Uehara has helped Red Sox to great pen
September, 2, 2013
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
One message that has been reinforced this season, maybe stronger than ever: It's time to dispose of the whole closer myth. Of course, managers still construct their bullpens around their closer, and their game strategy in the late innings around getting to the closer. And some managers stubbornly stick with their closer, even when he's struggling.
Managers anoint their closers as if they are offering divine inspiration to the position. But the truth is: No praying is needed. Most teams do just fine in the ninth inning, in part because closers are actually fairly easy to find.
For example, of the 10 teams currently holding a playoff position, four have changed their closers from Opening Day: the Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers. Include the Pirates, using Mark Melancon as their closer right now with Jason Grilli, and half the likely playoff teams have changed closers at some point.
The Red Sox are currently benefiting from the great work of Koji Uehara, the 38-year-old Japanese veteran who is proving to be one of the season's key free agent signings, taking over as Boston's closer after the injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. Uehara has a 1.17 ERA, has allowed a .137 batting average and given up just nine walks in 61 1/3 innings -- among pitchers with at least 30 innings, he has the lowest OPS allowed, lower even than Craig Kimbrel.
Speaking of which: Kimbrel has been terrific once again, with an ERA of 0.95 and 43 saves in 46 save situations. As great as he has been, however, his usage points to how dominant closers don't really have that much of an impact over their peers. Consider the chart below.
Since closers are basically just asked to protect ninth-inning leads (or enter in the ninth at home if the game is tied), I like to look at a team's record when leading while heading into the ninth inning. As great as Kimbrel has been, the Braves have still lost three such games, which puts them in the middle of the pack in the majors.
The Braves lead the majors in bullpen ERA and have just four losses when leading after seven innings. As good as that 62-4 record is, six teams -- including the Red Sox -- have a better winning percentage (although we're talking small increments here of percentage points). The point: We tend to evaluate closers like we evaluate starting pitchers: ERA, strikeout rates and the such. But if their job is to enter in the ninth inning to protect a lead, isn't that the primary thing to evaluate them on?
And that's why closers are easy to find. Most leads aren't one-run leads. Closers rarely enter with runners on base -- in fact, Baseball Info Solutions defines a "tough save" as one in which the pitcher enters with the tying run on base. As of a couple days ago, only four closers had more than one tough save -- Ernesto Frieri with three, and Kenley Jansen, Edward Mujica and Bobby Parnell with two.
Look at the chart again and focus on the difference in losses in the eighth and ninth innings. The Reds have three losses when leading after eight but eight when leading after seven. What if Aroldis Chapman had been used a few times in the eighth? The Royals are a solid 58-2 when leading after eight but have four additional losses in the eighth inning, so while they have the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors, their record in the eighth and ninth innings isn't anything special.
Back to that stubborn comment: That was a reference to Buck Showalter sticking with Jim Johnson -- and the Orioles having paid the price with nine losses when leading after eight innings. But they shouldn't have stuck with him. After all, closers aren't that hard to find.
Just ask the Red Sox.