by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
January 28, 2007
Page 2 Page 3
Before I delve into the significance of relievers as compared to other
position players, let me re-visit the question of Billy Wagner versus Trevor
A reliever has ended a season with 5.0 or more Linear Saves only 14 times in
the past 40 years. Billy Wagner is four years younger than Trevor Hoffman.
To eclipse the all-time saves leader in LSV10, Wagner will need to match Hoffman
until he retires, then average more than 3.6 LSV10 for the extraneous four
seasons. To match him in Raw LSV, Wagner will need to match Hoffman, then
average over 5.2 Raw LSV for those extra four seasons. Looking at Raw LSV
makes some sense for these two, as Wagner's historically bad mark of -6.4 LSV in
the year 2000 was not the result of middle relief usage; Wagner was the Astros' closer
and blew nine of 15 save opportunities due in part to an injury. It
doesn't make sense to throw that season away when analyzing Wagner's
effectiveness as a closer.
Which is more likely, for Wagner to approach Hoffman in either of those
Linear Saves categories or for Wagner to suffer a decline in his later years,
causing his ERA+ to approach Hoffman's?
I had always contended that before
I put Trevor Hoffman on my Top 200 List, he would need to clearly separate
himself from Wagner. Hoffman's complete dominance in all-time save
efficiency may give him that separation. Yes, Hoffman has rarely been
asked to retire more than three batters to get a save, but no less frequently
than Wagner has.
If an active player does surpass Hoffman, it will likely be Eric Gagne, who
turned 32 this month. Gagne has the highest single-season LSV total (9.0),
the highest two-year total (13.5), and the highest three-year total (17.8),
amassing that final figure over three consecutive seasons, 2002-2004. I understand
that Gagne was chemically enhanced those seasons and has been punished with the
durability of a pixie stick in the years since. I noticed his disastrous
stint with the Red Sox last year. I'm not saying I would bet on Gagne.
But no relief pitcher in the history of the game has the upside that Gagne has,
and the Brewers did well to risk $10-$11 million to see whether Gagne could be
that guy once again.
Oh that Keith, he's over-valuing relievers again, isn't he? Well, think
about it. Remember, each positive Linear Save represents one save that a
league-average closer would not have been able to nail down in the same number
of opportunities. So each Linear Save is worth roughly one win to a team.
I say roughly because not every blown save is a guaranteed loss for the team.
Particularly in the case of old school relievers, when they might blow a save
before the ninth,
then pitch two scoreless innings to lead their team back to a victory. As
a counterbalance, the entire worth of a closer is not measured in how he
performs in save opportunities. What a reliever does when he enters a tie
game or with his team down by one is worth at least as much as a save with a
two-run lead. Again, old school relievers have more value outside their
save totals, which again provides an equalizing counterbalance. I would
venture to say that every reliever is worth slightly more "wins" than his Linear
Saves totals, with pre-1988 relievers worth moderately more than those totals.
Here are those 14 seasons of at least 5.0 Linear Saves, along with that
year's leader in Batting Wins and Pitcher Wins, as derived from
Batting Runs and
||Wayne Granger 5.1
||Carl Yaztremski 6.8
||Bob Gibson 4.5
||Dan Quisenberry 5.5
||George Brett 6.3
||Steve Carlton 5.2
||Ron Davis 5.1
||Jesse Orosco 5.2
||Willie Hernandez 6.6
||Eddie Murray 4.9
||Bruce Sutter 4.3
||John Franco 5.7
||Wade Boggs 6.4
||Frank Viola 4.7
||Mark Davis 5.4
||Kevin Mitchell 6.7
||Brett Saberhagen 5.3
||Dennis Eckersley 7.9
||Rickey Henderson 6.1
||Roger Clemens 6.2
||Dennis Eckersley 6.9
||Barry Bonds 7.6
||Greg Maddux 6.0
||Rod Beck 5.5
||Frank Thomas 6.6
||Jose Mesa 6.3
||Edgar Martinez 6.7
||Randy Myers 7.0
||Larry Walker 6.6
||Hoffman 7.8 Tom Gordon 6.7
||Mark McGwire 8.9
||Eric Gagne 9.0
||Barry Bonds 8.3
||Esteban Loaiza 5.6
Again, none of these measures is a perfect measure of win value, but it's pretty evident that the
best reliever seasons of all time do match up well with the top starter and
hitting performances during the same year. At the very least, I feel
better about the Willie Hernandez and Dennis Eckersley MVP selections than I did
before developing this metric. (When Eckersley won the 1992 AL MVP, Frank
Thomas led the AL with 6.5 Batting Wins and Clemens led hurlers with 5.3 Pitcher
Wins). A dominant performance from a closer can boost a team as much as
anything else can.
This doesn't mean that individual closer seasons are always evaluated
correctly. Poor Cy Young Award choices include Mike Marshall 1974 (-1.6),
Sparky Lyle 1977 (0.4), Bruce Sutter 1979 (1.4), and Rollie Fingers 1981 (1.0).
Dennis Eckersley's 1990 season and Trevor Hoffman's 1998 season at the very
least merited more consideration for the Cy Young Award than the 5th place
finish they each received.
In examining career totals, closers do not fare nearly so well. Trevor
Hoffman's total of 32.1 LSV10 would just miss ranking in the top 100 of Batting
Wins seasons and ranks 35th among Pitcher Wins. Lee Smith's second place
total of 24.4 would rank 65th among pitchers, were both metrics a completely
accurate assessment of win value. Indeed, it is extremely rare for a closer to
sustain success over an entire career. While the Yankees and Padres should
be applauded for their retention of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, I scratch
my head at the fact that Lee Arthur Smith toiled for eight different franchises
in his big league career.
Relievers are a double-edged sword. It's relatively common for one to
dominate in a given season, but quite rare to find one that can perform
consistently over an extended period. Therefore, even though individual
closer seasons have made more of an impact on Major League Baseball than any one
closer's career has, the scarcity of a consistent relief performer makes him far
more valuable than a flash-in-the-pan closer.
As far as Linear Saves go, they are far from a perfect statistic, but work
much better in conjunction with ERA+ and longevity to determine a reliever's
worth than saves or save percentage alone do. I'd like to think that
there's a way to incorporate innings per relief appearance that would treat
multi-inning closers a little more fairly, but haven't brainstormed anything as
I hope this is only the beginning. I plan to sift through game logs from
1957-1968 to expand my database of Linear Saves. Feel free to download the
Excel spreadsheet and play around with it yourself. Want to use a baseline
of 15 saves to identify a closer rather than 10? Think I should use
three-year save percentage averages rather than a single year in determining yearly LSV? Want to compare relievers not to the average closer, but to some
concept of a replacement level reliever? Go for it, and please send any
interesting research and findings to the email address below. I'm
particularly interested in hearing from those who knew who Ron Davis was before
reading this article, because there's a good chance that you're more
knowledgeable about baseball than I am.
Special thanks to Baseball Musings, The Hardball Times, Baseball-Reference.com,
The 2005 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, and ESPN.com for assistance in
compiling the data used in this article.
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.