Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Chasing Saves: a cautionary tale for GMs

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Mariano Rivera’s success has led to a generation of closer-chasing in MLB. Photo wikipedia

One of the mantras we hear from Fantasy Baseball experts is “Don’t chase Saves.”  Closers are so hit-or-miss in this league, that on draft day trying to chase mediocre closers usually turns into wasted draft picks as these guys frequently get hurt or under-perform and get replaced.  Well, its not that much better in “real” baseball, where teams best laid plans for closers often backfire mightily.

In fact, check out this link on RotoAuthority.com, which charts the Opening day and Closing Day 2012 closers for all 30 teams.  In summary:

  • Only 10 of the 30 MLB teams kept the same closer wire-to-wire.
  • 14 of the 30 teams had a different guy in the closer role by season’s end.  That’s half the league!
  • The other 6 teams had the same guy at season’s start and end, but went through personnel changes in between.  This includes our own Nats, who started with Drew Storen, he got hurt, Tyler Clippard took over and stayed in the role after Storen got back, then Clippard melted in September and Storen took back over the role.

By my observations, as of June 15th 2013 here’s the same stats for this year:

  • 22 of 30 teams have same guy as start of season
  • 8 teams have already made a switch (Boston, Detroit, Arizona, Oakland, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland, St Louis, Los Angeles Dodgers)

So what’s the point here?  Teams need to re-think they way they grow, acquire and pay for “Saves.”  Lets look at how far one particular organization has gone “Chasing Saves” and pursuing a Closer.  I present you the Boston Red Sox, normally considered a very forward-thinking, analytical organization but which seemingly has a very large blind spot for the mytical “shutdown closer” position.  As of the publishing of this article (June 14, 2013):

  • Current Closer: Andrew Bailey, for whom they traded 3 players to the Oakland A’s in 2011 to obtain.  Two minor league prospects and one Josh Reddick, who hit 32 homers last year.
  • Acquired last off-season to be their 2012 closer: Mark Melancon, for whom they traded two good prospects to the Houston Astros in 2011; Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.   Lowrie is now posting a nifty 126 ops+ for the Athletics (to whom he was flipped by Houston for even more prospects).  Melancon had two bad outings at the beginning of 2012, was banished to the minors and eventually flipped for ….
  • Former 2013 closer: Joel Hanrahan, for whom they traded 4 players to the Pittsburgh Pirates last December.  Including Mark Melancon, who is repaying the Pirates for their patience in him by posting a .072 ERA in 25 innings thus far this year.  Hanrahan just had Tommy John surgery and is out for at least a  year.
  • [Post-post update]; By the end of June, Bailey allowed 4 homers in 5 games, hit the D/L and on July 22nd was announced as undergoing season-ending surgery. and is being replaced by … somebody.  By Mid July it seemed clear that it was Kenji Uehara, a free-agent signing last off-season.  So for all their trades, they end up using a minor FA signing as their closer.

So for the record that’s 9 guys traded away (including at least two effective hitters) in the past two off-seasons to chase one (in my opinion) relatively meaningless statistic.  And basically all they have to show for it is Andrew Bailey no longer pitching the 9th for them.

Of course, maybe the joke’s on me, since the Red Sox are in first place at the time of this writing.

But for an organization that used to be known for doing smart things (including the smart move of allowing long-time closer Jonathan Papelbon be overpaid by someone else on the FA market), these moves are just dumb.   Find a hard throwing guy in your system, make him the “closer,” repeat as necessary.  That should be the strategy.


And oh, by the way, I don’t exempt our own team from this.  Rafael Soriano was an unneeded purchase who (as we’ve seen by the unwarranted shot at Bryce Harper) could be more trouble than he’s worth.  But hey, its not my money right?  At least the Nats didn’t trade good prospects to acquire him (like Boston has done over and again).


