SweetSpot: Craig Kimbrel



One of the byproducts of sabermetrics has been the change in how we view managers. For starters, general managers are now the off-the-field face of the organization. There was a time when Earl Weaver had a big role in determining his 25-man roster or Davey Johnson could tell Frank Cashen he wanted a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden on his team. Now the general manager pretty much says, "Here are the players I'm giving you." As a result, we discuss general managers and roster building and the like as much as we discuss in-game decisions. Where we used to rail against managers, we demand that GMs be fired.

Think about this also: We talk about managers in terms of, well, managing. How they manage players and their egos. How they manage the bullpen. How they manage pitch counts. How they manage a young player. How they manage the media.

Less often, we talk about them in terms of strategy and tactics. This picks up in the postseason, of course, as we scrutinize every pitching change and sacrifice bunt and realize nothing Ron Washington does seems to make sense, but the regular season is dissected and analyzed more in a big-picture mindset.

Then sabermetrics piles on and says a lot of the decisions managers make aren't really all that important: Lineup order doesn't matter all that much, one-run strategies are overrated. Even all the shifting we see these days? That's coming from the front offices and the stat nerds, not the manager on the bench.

But then we get games like Wednesday night's at Citi Field between the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, a reminder that the big picture consists of 162 little pictures, and some of those little pictures depend on a key decision from the manager. Score a big 3-2 win here for the Braves in their battle for the wild card, with a big tip of the cap to skipper Fredi Gonzalez.

Here's what happened. After Andrelton Simmons made perhaps the defensive play of the season to save a run in the bottom of the eighth, the Braves took that 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth.
[+] EnlargeCraig Kimbrel
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel might be money in the ninth, but a little bit of tactical chicanery didn't hurt the Braves' chances on Wednesday night.

All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel came on and showed some of the wildness that has made him a little less dominant this season (his ERA entering the game was all the way up to 1.76, and he'd blown four saves). Eric Campbell singled sharply to right field on a 3-2 fastball. Matt den Dekker got ahead 3-0 and eventually walked on a 3-2 fastball.

Due up for the Mets: Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada and the pitcher, Flores hitting .224 and Tejada .228. With David Wright and Daniel Murphy both apparently unavailable with injuries, the Mets' bench was thin, so manager Terry Collins didn't really have any pinch-hitting options since he had to save a hitter for the pitcher.

Collins elected to bunt with Flores. That itself is debatable. I would have swung away, my theory being that getting the tying run to third base against Kimbrel is less valuable than against most pitchers because Kimbrel's strikeout rate is so high. Plus, he had just walked a batter and has been wild all season, so who knows what happens if you don't give him an out. I'd rather hope to go 1-for-3 than 1-for-2.

Flores got the bunt down and both runners moved up, bringing up the light-hitting Tejada, who has just 12 extra-base hits in over 300 at-bats. Gonzalez faced a tough decision: Bring the infield in to cut off the tying run but increase the probability of a grounder or line drive going through the infield and winning the game for the Mets, or keep the infield back to at least preserve a better chance of keeping the game tied and sending it into extra innings.

This is a situation in which the numbers can't provide a "right" answer. You could attempt to analyze the probability of Tejada hitting a ground ball (41 percent of the time when he puts the ball in play) against Kimbrel, who allows grounders on 43 percent of his balls in play. But then you have to factor in that Kimbrel didn't look sharp. And you'd have to factor in the odds of Tejada hitting a hard grounder or a slow grounder, let alone a line drive.

Oh, and you have about 10 seconds to make your decision. Good luck consulting the charts there.

Gonzalez had to make a snap decision. Maybe it wasn't that difficult; after all, with Kimbrel you have a good chance of a strikeout anyway, even against a solid contact hitter like Tejada. But it's one with enormous risk, no? Most managers are going to play it safe there; managers, by nature, are risk-averse. If Tejada hits a seeing-eye single through the drawn-in infield, the Braves lose and Gonzalez is vilified by the fans and the media.

I'm guessing that Gonzalez's primary consideration was that Tejada doesn't hit the ball hard. With that in mind, he brought the infield in.

It worked. Tejada hit a slow-roller to third base and the Braves got the out at home plate. Kimbrel then got pinch hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis to fly out to shallow left and the Braves were a win closer in the wild-card standings, one game behind the Cardinals.

