I don't like saves. At all. The rules for assigning a save are archaic, a little confusing, and often these awards fail to assign proper value to the tough job of shutting down an opposing offense. Boo to them. Boo, I say. Get rid of 'em.
In the world of baseball statistics, one of the primary things that prohibits the elimination of old statistics can be the lack of a viable alternative. Fortunately, in the case of the save, there's a nice little alternative that we can find over at FanGraphs. It's called the shutdown.
Basically, if a reliever positively affected his team's WPA by 0.06 or more -- or in other words, made his team 6% more likely to win the game -- then that pitcher is credited with a shutdown. On the other hand, if they reduced the team's WPA by 0.06 -- making the team 6% less likely to win, then they're credited with a meltdown.
If you're not too familiar with WPA, think of it as a judgement of how likely a team is to win a given game, given the game situation. I'd be happy to talk more about it at another time, but for now, consider reading this at the FanGraphs Library. And definitely try this* at Tom Tango's Book Blog. WPA's great for telling the story of how a game unfolded, but doesn't necessarily tell you much about a player's true talent level or expected performance going forward. It's descriptive, not predictive.
* - The idea that WPA is a statistical measure of our feelings makes me happy. Don't ask me why, because I don't really know.
Shutdowns are great for several reasons. One is that they apply to all relievers, not just the closer. Now setup men, mop-up guys, and everyone else can get in on the action, and be compared using a similar stat. Shutdowns also scale similarly to saves: a 40-shutdown season is about as cool as a 40-save season. And ten meltdowns are about as cool as falling down while you try and make toast. You pretty much blew it.
At any rate, you can easily sort the FanGraphs leaderboards by shutdown and by meltdown, but I'm going to take a few moments and call out the most interesting tidbits of information that I found when parsing through this data set.
The Shutdown King
The guy who racked up the most shutdowns this past season was Greg Holland of the Royals. Not only did Holland manage 41 shutdowns to lead all of baseball, but he also had a measly four meltdowns, which is a pretty great number. To put that in perspective, the next highest guy in terms of shutdowns with fewer meltdowns than Holland was Francisco Rodriguez, and he only had 18 shutdowns to pair with his two meltdowns.
Holland of course had the gaudy peripheral stats to back up the other impressive numbers: he posted a 1.48 RA9 and 1.36 FIP to go with 47 saves. FanGraphs put him at 3.2 fWAR, Baseball-Reference at 3.1 rWAR, and Baseball Prospectus at 2.2 WARP over 67 innings of work. One could make the argument that Holland, and not Craig Kimbrel (39 shutdowns / five meltdowns) or Koji Uehara (35 shutdowns / six meltdowns), was the best reliever in baseball last season.
The Shutdown King (Non-Closer Division)
The top of the shutdown leaderboard is populated by the best strikeout closers in baseball, as well as Jim Johnson. Guys like Holland, Kimbrel, Chapman, and Joe Nathan. As far as setup guys go, the winner is the Yankees' David Robertson, who logged 38 shutdowns and just five meltdowns as chief understudy to Mariano Rivera.
Robertson likely won't win the non-closer division in 2014, with Mo retired, so perhaps second-place finisher Brad Ziegler (37 shutdowns and eight meltdowns) might see similar heights to the ones he did in 2013. Or maybe super-setup guy Mark Melancon (34 shutdowns, six meltdowns) might be the one.
Photo credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
The Meltdown "Kings"
Throwing a baseball is very, very difficult, and things can go from "pretty okay" to "tire fire" in a hurry. In 2013, Mike Gonzalez had his first tire fire season. The lefty had 18 meltdowns to go with only 10 shutdowns, making him more of a cautionary tale than a major-league pitcher. For a guy with 75 appearances and 50 innings pitched, that's not a great track record. There's red in his ledger, and he'll look to catch on with another team during this free agency period to see if he can wipe it out in his age-36 season.
Gonzalez didn't even lead the league in meltdowns, however. That dubious honor belongs to the Dodgers' Ronald Belisario. He managed 21 meltdowns to go with his 20 shutdowns, just barely throwing down more game-changing performances on the bad side of the coin than the good. Belisario was replacement-level by FanGraphs' WAR metric, and posited a 4.50 RA9 and 3.64 FIP in his 77 appearances.
I bet you're wondering who had the most shutdowns with no meltdowns at all. Here's a surprise for you: it's Stephen Pryor of the Mariners. Pryor only pitched seven and one-third innings in the big leagues last year, and recorded four (yes, only four) shutdowns to zero meltdowns. As you might have expected, his RA9 (and ERA*) sit at 0.00 for the season.
* - ERA can go take a long walk off a short pier.
Is There A Word That Means The Opposite Of Perfection?
Anthony Bass, Dylan Axelrod, and Rhiner Cruz share the dubious honor of throwing the most meltdowns without a single shutdown. Each pitcher threw five meltdowns without a single shutdown. I guess if you had to pick a worst out of the bunch, you'd probably want to go with Bass. Bass threw 42 innings of relief compared to Cruz's 21 and one-third. And Axelrod spent most of his time starting games (20 of them), so he gets a pass in the 10 games during which he threw in relief.
Congrats, Anthony. You're the worst, I guess.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus.
Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.