This argument leads into an oft-repeated discussion in this space about the ridiculousness of the Save statistic and how frequently closers are preserved for “Save Situations” despite their leverage rating.   Lets look at a couple of very specific mathematical arguments against overpaying for closers:

1. Joe Posnanski and others have shown how useless closers are.  Teams are winning games at basically the same percentage now in the closer era that they were 50 years ago, without highly paid specialized closers.  Some quick percentages:  For the latest decade teams won 95.2% of games in which they led going into the 9th.  In the 60s, 70s and 80s that same percentage varied between 95.6-94.8%.   Can someone explain to me how the proliferation of highly paid closers in the last 20 years of the game has basically helped teams …. win the exact same number of games they used to before closers, matchup bullpen roles and Loogys existed??

2. Any old mediocre reliever is going to end up being a relatively effective closer.  Proof?

Lets say an average reliever has a 4.50 era or so (which in today’s game frankly is a stretch, given what we’ve talked about before and the advantages that relievers have over starters; they can go max effort for shorter time periods and they don’t have to face batters more than once).  That means he gives up one run every two innings.  Now lets say that you used this pitcher with his 4.50 era in every closing situation you face in a given year.  A save situation can be a lead held by 1, 2 or 3 runs.

So, out of these three scenarios your 4.50 ERA pitcher can give up his run every other start and still “save” 5 out of 6 games.

  • 1 run lead: gives up 0 runs; save
  • 1 run lead; gives up 1 run: blown-save
  • 2 run lead: gives up 0 runs; save
  • 2 run lead: gives up 1 run: save
  • 3 run lead: gives up 0 runs: save
  • 3 run lead: gives up 1 run: save.

And then even in those blown-save situations, extra inning affairs are basically coin flips anyway historically, which means that teams are going to win half those games anyway.  So you’re basically going to win 5.5 out of every 6 games.   5.5 out of 6 is 91%.  So historically even my normal case scenario undervalues the ability of teams to win these games.

And this scenario really undervalues what kind of reliever you’re actually going to put into the role.  Every team has a handful of relievers in their bullpen with ERAs in the 3-3.50 range; that’s 1-1.5 runs better than my “mediocre pitcher” example over the course of a couple weeks (assuming closers get about 9 innings of work every two weeks).  With even this marginal improvement you’re going from 91% to closer to the historical 94-95% of games won.


Want some more food for thought on closers?   Here’s your current top 5 closers in the league by number of saves, along with their acquisition method, salary and general statement about their careers thus far:

  1. Jason Grilli – 23 Saves.  36yrs old.  $2.25M.  He was flat out released in July 2011 by Philadelphia and signed as a Minor League FA by Pittsburgh.  He’s a 36 year old journeyman on his 7th pro organziation with a 106 career ERA+.
  2. Jim Johnson – 23 saves.  30yrs old.  $6.5M.  He’s a home-grown middle reliever thrust into the closer role last year when the O’s got fed up with FA closer Kevin Gregg.
  3. Mariano Rivera – 23 saves.  43yrs old.  $10m, taking a discount from his $15M/year deals since 2008 b/c of knee issue.  Home-grown player who converted to relief after bombing out as a failed starter at age 25.
  4. Joe Nathan – 20 saves.  38yrs old.  $7M, taking a discount from his last contract value of $11.25M/year after significant arm injury.   Failed starter with San Francisco, traded to Minnesota in the AJ Pierzynski deal and has flourished as a closer.
  5. Addison Reed – 19 saves.  24yrs old, $520k (20k above MLB minimum).  3rd round draft pick by the White Sox out of San Diego State, where he was a career relief pitcher after not having ever pitched until his Junior year of HS.

The next few guys are Kimbrel (655k), Mujica ($3.2M).   But you’ve also got guys out there closing like Wilhemlsen, who didn’t even make the majors until he was 27 and was out of the game working as a bartender for 6 years.

The point?  You shouldn’t pay for a high end closer; you find someone internally who looks like a good option on the cheap and go with them.  You can find someone in your farm system, or on waivers, or working in a bar who can be an effective closer.  Find someone who can throw 1mph for 20 pitches a few nights a week; they’re going to give you as good of a chance to win as throwing the last guy out of the bullpen out there with a 3 run lead in the 9th.


