On Wednesday, the Brewers were beating the Miami Marlins 8-6 going into the ninth inning. Fransisco Rodriguez then entered in his usual spot to close the game. He surrendered a home run with two outs but still finished the game with the lead intact, securing the win and earning himself the save.
The save is an abstract concept. It is a statistic that was invented to better measure the worth of relievers. In 1969, the Scoring Rules Committee first recognized the save, but the term dates all the way back to 1952. American sportswriter Jerome Holtzman is commonly credited with the creation of the statistic.
This Wednesday, Rodriguez notched his 30th save of the 2015 season, which is 30 more than any other Brewers pitcher has registered this season. However, the save is an extremely arbitrary statistic. Your team must have the lead, you must be pitching in the ninth inning, and your team needs to be up by no more than three runs. Otherwise, just to make things more confusing, the pitcher can enter the game regardless of the score and throw at least three innings, as long as the team is winning at the end.
The pitchers who specifically lock down the saves are known as the closers. But what does that really mean? If we take a literal definition of the term, it is simply a person or thing that ends something. If that is the case, then a better representative of a closer is defined as games finished. When an individual calls a relief pitcher a closer, he or she is usually trying to indicate that this reliever is the best reliever on the team or the pitcher who pitches the ninth inning. But if one is actually trying to define the term, in other ways than arbitrary narrative based statements, the closer is then the pitcher who finishes the game. It is, therefore, irrelevant whether that pitcher actually comes into a pressure situation, if the pitcher is good or bad, of if he comes into a save situation. It doesn’t even matter if the pitcher comes in with his team leading. All that matters is that he is the last pitcher to throw a pitch in the game for his team.
If we, thus, consider this as the definition of the closer, this is how the leaderboard of the Brewers pitchers looks:
It makes sense that Rodriguez gets the most games finished; he is the one who is entrusted with finishing the game.
The argument, however, doesn’t end there. Many players on television, on the radio, or on other media platforms talk about a certain closer mentality. The idea is that it takes a specific type of person to do this job, and that individual must be mentally strong. The idea, from what I can understand, seems to stem from and refer to the idea of being clutch. This is an idea sabermetracians have been fighting against for decades. This isn’t to suggest that all sabermetricians refuse to believe that the idea of clutch exists, but rather that it is not nearly as pronounced as players and media members make it out to be.
In order for one to believe that only certain individuals can perform the job of the closer, one must believe in the idea that a closer must be clutch. He must be able to perform in high leverage situations, situations in which other relief pitchers are unable to perform. Therefore, the closer’s definition, if we are to take into account the idea of the closer mentality, needs to be measured by the highest-leverage innings. This principal stems from the idea that the highest-leverage inning is not necessarily the ninth inning, and of course it isn’t. If a pitcher comes in the ninth inning to close the game and his team is up by 8 runs, then even the worst pitcher in baseball can close that game. There really isn’t a lot of pressure in getting those three outs.
The same argument can, and has been made, for the invalidity of the save. Remember a save can only be recorded if the pitcher enters with the team being up by no more than three runs. This was, presumably, put into the save requirement to take into account the notion of leverage or clutch. But what Holtzman failed to understand or take into account was the actual concept of leverage. After all, if a pitcher comes in and blows a three run lead in the ninth, his ERA for that inning would be 27.00. While this can happen from time to time to a pitcher, over a reasonable period of time, a pitcher with a 27.00 ERA does not belong in the big leagues. Hell, he may not even belong in the minor leagues either.
Therefore, in order to define the closer role and take the idea of clutch into account, the best way is to look at leverage. Here are the top Brewers in highest leverage innings in 2015:
As you can see, Francisco Rodriguez, while pitching in the ninth inning, has not pitched in more high-leverage innings than Will Smith and is actually tied at 18 with Jeremy Jeffress.
In other words, if we are to associate the idea of clutch with the closer, then Will Smith is actually the Brewers’ True Closer this season. He could also be a nice replacement if the Brewers ever decide to trade Rodriguez in the offseason, but that’s a topic for another day. To be fair, though, the difference isn’t seismic enough that one should conclude that Smith should be the closer or has been the closer over Rodriguez. This is rather an exercise in determining how to define the term closer in baseball.
I am also not trying to define which pitcher is better than the other. The goal of this exercise is rather to determine which pitcher best fits the idea of Holtzman’s closer. I think there are two ways to look at it, one that doesn’t consider the clutch mentality and one that does. Both, though, do not refer to the conventional way in which the word is used, and that’s interesting in itself.