Sabermetricians often talk about the "process" -- stick to the right process and things will eventually go in your favor. Sometimes a right decision will backfire and a wrong decision will work. But it's the process that matters.

Well, sometimes it's the result that matters. Fredi Gonzalez went for the win and got it.
1. I wrote about the Brewers-Pirates brawl here. While the brawl was certainly interesting, the biggest takeaway from the weekend has to be Ryan Braun's two home runs off Jason Grilli in the ninth -- one to win the game on Saturday, one to tie it on Sunday. It's only eight innings, but Grilli has yet to match last year's dominance, so something to watch.

2. The Oakland A's continue to impress and have the majors' biggest run differential at +32. Jesse Chavez, who replaced Jarrod Parker in the rotation when Parker went down in spring training, had his fourth straight solid start in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Astros and has allowed six runs in 26 innings with a 28/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Chavez pitches up in the strike zone with his 90-93 mph fastball but his cutter has developed into a nice weapon. What's interesting about it is that he locates on the outside part of the plate to left-handers and to right-handers. He's actually thrown it more than his four-seamer and while two of the three home runs he's allowed came off the cutter, batters are hitting .209 off it. He mixes in a curveball and changeup, making him four-pitch starter with good command. You have to like what he's done.

3. After a slow start, Josh Donaldson is also heating up. Over his past 12 games he's hitting .345 with four home runs, seven doubles and 12 RBIs and looking like the guy who finished fourth in the AL MVP voting last season. The A's have yet to play a team currently over .500, so this week's three-game series against the Rangers will be a good test.

4. Should the Braves be a little worried about Craig Kimbrel? He actually got pulled from Saturday's relief appearance -- his first outing in a week after resting a sore shoulder -- after giving up three hits, a walk and two runs. Jordan Walden had to come on to get the final out for the save. Kimbrel then wasn't used in Sunday's 14-inning loss to the Mets.

5. Dee Gordon continues to do good things for the Dodgers, hitting .367/.409/.483 with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Going back to last August, when he was recalled from Triple-A, Gordon is hitting .363 in 99 plate appearances. Still a sample size, but it's not like he has no track record of hitting. He's a career .301 hitter in the minors and hit .304 in 56 games as a rookie in 2011. Yes, he has no power, but if he can hit close to .300 and draw a few walks, he's going to steal a lot of bases and score runs in front of the big boys.

6. Giancarlo Stanton beat the Mariners with a walk-off grand slam on Friday, giving him six home runs and an MLB-leading 26 RBIs. The Stanton Fear Factor came into play in a big way on Sunday. The Mariners led 2-1 in the eighth. One out, runner on second, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon elects to intentionally walk Stanton, putting the go-ahead on base. I get it: Stanton has delivered some big hits. But he also has four times as many strikeouts as home runs. What is more likely to happen there? You cannot put the go-ahead on base there. If he beats you, he beats you, but giving the opponent a free runner often leads to bad things. A walk, fielder's choice and sacrifice fly gave the Marlins the win as Stanton came around to score. Great player, bad managing.

7. Robinson Cano is not driving the ball at all. He's hitting .268/.321/.352 with three doubles and one home run, his one home run coming in Texas when he did manage to sort of one-arm the ball just over the fence in right. Cano had hit 40-plus doubles the past five seasons, so the lack of extra-base hits is as concerning as the lack of home runs. Again, just 18 games, and he had an April like this in 2012 when he hit .267 with one home run and four RBIs, but he's part of the reason the Mariners have looked awful since that 3-0 start.

8. The Tigers won 2-1 on Sunday, in part because Ian Kinsler created a run all by himself with the help of some sloppy Angels defense. The Angels were credited (discredited?) with three errors on the play. By the way, Kinsler has played well so far, hitting .317/.353/.476. Miguel Cabrera, however, has yet to get untracked, hitting .220 with one home run.

9. Big win for the Nationals on Sunday, ralling from a 2-0 deficit against the Cardinals with two runs in the seventh and the winning run in the ninth. Danny Espinosa played a key role in both rallies, driving in a run in the seventh and single to start the winning rally. I criticized the Nationals on Thursday after a sloppy 8-0 loss to the Cardinals, but they managed a little redemption with wins on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around Bryce Harper getting benched on Saturday for not running out a groundball.