One last bit of observation:  Lets look at Dennis Eckersley‘s career.  As a starter: good, not amazing.  A couple years with a smattering of Cy Young votes.  One 20-game winning season but another season where he 9-13 with a 5.61 ERA.  He converts to a closer and immediately his ERA plummets, his K/9 jumps up, his ERA+ numbers rise to stupid levels.  One year (1990) as a 35-yr old he allowed just 5 earned runs and just 3 unintentional walks on the year through 73+ innings.

So, how is it that a 4th starter during his 20s can suddenly become a lights out Hall-of-Fame closer in his mid-30s while doubling his k/9 rates at a time when he should have been regressing as a player?  The answer is easy; relievers only have to face part of the lineup once a night, don’t need 4 pitches and can basically get by with a gimmick pitch.  And, since they’re only throwing 15-20 pitches a few nights a week instead of 100-110 pitches every 4 days, they don’t need to “save their arm for the whole night” and can go with max effort during their outings with no long term effects.

That’s a lot of loosely tied together points to my main theory: If I were the GM of a team, the absolute last thing I’d pursue on the FA market was a high-priced closer.  I don’t think the “closer” role is going away (players know that Saves translate to Dollars in arbitration and on the FA market), but I’m hoping we’ll see less Dusty Baker-esque management techniques and more Joe Maddon.

Possible 2013 WBC Nationals participants?

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Harper makes perfect sense to represent the US in 2013 WBC. Photo GQ magazine Mar 2012

I read a quickie piece with some Mike Rizzo quotes from the Washington Time’s beat reporter Amanda Comak on November 11th, 2012 and there was an interesting tidbit at the bottom: per Comak,  Rizzo has not been approached yet about any Washington Nationals participation in the WBC, but would approach each request on a “case-by-case basis” to determine what is in the best interests of the team.  This got me thinking about possible Nats representatives on 2013 WBC teams.

Lets take a quick look at the Nationals representatives on WBC teams from the past, talk about whether its really in the best interests of the team to even let these guys play, and then talk about who may be candidates for the 2013 WBC regardless.

(Note: I’ve added updates highlighted in red since the original 11/21/12 publication date on players mentioned here).

Washington has sent a decent number of players to play in the WBC over the years, with very mixed results for the team’s interests.  In 2006 the team sent seven different players to the inaugural WBC:

  • Luis Ayala for Mexico
  • Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski and Brian Schneider for team USA
  • Ronnie Belliard, Alberto Castillo, and Wily Mo Pena for the Dominican Republic.

The tournament was marred for the team by a blown UCL ligament to Ayala, who had undergone elbow surgery earlier in the off-season but pitched for his home country anyway.  The team did not want Ayala to participate in the inaugural event, did not want him used by the Mexican team, and team officials were “livid” by the injury, which cost Ayala the season and cost the team its 8th inning setup guy.  Ayala recovered to pitch again in 2008 but was never as effective, and was shipped out in 2009 for a PTBNL.  Coincidentally, I suspect the team still harbors some ill-will towards Ayala to this day.  Meanwhile the other two relievers who participated both experienced regressions in form; Cordero’s ERA nearly doubled (from 1.82 to 3.19) from his breakout 2005 season while Majewski’s numbers dipped slightly before he was traded in the big Cincinnati deal of 2006.

In 2009, the team had 5 participants:

  • Pete Orr playing for Canada
  • Joel Hanrahan and Adam Dunn playing for the USA
  • Saul Rivera and Ivan Rodriguez playing for Puerto Rico.

The WBC seemed to energize particularly Dunn, who enjoyed playing in a post-season atmosphere for the first (and only) time in his career.  Nobody suffered any injuries, but Hanrahan in particular may have been affected by his lack of a proper spring training; he posted a 7.71 ERA for the team while losing the closer spot and was shipped to Pittsburgh.  Ironically, Rivera also experienced a huge regression of form, going from a 3.96 ERA in 2008 to a 6.10 ERA in 2009 and was eventually released.

This begs the question; do we even WANT our pitchers playing on this team?  The first two WBCs have shown pretty distinctly that our pitchers have regressed greatly after playing.  This only makes sense: the spring training routines are greatly impacted to play in this event.  We may see a ton of front-office resistance to specific guys (especially those coming off injury) playing in the 2013 event.  Which could affect the eligibility of some specific players for 2013.

