Do Closers Need to Throw Hard?

I recently wrote about teams no longer paying a premium to land closers with 9th inning experience, instead choosing to spend less and acquire very good relievers with little 9th inning experience. It seems teams have moved away from the conventional thinking that a closer must have experience or a special mentality in order to succeed as a closer. This made me wonder whether the view that a closer must have to throw hard was still alive. It is important to note that throwing harder certainly gives the pitcher an advantage, but it is also very possible to succeed without being among the hardest throwers. In order to look at this, I looked at all Relief Pitchers with at least 10 saves from 2010-2013 and separated them into two groups based on their average fastball velocity (aFV), based on P/Fx. The aFV for the entire group of 93 pitchers was 93.0. I chose 93 as the divider between High Velocity (HVelo) closers and Low Velocity (LVelo) closers.

Looking at the breakdown of the two groups, the HVelo group included 53 relief pitchers and the LVelo group included 40 relief pitchers. The difference of 13 pitchers between the groups should not affect the results too much, as the sample is big enough to negate this discrepancy. However, the difference does say something about closers during this period, as there were many more hard-throwing closers than low velocity closers. Looking into the numbers between these two groups for this 4-year period, it is clear that the HVelo pitchers were more effective. They averaged 15 more saves over that period and outperformed the LVelo pitchers in every statistic, except BB/9 and BABIP. LVelo pitchers walking less batters per 9 innings is not surprising, as they usually have better command in order to compensate for less strikeouts. HVelo closers were also better at fulfilling their role, as they had a 81.7% conversion rate, while LVelo closers converted just 77.5% of their opportunities. If you look at this four-year window it is clear that the harder throwing closers have been more successful and there have also been many more hard-throwers used in the 9th inning than LVelo relievers.

However, if we take a look at just the final year of this four-year period, we see something different. Looking only at 2013 and relief pitchers that had at least 10 saves, I broke the pitchers into two groups using the same criteria as before: HVelo is all pitchers with aFV higher than 93 mph and LVelo is all pitchers with aFV below 93 mph. This is the same cutoff as for the four-year period because the mean is relatively unchanged, at 92.8. Unlike from 2010-2013, these two groups were essentially even: of the 37 qualified pitchers, 19 were in the HVelo group and 18 were in the LVelo group. This alone shows that teams are more comfortable using effective relievers in the 9th inning, even if they do not light up the radar gun. Just using more LVelo pitchers does not actually prove they are as effective or better than HVelo relievers, but it does show teams may be moving away from the conventional belief that closers must throw hard. When I looked at the numbers of these two groups, I saw evidence that the LVelo group was certainly as effective, if not more effective, than the HVelo group. The HVelo group saved just one game more on average; however, their save percentage was 87, compared to the 88.7% of the LVelo group. Just as before, the LVelo outperformed the HVelo group in BB/9 and BABIP, but they also had a better average ERA than the HVelo group. While the HVelo pitchers had a much higher K/9 (10.7 vs. 8.4) and a better HR/9, the LVelo group did a better job at preventing runs and also a slightly better job at converting their save opportunities.

Certainly, looking at just one season is not a very large sample, but I believe last season was the beginning of a trend. The role of the closer has evolved quite a bit in recent years and many long-held beliefs are being dispelled. I believe teams have realized that a pitcher does not have to be the hardest thrower in the bullpen, instead he just needs to be the most effective. In 2013, both teams that reached the World Series turned to closers without previous experience and who were both among the LVelo group. The Cardinals chose to give Edward Mujica the closer’s role, instead of turning to young flamethrower, Trevor Rosenthal. Mujica turned in a fantastic season with 37 saves and a 2.78 ERA. The Red Sox also entrusted their 9th inning duties to a member of the LVelo group, Koji Uehara. Uehara took over as closer after both of the Red Sox’s other options suffered season-ending injuries, but Uehara still totaled 21 saves and a 1.09 ERA. Both these closers overcame common beliefs that closers need experience in the 9th inning to succeed and must also throw hard.

* I would have liked to look at a larger sample than 2010-2013, but I did not feel comfortable using Pitchf/x data older than 2010. Since its inception in 2006, Pitchf/x has vastly improved and become much more accurate.

Anthony Cacchione

Top 10 Team Needs

Spring Training is less than a month away, but there are still plenty of moves left to be made. As is often the case in early January, most teams have addressed their most significant needs on their roster. However, some teams still have glaring holes in their roster. Some teams will address these needs before Spring Training; others will begin the season without doing much more to improve their roster. These are the 10 most glaring needs of contenders for the remainder of the offseason.

