Friday, December 02, 2011

Twins Closer - Just Ignore Those Bloggers

The discussion in the Twins blogsphere is all about what the Twins should do about a closer for next year. Many of these bloggers start with the idea that closers are overpaid, not that important and misused. Ignore them. Whether they are right or wrong, all their ideas about what the Twins should do flow from this basic disagreement with baseball professionals responsible for putting together a team. They are almost guaranteed to be disappointed by the ultimate decision.

You can see that in the evaluations of Matt Capps. Some people have even claimed that the Ramos-for-Capps trade has already been a net loss for the Twins. To arrive at that conclusion you have to believe that Matt Capps had nothing to do with the Twins winning the division in 2010. Because that is the only way Wilson Ramos would have contributed more as a backup catcher on a losing team last year is if Capps contributed almost nothing to the Twins in 2010. In fact, you could make the case that Capps had more value in 2011 than Ramos would have provided as a backup catcher, given the alternatives. Which is not to claim the trade will turn out that way. Ramos may eventually become a star, but that hasn't happened yet.

If you look at the prices being paid for closers signed to multi-year agreements, the one-year commitment to Capps last year is looking better and better. Far from being overpaid, Capps was relatively cheap for a proven closer. Joe Nathan cost Texas a $14.5 million guarantee. That's more per year than Capps made last year and double the total financial commitment. Whether Capps can get a similar deal after his performance last season is questionable. Its important to remember Nathan is almost 10 years older than Capps and coming off an injury, but he has a longer track record of success.

Some people have suggested the Twins would be better off to take the draft choice they will receive if Capps signs elsewhere. There is no doubt that is true on one level. But only if they think they can sign someone else who is comparable at the same overall cost. Given that supplemental draft choices cost money in the form of a bonus and often don't work out despite investment in their development, that draft choice probably is not a major factor in the decision.

It looks like Capps, as a known quantity, is the Twins first choice. I suspect they will move on only if it looks like he is going to command more than a two year contract at a Nathan-level annual salary.


Ed Bast said...

Joe Posnanski has a great article on how over-rated a position closer is, but here's the gist of it: in the early 50s, before the advent of the closer position, teams leading going into the 9th won 95% of the time. In the late 2000s, i.e. the peak of the closer, teams leading going into the 9th won 95% of the time. Through the decades this has remained more or less constant. In other words, the specialized "closer" has had zero impact on baseball.

Going beyond this, the MLB average save conversion rate is 85%. 90% is elite. For reference, Papelbon is at 88%, Nathan 89%. 94% makes you the greatest all time (Rivera) Let's say the 2012 Twins get 50 save opportunities - optimistic at best. Plug in any average reliever the Twins already have....I don't know, Mijares. Say he's below average closing, at 80%. He gets you 40 saves. Now say you instead paid $8 mil for Nathan. He'll get you 45 saves. 5 more saves. Assume you end up winning 2 of the 5 blown saves under the Mijares scenario.

So Nathan - one of the better relievers in the game - in lieu of Mijares - average-at-best - nets you 3 more wins at an added cost of about $7 million. 3 wins for this team might be the difference between 3rd and 4th in the division and that's it.

Spend the $7 mil on hitters or starters or setup guys who get you to the 9th with a lead, not on "proven closers".

TT said...

Ed -

"Through the decades this has remained more or less constant. In other words, the specialized "closer" has had zero impact on baseball. "

Did you know only 50% of the teams in little league win their games. Its the same number at the major league level. Obviously better players have "zero impact on baseball".

I know that is different. But think about the part that's the same. Neither team had a "closer" in the 1950"s and both teams have one now.

Its this kind of back of the envelope "analysis" that has given sabermetrics a bad name. There are so many holes in it that its not even worth discussing.

"3 wins for this team might be the difference between 3rd and 4th in the division".

Or the difference between first and second. As it would have been in 3 of the last 4 division races the Twins were in.

Ed Bast said...

Well it's not sabermetrics at all. It's fact. Teams who are leading going into the ninth usually win. It hasn't changed, even with specialized "closers". The fact is, 85% of the time major league pitchers can record 3 outs before the other team scores 1-3 runs.

Substitute a guy like Perkins for Mijares in my example - i.e., a good reliever - the the difference becomes negligible. That negligible difference may be paramount to a contending team. For a team coming off a 99-loss season, looking to rebuild, it's just not worth spending $5-6 million to win 75 games instead of 73 or 74.

TT said...