10. Finally, Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado had a busy weekend. On Sunday, he was heavily involved in the brawl, sucker-punching Travis Snider. On Friday, he pulled a Roy Hobbs and literally knocked the cover off the ball. Poor Pedro Alvarez; he's led the majors in errors the past two seasons and had to try and throw that thing to first base. It was ruled an infield hit.


PHILADELPHIA -- After beating up on the Washington Nationals all weekend, the Atlanta Braves reached a point Monday night where they appeared to be rolling toward a nice, methodical win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Then the momentum began whipsawing in umpteen different directions and vertigo took hold in the dugout, and it was the kind of game when bald managers make jokes about how they’re glad they don’t have any hair to turn gray.


“It was almost like two different games out there tonight,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Brian Garfinkel/Getty ImagesDan Uggla admires his second home run of the night -- and of the season.


Atlanta’s second most reliable reliever, Luis Avilan, morphed into a human line-drive dispenser in the eighth inning to turn a 5-1 lead into a 6-5 deficit. Then Dan Uggla, a power hitter who entered Monday night with a .195 average and zero homers in his first 41 at-bats this season, lofted a grand slam into the left-field seats in the top of the ninth to give the Braves a 9-6 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.


And then, when the bullpen gates swung open and everyone expected All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to come jogging out to nail it down, out came David Carpenter, who was pressed into service because Kimbrel has a sore right shoulder. (Nothing serious, Kimbrel insists. But he still might require a “few days” of rest and maintenance to get back on the mound.)


It’s hard to tell precisely what lesson to draw from the aforementioned sequence of events. But if you begin with the premise that resilience is paramount during a 162-game season, that’s a pretty good start.


“That’s baseball,” Uggla said. “A comfortable win turns into an uncomfortable loss sometimes -- or an uncomfortable win. It’s just the way the game is. You can never think that things are going to work out a certain way.”


If anyone can grasp that concept, it’s the Braves, who have to be feeling pretty good about themselves with their 9-4 start, given the numerous unsightly alternatives.


Think back a little more than a month ago, when Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy learned they would need Tommy John surgery and the Atlanta rotation bordered on wrecked beyond repair. A pessimist might have described the projected Opening Day rotation as “Teheran and Wood, and not very good.”


Things have fallen into place quite nicely since then. Aaron Harang, picked up by Atlanta in late March after he was released by Cleveland, has been terrific, with a 0.96 ERA and a .145 batting average against in three starts. Reinforcements are on the way, with Mike Minor close to returning from a shoulder issue and Gavin Floyd (recovering from his own Tommy John surgery) not far behind. And the Braves just might have found themselves a new ace in Ervin Santana, who is giving Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales a primer on how an unemployed free agent can cut his losses and make the best of a bad situation.


Like Morales and Drew, Santana was trapped in free-agent compensation hell before downsizing his expectations and signing a one-year, $14.1 million deal with Atlanta on March 12. Two starts into his tenure with the Braves, he has a 0.64 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings, and he’s showing that a full complement of spring training innings can be highly overrated.

[+] EnlargeErvin Santana
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsErvin Santana has settled in quickly as a rotation solution for the Braves.


Santana was lights-out in his National League debut with eight scoreless innings against the Mets, and was almost as formidable against the Phillies. He struck out 11 batters in six innings, with every one coming on a swing and miss. Santana complemented a mid-90s fastball with an effective slider and changeup that induced an abundance of tentative, awkward swings.


“He has three plus pitches and he attacks hitters,” said a scout who watched Santana at Citizens Bank Park on Monday. “A lot of swings and misses. We all wondered how he stayed out there on the market that long. Money, I guess. But he’s pretty good.”


Santana insists he doesn’t have any extra motivation after a winter of anxious unemployment. But it’s clear he made the right decision to take the plunge and go back on the market when he did.


“I don’t have to prove anything,” Santana said. “Just be me and pitch every time I take the mound. It was tough for me to get a job with the draft compensation being part of the deal. I don’t want anything bad for anybody. But injuries happen. That’s part of the game. When [the Braves] reached out to me I said, 'OK, let’s do it.’”


Gonzalez knew Santana would be a good fit in Atlanta when Kansas City GM Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, two old friends, both called him and raved about Santana as a person, a professional and a competitor from his days with the Royals. If Gonzalez is surprised about anything to this point, it’s that a pitcher as slight as Santana can summon so much life from that right arm. The dreadlocks merely add to Santana's aura.


