 50.0%
2005 4 5 44.4%
2004 5 5 50.0%
2003 4 2 66.7%
2002 5 5 50.0%
2001 2 6 25.0%
2000 2 4 33.3%
1999 2 3 40.0%
1998 4 3 50.0%
Total 39 43 47.6%

Over the past dozen seasons of Major League Baseball, there have been eight postseason spots available for 30 teams, giving each team a 26.6% chance of making the postseason.  I decided to determine how often teams who had a single reliever with at least 40 saves made the playoffs in that span.

There have been 82 teams with a 40+ saves closer since 1998.  39 - or 47.6% - of those squads made the postseason.   That's significantly better than the 26.6% overall ratio, and the teams only failed to surpass that ratio in one of the 12 years examined.  Teams without a 40-save closer only made the playoffs 20.5% of the time.  Therefore, over the past dozen years, a 40-save closer has made teams nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to continue playing in October.

If we only look at the past eight seasons, the numbers are even more startling, although I cannot figure what might have occurred between the 2001 and 2002 seasons to change this dynamic.  Between 2002 and 2009, 39 of 56 teams with a 40+ save closer made the postseason, or 51.8%.  Teams without a 40+ save closer made the playoffs 14.6% of the time, over three-and-a-half times less frequently. 

I can offer some explanation as to why a 40-save closer portends such great success.  A good team without a 40-save closer may have had their initial closer get injured, in which case even if a setup man took over successfully, the middle relief corps was weakened.  If their initial closer was benched due to ineffectiveness, that probably means that he blew a handful of easy saves and dug his team into an early season hole.  The third possibility is that the team stuck with an ineffective closer, and although he was inserted into over 40 save situations, he blew enough to miss out on 40 saves.  In the case of Brad Lidge last year, though, even that wasn't enough to keep his team out of the postseason.

So how should this knowledge affect how a team operates?  Probably not much.  It isn't as though a team can acquire a 40-save closer and expect him to necessarily repeat the performance with his new team, as saves are a team-dependent statistic.  Even great closers can miss out on 40 saves.  The best closer of all-time has failed to save 40 games in three out of the past four seasons.  I certainly wouldn't recommend that a team sticks with a lousy closer all season just to try and get him to 40 saves based on these findings.

The one thing I think we can take from this is that bullpen depth is darn important and darn rare.  Closers are fickle, and the ones that throw 99 miles per hour stand a decent chance of getting injured.  The ability to have another reliever step in to replace a struggling or injured closer is paramount, as is the ability to then replace that reliever in the middle relief ranks.  It should be standard policy to trade for a reliever if one of your bullpen's best is expected to miss a large chunk of time due to injury.  Many last-place teams are happy to give up their best bullpen pieces for even mid-range prospects as early as June, and contending teams need to take advantage of that.

I suppose the other thing we can take from this study is that Billy Wagner is correct: the Braves do stand a great chance of making the playoffs if Wagner can save 40 games.      




Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.

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