Last year, Joe Posnanski generated a new statistic to evaluate closers (CLOSER+) based on Bill James’ method of classifying saves. James breaks down save opportunities into three categories:
1. Easy Save. This is a save when the first batter faced is not the tying or go-ahead run.
2. Tough save: This is a save when the tying or go ahead run is already on base when you take over.
3. Regular save: Everything else. [Typically, a "regular" save is when a pitcher starts the 9th inning with a 1-run lead.]
CLOSER+ compares a pitcher’s save total to how many saves an average closer would have converted given the same number and type of save chances. 100 is average. A number greater than 100 means the pitcher did better than an average closer would have fared.
While Posnanski compared closers to all relievers, we decided to do things a little different this year. We looked at just American League closers (any pitcher with at least 10 saves), and evaluated JP Howell based on how the average AL closer fared in each category (full rankings are below).
Notes on the above table…
- AL closers converted 93.3% of Easy saves. Based on Howell’s 12 Easy save opportunities, the average AL closer would have converted 11.2 saves. So Howell was average on Easy saves. The same can be said for “Regular” saves. Howell converted 6 while an average AL closer would have converted 6.6.
- Howell struggled converting saves in which the tying or go-ahead runner was already on base when he entered the game. In those situations, he was 0-5. On average, AL closers converted about half of the Tough chances.
- In his 25 save opportunities, Howell converted 17 saves. That translates to a CLOSER+ of 83 as an average AL closer would have been expected to convert 20.5 out of 25 based on the number and type of save opportunities.. So Howell was well below average in the AL.
Now let’s look at where Howell ranks among the 16 AL closers that registered at least 10 saves…
Notes on the above table…
- Howell ranked 15th out of 16 AL closers, finishing ahead of only Jim Johnson who became the Orioles closer after George Sherrill was traded to the Dodgers at the trade deadline. Howell was hurt most by his 0-5 showing in Tough saves. For comparison, Troy Percival had a CLOSER+ of 103 in 2008*. The advantage Percival had was that Joe Maddon never used Percy in a Tough save situation.
- Tough saves are rare these days. Only 4 closers in the AL converted more than 1 save this season in which the pitcher entered the game with the tying run already on base. Only 6 attempted more than 2.
- Mariano Rivera tops the list with a 111 CLOSER+. His 4-4 showing in Tough save situations shows how dominant he can be in the most crucial situations. Every other closer with at least 2 Tough save opportunities blew at least one of those chances.
- Brian Fuentes, who led the AL in saves (48) was only the 10th best closer in the AL.
- Andrew Bailey, who won the AL Rookie of the Year award, was the 9th best closer in the AL.
- How much would you give up to have Joakim Soria on the Rays?
Howell’s numbers were hurt in part by spending part of the season in middle relief. One of the Tough saves that Howell blew came in the 7th inning. In those situations, Howell was not being asked to close the game. While a Blown Save is possible, a Save is not. If we remove that one blown save, Howell’s CLOSER+ is a little better (85), but not much.
It is no secret that one of the Rays’ biggest priorities this off-season is renovating the bullpen. What is unknown is how the Rays will handle the closer’s role in 2010. Will they stick with Howell, develop a closer from within (Jake McGee?) or will they decide to bring in a closer via trade or free agency?
If the Rays hope to return to the playoffs in 2010, they will need more consistency from the bullpen when the game is on the line. And they will need a closer that performs better than next-to-last in the AL.
*The 2008 data uses conversion rates for closers in the AL and NL.