“If you took a poll of people who didn’t know baseball and said, ‘What does that guy do for a living?’ I think baseball would be the last thing they’d think,” Gonzalez said. “They’d probably say this guy is an artist or a singer.”


Santana is 1-0 through two starts, and Atlanta’s supporting cast showed enough signs of life to bode well for him and the rest of the Atlanta staff moving forward:


Evan Gattis, who hit two home runs Monday, is a career 4-for-20 at Citizens Bank Park. All four of those hits are home runs.


Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta’s all-world defensive shortstop, went 3-for-5 and is now hitting .341 this season. He has yet to strike out in 41 at-bats.


• Uggla committed a throwing error, but he made two sensational plays in the field and sent two balls into the seats. If the Braves plan on maintaining their early momentum, they need Uggla, Gattis and the rest of the lineup to give Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton some help over the coming weeks and months.


“We have a lot of guys who can change the game with one swing,” Uggla said.


For now, the Braves are just happy to be in “weathered-the-storm” mode. After hitting rock bottom in spring training, they're fully prepared for the wild emotional swings that a baseball season brings. Some nights that trait comes in handier than others.

In recent years, the Atlanta Braves' farm system has grown a lot of tasty fruit: Kris Medlen arrived in 2009; Jason Heyward in 2010; Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Minor in 2011; Andrelton Simmons in 2012; Julio Teheran in 2013. That's a lot of premium talent for a five-year span. With that, however, comes the corresponding problem: How are you eventually going to afford all these players?

General manager Frank Wren has signed four of those guys to long-term extensions this offseason: Heyward for two years through his arbitration years, Freeman to an eight-year deal that buys out five years of post-free agency, Teheran to a six-year deal with a club option that could buy out two years of free agency and now Kimbrel to a four-year deal with a club option that would also buy out two seasons of free agency.

[+] EnlargeCraig Kimbrel
Pouya Dianat/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel has led the National League in saves in each of the past three seasons.
Braves fans should be happy: This core group is locked up for at least two years and most of it well beyond that (Simmons wouldn't reach free agency until after the 2018 season). Even if Heyward departs after 2015, the Braves have the talent to remain competitive well into the future. ESPN Insider Jim Bowden likes the Kimbrel deal, pointing out that Kimbrel likely would have earned more on an annual basis by going through arbitration. For Kimbrel, a little less money means he's more likely to remain in Atlanta.

Martin Gandy of our Braves blog Chop County writes:
Big deals for closers and relievers have been risky business for teams in the past. Relievers are generally streaky players who can be subject to extreme good years and extreme bad years. The Braves are betting that Kimbrel's consistency will continue, and they're throwing caution to the wind that his max-effort delivery will not result in any sort of arm or shoulder problems. These are risks for any pitcher, but it seems like a good risk to take on Kimbrel, as these will be his prime years from age 26 to 29, with an option year at age 30.


The problem with comparing Kimbrel to other relievers is that he's been so dominant in his three-plus years in the big leagues, with a 1.39 career ERA, .155 batting average allowed and strikeout rate of 15.1 per nine innings.

Obviously, if he remains healthy, he should remain dominant. But is there any chance he'll drop off or decline over the next five years? Will he lose a little zip on his fastball or bite on his unhittable slider? I thought I'd do a little study, looking at some of the best closers over the past 20 years, looking at their first three years as closers and then their next five years.


Pitcher Years ERA AVG SO/9 IP
Rivera 1997-99 1.87 .210 7.0 67
2000-04 2.28 .217 8.0 70