Now, which Nats may play for the 2013 teams?  First off, looking at the Nationals 40-man roster, we have become an amazingly heavy USA-born team (we’ll get to non-40man roster players in a moment). Thanks to the Nats big board resource (originated by Brian Oliver and now maintained by “SpringfieldFan”), which has the country of origin for players, here’s a breakdown of the home-country of our current 36 active (as of November 15th, 2012) roster players:

  • USA: 27 (would be 29 if adding in our rule-5 avoidance players)
  • Venezuela: 5 (Jesus Flores, Sandy Leon, Wilson Ramos, Henry Rodriguez, and Carlos Rivero)
  • Cuba: 1 (Yunesky Maya)
  • Columbia: 1 (Jhonatan Solano)
  • Dominican Republic: 1 (Eury Perez)
  • Netherlands (via Curacao): 1 (Roger Bernadina)

As you can see, the massive bulk of our team is USA born, and essentially our entire post-season starting roster was USA born as well.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that these USA-born players will actually play for team USA (Alex Rodriguez played for Puerto Rico despite being born and raised in Miami, and our own Danny Espinosa is eligible to play for Mexico by virtue of his first-generation born in the US status), but almost all of these guys will be up for consideration for the USA team.  And this only accounts for our 40-man players; as we’ll see below there’s plenty of lower-minors players from smaller countries that will participate.

Who from the Nationals franchise may make a 2013 WBC roster?  First off, thanks to James Wagner‘s 11/15/12 NatsJournal post we already know of three WBC participants; Solano is on the Columbian team, minor leaguer Jimmy Van Ostrand is on the Canadian team, and A-ball catcher Adrian Nieto is on the Spanish team.  Curacao qualifies to play with the Netherlands, and I’d guess that Bernadina would make a great choice considering the lack of Dutch players in baseball (Baseball Continuum’s projections agree.  And as of 12/4/12 he’s officially been listed as a Netherlands participant).. Venezuela is already qualified for the main draw and has a relatively strong possible team.  The Baseball Continuum blog posted an early projection of the Venezuelan team and listed Flores as a likely participant (specifically mentioning that Ramos wasn’t considered due to injury recovery; I’d suspect these two players to switch based on Ramos’ recovery and Flores’ awful 2012).   If Henry Rodriguez was healthy i’d guess he would be on that list too, but his season-ending surgery probably precludes his participation.  The Dominican Republic has perhaps the strongest depth and has no need for the recently called up Perez among its outfield depth.  Maya’s defection eliminates him from discussion for the Cuban team.  (12/4/12 update): Chien-Ming Wang has been announced as a member of Chinese Taipei’s team (for the purposes of this article I investigated all 2012 Nats).

Which leaves our large contingent of American players.  A couple of writers have started postulating on these rosters (David Schoenfield‘s very early guess as to a potential USA roster is here, Baseball Continuum’s latest projection is here).  So using these two posts as a starting point, lets go position-by-position and give some thoughts as to who may get some consideration.  Keep in mind the WBC rosters are generally very reliever heavy, since no starter is going to be “allowed” to pitch a complete game in March.

(Note: I’m still considering our Free Agents as “Nats players” for the purposes of this analysis, since this really goes position by position from our 2012 team to find candidates).

