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Friday, September 2, 2011
Baseball's top set-up men

By Christina Kahrl

So who are the real firemen? You know who leads the majors in saves, but ninth-inning save opportunities aren’t distributed especially equally. And in the age of Eck-style three-out saves, it isn’t like the guys getting saves are the ones charged with putting fires out with the game on the line. They’re fulfilling the job of protecting ninth-inning leads, and they get the glory stat and the big-time money for their troubles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the ninth inning isn’t often the point in time when a game’s outcome hangs in the balance.

Instead, let’s take a look at the guys who have made the biggest impact on outcomes because of the situations they get thrown into, which often involves handing off that lead to the closer. Using what Baseball-Reference.com refers to as “High Leverage” situations, who are the non-closers who have been put into the most key situations this season? Here’s the list of the guys with the highest number of High Leverage games without notching 20 or more saves. For good measure, let’s toss in innings pitched, games, their average leverage index (aLI), their tally of Holds + Saves and their total save situations (rarely in the ninth inning), their inherited runners, inherited runners who scored (IS), and the percentage of inherited runners who scored (IS%):


As much as we’ve already gotten to hear about Venters this season, it’s worth noting that he and Adams have come into more high-leverage situations than anybody in the game today, even after you include the closers. It’s also nice to see O’Flaherty show up, because Spuds has to live with being the third wheel in the Braves’ outstanding late-game trio, and not everyone gives him his due. The Cubs’ Marshall makes an appearance as a pitcher very similar to Venters, in that he’s earned a rubber-armed reputation while killing people with sinkers. And as former starting pitchers, they’re not the sort of southpaw set-up men who get chased by the first sign of a right-handed bat in the on-deck circle.

In Clippard and Veras, you get a pair of mid-game workhorses on non-contenders. More so than the others here, they’re also relievers who rank high among those who’ve had to pitch with the most runners on base. The MLB average for inherited runners scoring is 29 percent, and Clippard’s 19 percent clip puts him among the most effective at stranding other people’s problems. For the curious, the man with the mixed fortune of pitching with the most inherited baserunners has been Jason Motte with 56, but he’s also allowed a slightly worse-than-average 32 percent to score. Beyond Motte are a gaggle of situational guys: lefties Bill Bray of the Reds and Tim Byrdak of the Mets, plus submariner Brad Ziegler.

Which leaves Mike Adams, who’s interesting in that he’s almost the antithesis of a mid-game fireman: He almost never gets put into situations with men on. Instead, he’s entrusted with eighth-inning leads that are save opportunities -- they just don’t happen to lead to him notching many saves. Between San Diego and Texas this year, Adams has been handed 28 eighth-inning leads of three runs or fewer, and appeared in 16 eighth-inning ties. Between an injury-marred career that argues against him being asked to pitch multiple innings and a long delivery that makes him a poor choice to pitch with runners aboard, but leave him alone in this sort of role and he’ll strike out a man an inning and pitch his own innings. As set-up heroes go, he’s fairly unusual, but handled carefully, he’s an asset who belongs on this sort of list.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.