Gagne 2002-04 1.79 .168 13.3 82
2005-09 4.28 .242 9.0 28

Papelbon 2006-08 1.70 .182 10.8 65
2009-13 2.80 .222 10.5 66

Nathan 2004-06 1.97 .176 11.9 70
2007-11 2.32 .193 10.1 50

Rodriguez 2005-07 2.38 .195 12.1 69
2008-12 3.07 .224 9.8 67

Wagner 1997-99 2.33 .181 14.6 67
2000-04 2.67 .192 10.8 60

Lidge 2003-05 2.59 .198 12.8 83
2006-10 4.16 .232 11.3 63

Cordero 2003-05 2.82 .230 10.0 74
2006-10 3.23 .238 9.4 70

Hoffman 1994-96 2.78 .191 10.5 66
1997-01 2.51 .200 10.6 71

Urbina 1997-99 2.92 .194 12.0 70
2000-04 3.45 .210 10.5 54

Benitez 1998-00 2.71 .164 13.0 74
2001-05 2.79 .198 9.4 63


OK, that's just 11 pitchers, but like Kimbrel, they all threw hard (Trevor Hoffman had a good fastball early on). I could have picked others -- guys like Brian Wilson and Bobby Jenks. Anyway, for what it's worth, 10 of the 11 had a higher ERA in the ensuing five-year span with the exception of Hoffman, who mastered his changeup. You would have to expect the same with Kimbrel; after all, it's pretty difficult to improve upon a 1.38 ERA.

There were a few injuries here, most notably Eric Gagne, who blew up after three dominant seasons that in a higher-scoring era were as impressive as Kimbrel's three years. Joe Nathan missed all of 2010 after having Tommy John surgery. Brad Lidge was inconsistent.

Physically, Kimbrel reminds me of Billy Wagner (although Wagner was left-handed), a shorter guy who generated enormous power. Wagner did suffer a torn flexor tendon in 2000 and missed much of the season. He returned to have eight more dominant seasons, although his strikeout rates weren't as high as his first three seasons.

Kimbrel's contract is probably pretty safe for the Braves. He's averaged just 69 innings in his three seasons and that total was boosted by the 77 he threw as a rookie. Remember, some of these guys were used in other roles before becoming closers. Mariano Rivera threw 107 2/3 innings in a setup role in 1996, for example.

It all points to five more great seasons from Kimbrel.

Now the Braves just need to start working on those contracts for Minor and Simmons ...
A couple articles out there about relief pitchers. Buster Olney wrote today about the Braves' important arbitration case with Craig Kimbrel:
But the gap between what the Braves have offered Kimbrel -- $6.55 million -- and what Kimbrel wants in arbitration -- $9 million -- is enormous, and there’s more at stake for Atlanta in this hearing than the $2.45 million that separates the sides.

If the Braves win the case, they will give themselves a legitimate chance to keep Kimbrel for 2015. If they lose, however, then Kimbrel may be priced off the Atlanta roster sooner than anybody expects. Because arbitration cases are like building blocks, with one decision stacked upon the next.

If Kimbrel wins his case and makes $9 million in 2014, then he will be well-positioned to ask for something in the range of $14 million-$15 million next year -- or, in other words, he could become the highest-paid reliever in baseball in his second year of arbitration eligibility.


The Braves' payroll has remained about the same for the past decade, due in part to an ill-signed local TV contract. Maybe it will increase with the move to the new ballpark in Cobb County, but that's years away. Complicating matters is the Braves will have other young players eventually hitting their arbitration years -- Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Mike Minor (who signed for $3.8 million) this year, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran in 2016.

As dominant as Kimbrel has been, that makes him a possible trade candidate, especially if he wins his arbitration cases. But as Buster points out, "Kimbrel's actual value in the trade market almost certainly will be substantially less than what fans perceive that it should be, because there will be only a small handful of teams willing to pay a closer $15 million or more."

In contrast to the Braves' situation with Kimbrel we've seen the A's and Rays -- the small-market, penny-pinching, study-every-facet-of-the-game-to-find-any-edge-possible A's and Rays -- spend money on their bullpens this offseason. The A's lost closer Grant Balfour, who made $4.5 million in 2013, but traded for Orioles closer Jim Johnson ($10 million salary) and Padres reliever Luke Gregerson ($5.065 million) and signed free agent Eric O'Flaherty ($1.5 million). The Rays lost closer Fernando Rodney, but rather than promote from within, they first acquired Heath Bell (they'll pay $5.5 million of his $10 million salary) and then signed Balfour to a two-year, $12 million deal after the Orioles backed out of their initial agreement with him.

So what gives? Traditionally, sabermetricians have argued that bad teams or small-market teams shouldn't spend money on relief pitchers; if there's one area to scrimp on, make it the bullpen, in part because relievers are notoriously unpredictable from year to year, in part because starting pitchers are more valuable, but also because you can build a cheap but effective pen with young relievers (think of the A's with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle).

Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus tackled this subject earlier in the week in an article titled, "Why Are Smart Teams Spending Money on Relievers?" The article is behind the BP subscription service, but Russell writes,

I’d argue that WAR(P), as we have defined it, doesn't do a very good job of describing relievers. The disconnect can be summed up by looking first at this chart and then at this one. In case you don't want to click through, the first chart is a listing of the top WARs of 2013, while the second is the top win probability added (WPA) scores of 2013. The WAR chart Top 30 doesn't contain any relievers at all. The WPA chart alternates between elite starters and back-end relievers, mostly closers. There's a lesson in here, if you're careful to look for it.


Basically, WPA will give a closer like Greg Holland a lot of value because he's almost always pitching in high-leverage situations. It's not a perfect metric, but it explains why closers or setup men can be considered more valuable than what WAR describes them to be. As Russell writes, "Holland had a good year, no doubt, but more importantly, he illustrates a point. Because teams have a lot more control over what relievers are placed into what situations, having a good reliever (or a reliever having a fluky good season) for those high-leverage situations can have a big impact on a team's chances of winning games."

I often write that closers are overrated. That's different from saying they aren't important. What I mean when I say that is that the halo effect we tend to put around closers is wrong. Look at the Yankees. Right now, everybody is worried about replacing Mariano Rivera. But David Robertson will be fine in the role because Robertson is an outstanding relief pitcher. The more difficult task for the Yankees will be replacing Robertson's innings (which they've yet to do) than Rivera's innings. Yes, you can find examples of good setup guys who maybe couldn't handle the ninth inning, but nearly all good setup relievers will be good closers if given the opportunity.

Also, relievers are easier to find. Many relievers are failed starters. Put them in the pen and suddenly their fastballs ramp up a couple of mph and they can focus on two pitches instead of three or four. Look at former Rays starter Wade Davis. He wasn't very good in the rotation, but was outstanding when moved to the bullpen in 2012. Traded to the Royals, they tried him again as a starter and he was terrible. Or his Kansas City teammate Luke Hochevar, who never made it as a starter, with a 5.45 ERA over five seasons. Moved to the bullpen in 2013, he posted a 1.92 ERA with outstanding peripherals.

That's what I mean about being overrated. And calling relievers overrated is why Kimbrel's trade value is minimal. Ultimately, teams feel that they can always find a closer, so why give up value and pay Kimbrel a big salary?

You still want a good bullpen, of course. In terms of WPA, the only playoff team not in the top half of the league in 2013 was the Rays, who ranked 18th. Even the much-maligned Tigers pen ranked 15th.

It's also worth mentioning that the deeper your pen is, the less work you'll require from your starting pitchers. In Oakland's case, they don't yet have any proven 200-inning workhorses in the rotation (although Jarrod Parker may get there this year), so a deep bullpen will allow manager Bob Melvin to have quicker hooks with his starters.

The A's and Rays don't have a lot of money to spend on a new cleanup hitter or No. 3 starter. But they can afford relief pitchers and that's why general manager Billy Beane traded for Johnson and the Rays signed Balfour.

Hey, it's awards season!

November, 11, 2013
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Awards season runs all week, with the rookies announced today, followed by managers on Tuesday, the Cy Young winners on Wednesday and MVPs on Thursday.

Of course, those are the BBWAA awards -- the Baseball Writers Association of America awards.

The BBWAA awards get all the attention simply because they are the ones that have been around since 1931 (MVP), 1947 (Rookie of the Year), 1956 (Cy Young) and 1983 (Manager). In the early years, The Sporting News Player of the Year was actually the more prestigious honor but the BBWAA winner eventually became the one everyone recognizes and writes angry Twitter posts about. The Sporting News still names a Player of the Year (Miguel Cabrera won for the second straight season) but nobody really pays attention. MLB hands out the Hank Aaron Award for the best hitter in each league but nobody argues about who got shafted (Cabrera and Paul Goldschmidt won this year).

So we're basically stuck with the BBWAA awards. But we don't have to be. For instance, Howard Cole of the LA Weekly started the IBWAA in 2009 -- the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. I've voted on the IBWAA awards the past two seasons and the IBWAA handed out its first honors last week to the best relief pitcher in each league. The voting results:

AL Rollie Fingers Award
1. Greg Holland, Royals
2. Koji Uehara, Red Sox
3. Joe Nathan, Rangers

NL Hoyt Wilhelm Award
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
3. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers

I had Uehara over Holland on my ballot but Holland did have a terrific season and spent the entire year as a closer, unlike Uehara. Kimbrel was an easy choice in the NL.

