With the retirement of New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, some things have or are becoming less and less a part of the game, the number 42 notwithstanding. In particular, Rivera was a rare breed of reliever that is slowly going the way of the buffalo, a remnant of how games were closed out before the 2000’s — the multi-inning closer.
Much like the reliever who relied upon the split finger fastball, which was en vogue for most of the 1970’s and 1980’s, only to be practiced by a scant few in the current day game, the closer who comes in to get the 4+ out save has apparently all but vanished. With the current landscape of the bullpen filled with one out specialists and closers who can only come in to a game in a clean inning, but only if you ask nicely, the reliever who can be relied upon to get more than one inning’s worth of outs stands out amongst the ultra-specialization of the 21st century bullpen.
Or is it? Is this Last of the Mohicans perception of the multi-inning save guy just a misguided narrative, or is there some merit to the notion that closers like Rivera or his counterpart in Boston — Koji Uehara — for example, are few and far between?
Let’s take a look at the last 25 years of saves, which is a reasonable swath of data to look at and figure out if the 4+ out save is truly dying a slow death. 25 years also covers the evolution of the bullpen and the role of a closer within the 9th inning, and the development of the setup man and the stat that accompanies said 8th inning guy, the hold.
So with that, let’s look at some data, all courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and their invaluable Play Index tool. Using said tool, we will look at all saves of 1.1 innings or more between 1988 and 2013.
This first chart is simply a count of all of the multi-inning saves (let’s shorten it to MIS moving forward), broken down by year. The various coloured tiles denote a pitcher — as we can see, there were quite a few pitchers who notched a MIS back in the day, with quite a few of them notching multiple MISs in a season. The number at the end of each row is the number of MISs for a season; we can already see a drastic change in the role of a MIS, with 2005 being a particular watershed year for the ‘death’ of the MIS.
Rewinding a bit, let’s talk about the kings of the MIS:
Of the relievers with 10 or more MISs between our years of interest, we find one — ONE — who is still currently active moving into the 2013 offseason: Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon. Adjusting the criteria to include pitchers who have made an appearance in the last three years and we grab one more pitcher, the aforementioned Rivera. All in all, this list is dominated by some of the bigger closer names of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Right now, there is a strong chance that the dying breed of the MIS closer is more truth than happenstance.
Just to compare/contrast some of the players who dominate the first five seasons of our 25 year span to those of the last five years, I have included the next two pie charts for comparison:
With this, we see a trend — the leaders of the given five year eras vary greatly in how many saves they have garnered to put them atop the MIS leaders list — no one in the last five years has notched double digit MISs, while in the early era, ten saves wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket.
Just eyeballing simple counting stats isn’t enough, we need to look at more data to really see if things have truly changed. Let’s do that now and take a look at the average MIS across the years, with regards to the number of innings pitched and the average walk and strikeout rates per nine innings (BB/9 and K/9) notched:
While the walk (in orange) and inning (in red) rates are a little tough to see given how close the data run together, we do see a couple of trends — strikeout rates are up and average innings per MIS are slightly down; while there is a bit of ocean wave-like variability, it looks as though walks haven’t really changed much over the 25 years of interest.
So far, we have one solid and one potential change in the MIS over the last 25 years — more strikeouts per outing as of late, with the more recent MIS outings being shorter in duration as compared to those of yesteryear. Cool? I guess.
Let’s grab a couple more stats that can help evaluate the quality of a reliever’s outing — average leverage index (aLI), run average by 24 based out situations (RE24), and win probability added (WPA). I will leave it to the reader to peruse this reference to get a better idea of the finer grain details of each of these stats. In a broad sense, looking at these stats, we can get a feel of how valuable and crucial these MISs were to the success of the team.
Again, we see some interesting trends, with an additionally interesting drop in aLI from 2008 to the past season; WPA doesn’t appear to have much change across the quarter century, with RE24 also showing a little drop off in the last couple of years, but making a return to pre-2010 values.
Doing a Pearson’s correlation on all of these stats of interest across year, we get the following results:
Created with the HTML Table Generator
We find four of the six stats have a statistically significant correlation with year (P-value less than .05); in particular, a significant negative correlation between IP and RE24 and year and a significant positive correlation between K/9 and aLI and year is found. One caveat — RE24 is an additive stat, so the fact it trends significantly with innings pitched isn’t a huge deal. However, the fact that we find small (all Pearson’s R’s are very small, below .30) but significant trends in innings, strikeouts, and aLI do portend to the MIS evolving over the last 25 years.
In spite of a number of stats showing us the MIS of years past are not the same as the few that we do see in our current day game, we haven’t seen the death of this quirky save just yet. In fact, an encouraging spike in MISs in 2013 — a jump to 44 after only 17 being notched in 2012 — shows us that with some help from the likes of Uehara as well as Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Ernesto Frieri and veteran Carlos Marmol doing their bit to keep the MIS alive, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to pen the eulogy of the multi-inning save.