Let me give you the stats of two relief pitchers thus far in 2009.
Player 2 appears to be a power pitcher who strikes out his fair share of batters but also has trouble finding the strike zone, while Player 1 looks like a middling reliever who is lucky enough to be a closer. Now suppose these two players are the same age and are both free agents following the 2009 season. Who do you think gets the bigger contract? My money is on Player 1 getting a bigger contract from some GM still living in the Stone Age because he accumulated saves and is a “closer”.
In reality, these two pitchers play for the Chicago Cubs, and are Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol. Casual fans would argue that Gregg is more valuable to his team because he has 21 saves and is the closer while Marmol is just a middle relief pitcher. In fact, the opposite is true. Marmol’s average leverage when he enters the game is 1.63, compared to 1.52 for Gregg. This means that Marmol pitches in more crucial situations than Gregg, even though Gregg is that oh so important ninth inning pitcher. Marmol has also added more value to the Cubs. Marmol has a Win Probability Added of 2.01 compared to Gregg’s 0.13, and also holds a distinct advantage in RE/24, 7.63 to 1.97. Over the course of the year, that will probably add up to an extra win for the Cubs.
This situation is interesting because the Cubs are one of the few teams who actually use their bullpen properly. Marmol is having a bad year because he is walking way too many batters, but the general consensus is that he is their best relief pitcher. However, they are not using him as their closer, as most teams would do, but in crucial situations at other times in the ball game. The other team that immediately comes to mind is the Detroit Tigers, who used Todd Jones as their closer even though he was far from their best reliever. The Cubs are lucky that Marmol has not made a fuss about playing second fiddle to two inferior pitchers the last two years, Gregg and former closer Kerry Wood. The fact that he is not a closer is going to hurt Marmol’s bank account big time.
I am fairly confident that every team in baseball understands the concept of leverage, but they continue to use their best pitcher to hold a three run lead in the ninth inning. This is because you cannot just all of a sudden start using Joe Nathan or Mariano Rivera in the seventh inning of a tie ball game. Even though this is what would be best for the team, it is not what is best for the ballplayer because he is paid to accumulate saves. Until teams start compensating relief pitchers on a more useful stat then saves, I do not think we will see wide spread change. However, as more and more GM’s become statistically savvy, I think this change will come.
I say this because right now, a bona fide closer will not accept another role. He knows that his compensation is tied to his saves. It is like the article by Micheal Lewis (of Moneyball fame) about Shane Battier, where Battier refuses to shoot heaves at the end of a quarter because it hurts his shooting percentage, and he will not get paid as much. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey says “I tell him we don’t count heaves in our stats, but Shane’s smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out.” This is the same in baseball. Sure, Battier making a full court shot at the buzzer might help his team win a game, just like Rivera pitching in the seventh might help the Yankees win a game. However, it just is not going to happen because it will not help them get paid. Until relief pitchers get paid based on their overall performance rather than saves, I am afraid the Chicago Cubs bullpen is going to be the exception, not the rule.