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Some teams feel that they have a dire need to have a dignified closer to lock up the ninth inning. After losing Jose Valverde, and with Bruce Rondon struggling with control issues in spring training, the Detroit Tigers are said to be actively shopping for an experienced closer. Should they be worried?
There were 1,261 saves credited to 141 pitchers in 2012 according to Baseball Reference. 56% of those were soaked up by only 20 pitchers. Most of them could be considered "closers," men with rock hard mental stability unfazed by the different beast that is the ninth inning. Fearless and intimidating, these pitchers have changed the salary structure of the game.
For example, Jonathan Papelbon made $11,000,058 in 2012, pitched 70 of the Phillies' total 1,451 innings (4.8%) and produced a 1.6 rWAR. The Phillies are paying Papelbon a ton of money because they don't want to have to worry about the ninth. If they have a lead and it's within three runs, Charlie Manuel can call to the bullpen, bring in Papelbon and practically call it a night. But does having that "closer" to lock down the ninth inning every night really make a difference?
To put it simply, no. Joe Posnanski has written an excellent piece over at Hardball Talk diving into the winning percentages of games with leads in the ninth inning throughout history. Teams with the lead going into the ninth inning win 95% of the time.
No, the number is not all that surprising - I suspect all of us would probably have guessed that teams leading going into the ninth win somewhere around 95%. What's surprising is how constant that statistic has been through the years - teams winning 95% of the time they lead going into the ninth is pretty close to a universal truth. It was true in the 1950s. It was true in the 1960s. It was true in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and 2000s.
Posnanski used the Baseball Prospectus expected win matrix to break down the winning percentages when teams led by three, two and one run going into the ninth inning through history. Besides a blip in the 1990s due to a league-wide rise in offense, the winning percentages do not fluctuate more than .4% from the 1960s until the 2000s.
Detroit should stop panicking about their lack of a "closer." Throw Bruce Rondon, Octavio Dotel, Joquain Benoit, Al Albuquerque, Phil Coke or even Rick Porcello into the ninth inning with a lead and the Tigers will likely win 95 out of 100 times.