Anyway, I'll be posting the IBWAA results all week. I'm not sure we'll see much difference from the BBWAA winners this year since most of the awards are pretty cut-and-dried, but it will be interesting to see if some of the down-the-ballot results are different.

(If you're interested in joining the IBWAA, go to the IBWAA web site.




In defense of Fredi Gonzalez

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
3:03
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So, Eric Karabell and I had a good discussion today about what happened in the eighth inning of the Braves-Dodgers game on Monday night.

His question to me: Is it fair to rip Fredi Gonzalez when no other manager would have used Craig Kimbrel to start the eighth inning? And: Is it fair to rip Gonzalez when David Carpenter had a very good season (1.78 ERA, 74 strikeouts in 65.2 innings)?

Well ... I argued yes, my point still being:

(A) I don't want to lose the game without my best reliever appearing. By managing to the save -- the ninth-inning save (or, as in Game 2, the four-out save) -- Gonzalez used Kimbrel for just four outs in the series. Five other Braves relievers were used more in the series. Kimbrel threw 25 pitches in five days.

(B) Kimbrel is special, making it even more important you find a way to use him.

Still, Eric's point is fair: Gonzalez is managing like everyone and it's not Carpenter like was horrible; maybe there's no shame in losing a game with a reliever who had a sub-2.00 ERA.

To the point about two-inning saves, I checked the past five postseasons, 2008 to 2012. There were only four two-inning saves: Jason Motte in Game 3 of last year's NLCS, Phil Coke in Game 2 of the ALCS last year (with a three-run lead) and Mariano Rivera twice in 2009.

There were also a few other instances when a closer, or a one-inning setup guy, pitched two innings. Motte had another two-inning appearance last year where he got the win (Game 5 of the NLDS). Sergio Romo had one for the Giants, although that was the ninth and 10th innings of a game that was tied. But Eric's point is basically true: Two-inning saves are exceptionally rare.

Managers have been a little more willing to go to four-out saves. In those five seasons, there were 13 four-out saves and four five-out saves (although one of those came in a 10-3 game was broken up in the ninth). Motte had three of those 13 four-out saves. (These numbers don't include blown saves or other instances were a closer may have gone more than three outs in a tie game.)

So, four outs is sort of OK. But five or six outs are basically off-limits.



Let's get the positives out of the way, because this game should be remembered for the heroics more than a managerial decision.

What a start by Freddy Garcia, who first appeared in the postseason with the Seattle Mariners back in 2000, when one of his teammates was Rickey Henderson.

What a gutsy effort by Clayton Kershaw, pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career and allowing just two runs -- both unearned -- in six innings.

What a double by Yasiel Puig, leading off the bottom of eighth inning by scooting a 2-2 fastball past a diving Freddie Freeman into the right-field corner, leading Vin Scully to exclaim, "The wild horse is loose!" as Puig sprinted into second in about two blinks of the eye.
[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillYasiel Puig's double was one of the glorious things overshadowed by Juan Uribe's blast.

And, of course, what a home run by Juan Uribe, a guy many had wanted the Los Angeles Dodgers to release in the offseason, eating the final year of his contract. Manager Don Mattingly had asked him to bunt Puig to third to get the tying run 90 feet away. Uribe bunted two balls foul, laid off two close pitches -- Juan Uribe showing plate discipline! -- and then tomahawked a high fastball from David Carpenter into the left-field stands for a shocking two-run homer that held up as a 4-3 Dodgers victory when Kenley Jansen closed it out.

It was a thrilling game to cap off an amazing day of baseball. Four games that had a little bit of everything. But … I can't avoid it. Note that I wrote "David Carpenter" and not "Craig Kimbrel."

It's simple really: The Braves had to win this game. Lose, and they go home. Somehow they lost -- in the late innings, no less -- without using the most dominant relief pitcher in the game. Kimbrel did not throw a single pitch.

Look at that note above from Jeff Passan. Consider that Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was willing to use Kimbrel for four outs in Game 2 -- but not six outs in a must-win game. Not six outs even after Puig had led off with the double. It's managing to a statistic instead of managing to win. Gonzalez decided he'd rather get Kimbrel a "save" than put his team in the best possible position to win.