Yes they do, and when the game is close they always use their closer. Does this prove something? No.

The Twins converted 62% of their save opportunities last year with 20 blown saves. If they had got to what you claim is average they would have been getting close to a .500 record. That sounds like a big difference to me.

Ed Bast said...

"The Twins converted 62% of their save opportunities last year with 20 blown saves."

And they spent $20 mil on "proven closers". Worth it?

"If they had got to what you claim is average they would have been getting close to a .500 record."

Which would have left them still a mile out of the playoffs. Exactly the reason they shouldn't spend big bucks on closers in 2012.

Look, I don't know why it's hard to understand. If 2011 wasn't enough of a lesson, look at 2010. Rauch (not a "proven closer") and Capps converted saves at exactly the same rate. Proven or not, it doesn't matter. And Capps was absolutely worthless in the playoffs - you don't need a closer if you aren't good enough to lead games.

TT said...

they spent $20 mil on "proven closers". Worth it?

They spent $37 million on a catcher and first baseman.

"look at 2010. Rauch (not a "proven closer") and Capps converted saves at exactly the same rate."

Rauch was an experienced closer, which is one reason he was handed the job. Capps blew 2 of 18 saves for a 89% conversion for the Twins in 2010 and Rauch blew 4 of 25 for 84%. The rest of the staff blew 13 of 16 for less than 20%.

Jim H said...

TT- good post. Discussions of closers ignore that basic fact, teams are going to construct their bullpens around a one inning closer and that type of bullpen usage requires a very reliable closer. Whether a bunch of bloggers think that is the best way to build a bullpen is irrelevant, that is the way it is going to be done.

Even more important, that way works. The blogger way may work too, but usually when teams are forced into closer by committee, or using the closer for multiple innnings, it doesn't seem to work all that well. Most teams revert to a set one inning closer as soon as possible.

I also agree with you about Ramos. Trading him may prove to be a mistake, but at this point he hasn't proved to be more than a backup major league catcher. Claiming he is or will be more than that is speculation.

Ed Bast said...

TT, Rauch was an "experienced closer" to the tune of 59% career conversion rate. He'd proven to be not great, however, as he became a better reliever, he became a better closer.

Jim, I fully understand the game is set up to have a "closer". I'm not naive enough to believe some fundamental change is going to happen. I'm just saying don't pay that "closer" $8 mil/year. Pay Glen Perkins (already on the roster) $1 mil to do it. Develop a closer in-house (as the Twins have done with Nathan, Aguilera, Reardon - how did that work out?) rather than foolishly spend millions on it, particularly when your team isn't going anywhere.

Jim H said...

Ed, you are assuming the 2012 Twins aren't going anywhere. I don't know that the Twins are operating from that assumption. If it turns out the core players are healthy, there is reason not to operate that way. Also Reardon was not an in house option. Both Aguilera and Nathan were relievers with their previous teams. I understand the point of not overvaluing experienced closers, but it is possible to undervalue that, as well.

LaTroy Hawkins looked to have all the ingredients to be a very good
closer. The Twins fooled around with him in that role for a year and half before realizing that it wouldn't work. Everyday Eddie was actually better suited to not closing, at least looking at his raw talent.

If you are going to go with single inning closers and operate the way most teams use their closers, it really helps to have a very good closer in that spot. I wouldn't put Perkins in that spot, you could easily weaken two spots in the bullpen that way.

TT said...

Nathan and Aguilera were both central figures in trades for former major league allstars still in their prime. I think we can all agree that talent, not experience, is the real issue.

The Twins traded for these guys because they had the tools and makeup to fill the closer role. If they can make a similar trade now, great. But which allstar would you deal?

As Jim points out, Reardon was an experienced closer. He had 152 saves for Montreal before the Twins traded for him and he lead the National League in saves in 1985 with 41.

Jim -

Lets not forget Dave Stevens or Mike Trombley. If you think the Twins are going to be a losing team, a Trombley might be acceptable. But the Twins don't have even a Trombley on the roster. He had pitched in almost 300 games in the major leagues when he was moved to the closer role. And he still blew 20% of his save opportunities.

Ed -

Rauch also had an 80% conversion rate as a closer (he blew 5 of 22 saves) before the Twins moved him to that role. He did slightly better than that for the Twins, 4 BS in 25 save opportunities. I doubt that difference has any statistical significance. And when the Twins made the deal for Capps, Rauch was struggling. There is a reason no one offered him a closer job last year.

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