  • Catcher: Kurt Suzuki isn’t nearly in the class of the likes of Buster Posey, Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, or Matt Weiters.  There are a ton of quality american backstops right now.
  • First Base: Free Agent Adam LaRoche probably faces far too much competition from the likes of Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Allen Craig, Eric Hosmer, and Mark Teixeira to make this team.  If it were me, I’d go with Fielder and Teixeira.  But, LaRoche’s great 2012 season and his Gold Glove recognition may get him a spot.  He is a FA though, so i’d guess he won’t commit until he signs and gets the go-ahead from his new team.  Or, perhaps he uses the WBC to showcase himself?  Not likely needed; he should sign long before the WBC kicks off in March.
  • Second Base: Danny Espinosa is a decent player, but not in the same league as  Shoenfield’s projection of Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist.  Brandon Phillips is also in the mix for the team.
  • Shortstop: Ian Desmond‘s breakout 2013 season may get him some consideration.  There’s not a lot of American quality short stops out there.  Troy Tulowitzki is the obvious leading choice (as was Derek Jeter in the first two WBCs), but is he ready to come back from injury?  Looking around the majors there are a couple other possibilities (JJ Hardy, Brendan Ryan, Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Crawford all could be alternatives as well).   I think Desmond’s combination of offense and defense, combined with Tulowitzki’s injury recovery could get him on the team.
  • Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman cannot break the hegomony of David Wright and Evan Longoria right now, even given Longoria’s injury struggles this season.  Chase Headley and David Freese are also in the 3b mix.  12/4/12 update: Apparently Wright is committed, Longoria is out due to injury recovery and Headley “was not asked,” so perhaps Zimmerman is back in the mix.
  • Outfielders: I think Bryce Harper is a natural to make this team, not only on talent but also because of the brand-name recognition (and TV ratings and fan interest) it would generate.  Same goes for Mike Trout.  Otherwise there’s a slew of top-end american players who can man the outfield and they read like the top of the MVP boards: Braun, Kemp, McCutchen, Stanton, Hamilton, and Granderson are all candidates to make this team.  12/6/12 update: Scott Boras has stated that Harper will skip the WBC to focus on his sophomore season.
  • Starters: The two logical Nats candidates to be considered would be Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg.  But lets be honest; there is no way in hell Strasburg would be allowed to play.  Could Gonzalez make this team?  Given the depth of American starter talent right now (just off the top of my head: Verlander, LincecumCain, Hamels, Halladay, Kershaw, Lee, Weaver, Sabathia, Medlen, and so on) perhaps this will be a selection of attrition moreso than a selection of availability.  So if a number of the older guys on this list beg out, perhaps Gio gets his shot.  The WBC’s location in San Francisco has already lead to Ryan Vogelsong committing to play in his home town, and could lead to other Bay Area players signing up.  I’m not sure any of the rest of our starters are really candidates, given the reputations of the above list plus the reliever-heavy nature of the roster.
  • Relievers: our two most well known relievers (Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen) are possibilities; would the Nats block Storen based on his 2012 injury?  Craig Stammen‘s breakout 2012 season could get him looks, based on the reliever-heavy needs of the team.  Normally Sean Burnett may be in the loogy mix, but there’s better lefty relievers out there AND Burnett’s FA status may lead him to bow out to curry favor to his new team (Schoenfeld lists Burnett as a possible member back in July, before knowing he’s declared free agency).  The question is, would you take Clippard/Storen against the likes of this list of quality american back-of-the-bullpen arms: Kimbrel, Ventors, Marshall, League, Janssen, Papelbon, Hanrahan, Motte, Boggs, Bailey, Reed, and Nathan?  Possibly, considering that a lot of these guys probably bow out.  We’ve sent multiple relievers to each of the past two WBCs and its likely going to be the same thing this year.

Summary: here’s my guesses as to which Nats (and recent ex-Nats) will play in the WBC:

  • Venezuela: Ramos
  • Spain: Nieto
  • Canada: Van Ostrand
  • Columbia: Solano
  • Netherlands: Bernadina
  • Chinese Taipei: Wang
  • USA: Harper, Desmond, Gonzalez, Clippard.  Perhaps Zimmerman and Stammen.

March 2013 update: here’s the post-WBC actual list of participants when all was said and done, helped by  the list of rosters via Wikipedia.  MLB reports that nine (9) Nationals are participating in the classic, though the below list (excluding Wang) totals more.  They’re not counting Solano/Columbia, having lost in the preliminaries.

  • Columbia: Jhonatan Solano (AAA/Mlb in 2012)
  • Spain: Adrian Nieto (low-A in 2012)
  • Canada: Jimmy Van Ostrand (AA in 2012)
  • Italy: Matt Torra, Mike Costanzo (both AAA in 2012, Washington MLFA signings for 2013)
  • Netherlands: Roger Bernadina, Randolph Oduber (high-A in 2012)
  • Chinese Taipei: Chien-Ming Wang (former Nat, non-signed FA for 2013 start of season)
  • USA: Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler
  • Dominican Republic: Eury Perez (3/4/13 addition to DR team)