Arizona Diamondbacks – Starting Pitcher
The Diamondbacks have made plenty of moves this offseason to improve their bullpen, but they are still lacking in the rotation. They have an above-average rotation overall, but lack a true ace and have multiple pitchers with serious injury concerns, especially Brandon McCarthy. They have been in talks for David Price and Jeff Samardzija and are looking to go all out to sign Masahiro Tanaka. They have the Farm System to acquire an ace via trade, but it is unclear if they are willing to give up some of their top prospects.

Atlanta Braves – 2nd Baseman
Dan Uggla slashed just .179/.309/.362 for the Braves last season. He still has a large sum of money left on his contract and it is unlikely that the Braves will be able to find a trade partner to take him. Either way, they will need a new 2nd Baseman, as their other internal options are not very impressive. They will have to make the addition through a trade, as the Free Agent market is very weak on productive 2nd basemen.

Baltimore Orioles – Starting Pitcher
The Orioles have had a very quiet offseason thus far, which has drawn lots of criticism from fans. After voiding their deal with Grant Balfour, they still have a need at Closer. However, that is a much easier hole to plug from within than the hole in their rotation. Their rotation was tied for the worst FIP in baseball last season, which suggests their ERA will take a substantial step back this season. If they do not bring in another starter, it is still unclear who their 5th starter will be. Plenty of options remain on the open market. The best fit seems to be Bronson Arroyo, as he is not linked to draft pick compensation and will not cost as much as Matt Garza.

Cincinnati Reds – Centerfielder
The Reds seem prepared to enter the season with Billy Hamilton as their starting Centerfielder; however, it is unclear how productive he will be in the MLB. After transitioning from Shortstop, it is doubtful that he will be a strong defender at an up-the-middle position. Not only will the Reds employ Hamilton in Centerfield, but they are also likely to use him as their leadoff hitter. Hamilton slashed just .256/.308/.343 in Triple-A last season, which is likely to get worse as he is challenged at the MLB level.

New York Mets – Shortstop
The Mets continue to wait for Ruben Tejeda to develop into the great Shortstop they expected he would become. However, Tejeda is now 24 years old and still has not come close to those expectations. In 2013, he slashed just .202/.259/.260. The Mets have been connected to Stephen Drew, but are reportedly unwilling to go beyond 2 years for him. Drew is still the best fit for the Mets, as they do not have many in-house options.

New York Yankees – Starting Pitcher
The Yankees have brought in 7 position players so far in Free Agency, but just 2 pitchers, including Hiroki Kuroda, who was in their rotation last season. They have likely been waiting for Masahiro Tanaka to be posted, and now that he has been posted, they will likely be all-in to sign him. If the Yankees are unable to land Tanaka, they are likely to turn to Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana.

Oakland Athletics – 2nd Baseman
The Athletics have plenty of depth throughout their team, especially in the infield. With Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto on the roster, the A’s have plenty of options to play 2nd, but no really strong answer. All three of these players are best for being part-time players because none are particularly strong offensively. The Free Agent market is weak on offensive 2nd basemen, so the A’s would need to make a trade to improve this hole.

Pittsburgh Pirates – 1st Baseman
The Pirates are unlikely to sign a big-time player to fill this hole, but there are still plenty of options. They have been involved in the trade market, but thus far have been unwilling to meet any team’s asking price. The best fit for the Pirates is Ike Davis or Lucas Duda, both of the Mets. They are both left-handed, which makes them ideal candidates to platoon with Gaby Sanchez, who is the Pirates internal candidate for the 1st base job.

Seattle Mariners – Starting Pitcher
Many people within the industry feel that the Mariners will go all-in for Tanaka. They have a great 1-2 punch at the top, but little else in the rotation. They spent $240 Million on Robinson Cano, but still need more improvements to be real contenders in 2014. If they fail to sign Tanaka, then the best fit is likely one of the top remaining Free Agent starters. However, the Mariners also have the Farm System to pull off a big trade.

Toronto Blue Jays – Starting Pitcher
The Blue Jays have had a quiet offseason, but they have few holes other than in the rotation. They have one of the best lineups in the MLB and a strong bullpen, but the rotation projects to be a huge weakness. They battled injuries throughout the rotation last season, which is unlikely to change with similar personnel. They do not seem like a good fit for Tanaka, however, because they do not like to give out long contracts for pitchers. Their best fit is Bronson Arroyo, who is incredibly durable and will sign for a shorter deal than other Free Agents.

Flaws In the MLB Arbitration Process

For those that are not familiar with arbitration, a player is eligible for arbitration if he has more than 3, but less than 6 years of service time or is considered “Super Two” eligible. According to the MLB CBA, “Super Two” eligibility kicks in if the player “has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season” and “he ranks in the top twenty-two percent in total service” of players who fit the service requirements for “Super 2” eligibility. Arbitration sends the player and team to arbitrators who decide the value of the player’s contract for the next season. Both the team and player submit a figure for the arbitrators to consider and the arbitrators must choose one of these contracts.

