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The end of the proven closer myth

Many in the baseball industry have known for years that the value of "closer experience" or "the closer mentality" is largely nonsense, but in 2013, the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore.

Closer experience meant nothing to the game's top reliever from 2013.
Closer experience meant nothing to the game's top reliever from 2013.
Jim Rogash

If you're trying to convince someone to change their mind, the best thing you can do is to provide them with illustrative examples and cold hard data. The examples needed to attack the "proven closer" myth were easy to find in 2013. In fact, all four LCS teams went to battle in October with different closers than the ones they started the season with, and only one of them had anything resembling "closer experience" when the season started. The final four teams vanquished the other 26 without proven closers at the helm. That's easy to see and hard to ignore, but if you check the overall evidence, the closer myth breaks down even further.

Earlier this year, I did the same kind of analysis based on the 2012 season and showed that closer experience did nothing to guarantee future success in that role. Proven closers and unproven closers converted saves with the same regularity, and the unproven bunch allowed fewer runs on average. This year, the evidence was just as clear.

The definitions are pretty clear and easy to follow. The sample consists of the 31 relief pitchers with the largest number of save opportunities from 2013. I was originally going to use the top 30, but pitchers 30 and 31 had the same number of opportunities. Every team is represented once, and the Pirates are on the list twice.

To determine which closers are proven, I used a very simple method. Any reliever with 40+ career saves entering the year or any reliever who has at least one previous season of 30+ save chances is said to be a proven closer. All others were unproven, leaving us with a sample of 15 proven closers and 16 unproven ones. That alone should tell you quite a bit. Half the teams in the league invented a closer in 2013.

When you look at the numbers, things get even more interesting. Here is how the proven and unproven closers performed in relief during 2013:

Type Innings RA9 FIP
Proven 970 3.05 3.26
Unproven 943 2.50 2.76

And when we take a quick look at their ERA in save situations, the divide is equally clear:

Type Innings ERA
Proven 601.2 2.96
Unproven 532.2 2.01

And then, of course, we can also see that unproven closers converted a higher percentage of saves this year than the proven closers:

Type SV%
Proven 86%
Unproven 90%

Not only did the best four teams in the league run deep into the playoffs without a proven closer, but half the league deployed an unproven closer in 2013, and they performed better as a group than those with closing experience. The evidence is clear, and this is now at least a two-year trend.

It's important to recognize a bit of selection bias here. The unproven closers only get into the sample if teams stick with them, so players like Phil Coke who were briefly given the closer reins and then lost them don't make it into the top 30 in save opportunities. That said, over the last two seasons, half the teams in the league have found pitchers to fill the closer role who previously had no experience.

These are pitchers who can hack it in the closer role, but we can very clearly see that experience is not a necessary condition for success in the role. For whatever reason, the closer myth won't die even though the evidence is overwhelming. Every year, teams take good relievers and put them in the closer role to great effect.

Many in the sabermetric community, myself especially included, would like to see bullpens run differently with the best relievers coming in during the highest leverage moments, but if that is too progressive for the moment, it's time everyone comes to terms with the fact that the ninth inning is not a "different animal." There may be merit in giving relievers defined roles for which they can prepare, but if managers are going to do that and insist upon having a designated closer, then it's time they recognize that experience isn't important. The proven closer mythology is simply not rooted in fact.

Name Team Proven
Jose Veras - - - N
Ernesto Frieri Angels N
Grant Balfour Athletics N
Casey Janssen Blue Jays N
Craig Kimbrel Braves Y
Jim Henderson Brewers N
Edward Mujica Cardinals N
Kevin Gregg Cubs Y
Heath Bell Diamondbacks Y
Kenley Jansen Dodgers Y
Sergio Romo Giants N
Chris Perez Indians Y
Tom Wilhelmsen Mariners Y
Steve Cishek Marlins N
Bobby Parnell Mets N
Rafael Soriano Nationals Y
Jim Johnson Orioles Y
Huston Street Padres Y
Jonathan Papelbon Phillies Y
Jason Grilli Pirates N
Mark Melancon Pirates N
Joe Nathan Rangers Y
Fernando Rodney Rays Y
Koji Uehara Red Sox N
Aroldis Chapman Reds Y
Rex Brothers Rockies N
Greg Holland Royals N
Joaquin Benoit Tigers N
Glen Perkins Twins N
Addison Reed White Sox Y
Mariano Rivera Yankees Y

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Neil Weinberg is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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