MLB Arbitration has long been considered a great compromise for players and teams. Arbitration provides players an opportunity to earn a raise upon their salary of the previous year, but also keeps their salary below its Free Agent value. While arbitration is a fantastic system that gives the player more leverage than he has in the first three years in the Majors, it has flaws that must be resolved in order to keep up with the changes occurring in baseball. As the player and team lobby for their respective contract, each side is limited to using traditional statistics to make their case. This is in large part due to the fact that the arbitrators are not a “baseball people”, so they are unlikely to understand advanced metrics. The other reason sabermetrics are rarely used is that many of the hearings are based on precedence and comparisons to other players’ salaries awarded through arbitration, which were decided based on traditional statistics.

We have seen the effects of this multiple times during the current offseason. The first instance was when the Baltimore Orioles traded Closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for Jemile Weeks. It doesn’t seem right for a pitcher with a 2.72 ERA and 101 saves over the past two seasons to only bring a weak-hitting, poor-defensive 2nd basemen back in a trade. However, this is what happened because the Orioles did not think Jim Johnson was worth the projected $10.8 Million salary through arbitration. Apparently neither did many teams if the Orioles could only get Jemile Weeks in return. It is unclear what Jim Johnson would receive on the open market, but it would likely exceed the one year deal he will receive via arbitration; however, it would also likely fall short of $11 Million annually. As I wrote earlier this week, we may have seen the end of big-money closers, in terms of long contracts with high Average Annual Value. The reason Johnson’s value may not be as high as the arbitrators may believe is that, while he has saved 101 games in two years, he had just a 84.7% success rate in save opportunities this past season. Another concern is his FIP, which has increased each of the past three seasons, but that is a statistic that will not be referenced in his case.

The second instance of arbitration leading a player to be dealt was the White Sox trade of Addison Reed for Matt Davidson. Unlike the above trade, this one does bring back a strong return, as the White Sox received a strong 3b prospect with 6 years of team control left. However, another reason the White Sox chose to trade Addison Reed was concern over Reed’s cost in arbitration, due to already having 69 saves in two years as the White Sox closer.  Despite his high number of saves, Reed has a 4.17 career ERA and only an 85% conversion rate, which is rather pedestrian. Reed will likely be overvalued when he goes to arbitration because of his high number of saves, but he has had an even higher number of opportunities.

While both of these examples involve closers and the player being seemingly overvalued through arbitration, arbitration can also undervalue some players. High OBP players with little power are often undervalued through arbitration, as arbitration tends to pay more for HRs, RBI and other counting statistics. The players that are likely undervalued the most are defensive-minded players, as traditional statistics are terrible at determining a player’s defensive value. Traditional fielding statistics, such as errors and Fielding Percentage, often penalize players with the most range, as they can get to more balls and are more likely to commit an error on these more difficult plays. The subjectivity of errors has led to new metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which reward players for their range. Unfortunately, these new and much more accurate metrics are not used in arbitration cases because the arbitrators are unlikely to understand them. A case can easily be made that even these new metrics are not completely reliable in one season’s worth of data, but over the course of three seasons, these metrics are accurate and are certainly an improvement upon the old metrics.

Among the many issues with arbitration is that it has not kept pace with the game of baseball. This is best exemplified in that arbitration insists on paying players for past performance, rather than considering his future contributions. As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs wrote, “The days of paying for past performance are over…. Past performance matters to the extent that it informs us about what a player will do going forward”. As Cameron rightfully points out, teams are beginning to pay less for past performance and more for what the player’s future value will be. Teams have done this by implementing more advanced metrics in order to determine whether the player is trending upward or downward. This emphasis on paying for future performance and not past production is demonstrated by the increase in contract extensions for players prior to Free Agency. These extensions often cover the prime years of a player’s career and end just as his play should theoretically decline.

The arbitration process in baseball has provided players with proper leverage while still giving teams the ability to retain the rights of its players for 6 years. While the system is an overall success, it has failed to keep up with the advances in baseball analytics. The arbitrators used for the hearings are not considered “baseball people” and for this reason teams and players cannot use advanced metrics in their argument for the player’s next contract. There is clearly a reason the MLB uses arbitrators that are not “baseball people”, as they are looking for an unbiased third party. However, it is still possible to begin integrating advanced metrics into arbitration hearings by using arbitrators that are knowledgeable on these sabermetric statistics. It will not be easy to accomplish, but it is something that must be done before arbitration falls further behind the curve and must be supplanted with a new system altogether.

Anthony Cacchione