The sad thing is, Gonzalez apparently didn't even think of using Kimbrel for two innings. "I think six outs isn't something we were even talking about in the dugout," he said after the game.

But what’s the difference between four outs and six outs? Six pitches? Ten pitches? And that doesn’t even factor in that the Dodgers had the 5-6-7 hitters due up in the eighth and the 8-9-1 hitters up in the ninth. What part of the lineup is more likely to score runs?

So instead you lost a game with a guy who had a 6.07 ERA last year for the Houston Astros.

As the Braves hit in the ninth inning, the camera panned to Kimbrel in the bullpen, warming up. At one point he turned to the bullpen coach and said, "I'm mad because …" I'm not exactly sure what he said after that, although one person on Twitter surmised it was "I'm mad because I told him if we have the lead in the eighth, I want the ball." We'll see if Kimbrel confirms that, but even if he didn't say that, his look of disgust, standing there with his hands on his hips, will haunt Braves fans all winter.

This should be covered in Managing 101. You can't lose a game without getting your best reliever in there, especially one with Kimbrel's credentials, at some point. Who cares if it's the seventh inning or the eighth inning or the ninth. Just use him. Isn't that the most important thing? I'd rather lose with Carpenter in the ninth inning or the 10th inning or whenever, at least knowing I had used Kimbrel at some juncture.

Look, managing your bullpen in a structured manner in the regular season is one thing.

October is not the regular season.

Fredi Gonzalez didn't think the best reliever in the game can get six outs.

He ended up getting none.


Good question, Matthew, as we watch Wainwright mow down the Pirates in Game 1 of their series.

Of course, no pitch works all by itself. Wainwright has a cutter and a fastball that he uses in conjunction with the curve. But, yes, his curveball is pretty awesome. Let's look at some of the best pitches of this postseason, by looking at the numbers in plate appearances ending against that specific pitch.

Adam Wainwright's curve: 268 PAs, .171 average, 3 HR, 9 XBH, 115 SO, 9 BB

A reader named Chet Lemonade (real name?) asked about Max Scherzer's slider. The numbers: 143 PAs, .130 average, 2 HR, 4 XBH, 53 SO, 5 BB.

As good as Wainwright's curve is, it pales next to these numbers:

Clayton Kershaw's curve: 146 PAs, .096 average, 0 HR, 0 XBH, 80 SO, 0 BB.

Wow ... I mean, that's not fair. No extra-base hits, no walks, only 14 singles in 146 at-bats. Incredible. Can that be topped?

Craig Kimbrel's slider: 82 PAs, .100 average, 0 HR, 0 XBH, 53 SO, 1 BB, 1 HBP.

Even more impressive: Kimbrel hasn't allowed an extra-base hit off his slider in the past two seasons.

Here's another reliever with a knockout breaking ball:

Mark Melancon's curveball: 69 PAs, .147 average, 0 HR, 0 XBH, 40 SO, 0 BB.

Batters are hitting just .089 off Koji Uehara's splitter, but if he leaves it up, they can do some damage and have five doubles and two home runs.

OK, we could dig deeper, but we're not going to beat Kershaw's curveball or Kimbrel's slider, undoubtedly two of the most unhittable pitches of all time.

SweetSpot's 2013 NL All-Star team

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
12:39
PM ET
I did my American League All-Star team yesterday. Here's my National League squad. A few more tougher calls in the NL.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals (.319/.359/.477, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Two questions: Is Molina a legitimate MVP candidate and how will he fare in the voting? Sure, he's a strong candidate, although I have Andrew McCutchen as my clear No. 1 guy. Due to his relatively low runs plus RBIs total (he has 68 runs scored), Molina would certainly be an unconventional MVP candidate. Wins Above Replacement accounts for some of Molina's defense -- such as throwing out runners -- but can't measure some of the intangibles, such as the confidence he gave to the young St. Louis starters. Molina's offense numbers are similar to last year, when he finished fourth in voting, so I wouldn't be surprised if he jumps up to second this season.

First base: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (.302/.401/.553, 36 HR, 124 RBI, 7.1 WAR)
Goldschmidt or Joey Votto? It's not quite as simple as Goldschmidt's 51-RBI advantage as both put up similar numbers otherwise, with Votto having the edge in on-base percentage (.436) and Goldschmidt in power (36 home runs to 24). Both were extremely durable -- Goldschmidt has missed two games, Votto zero -- and solid defenders. The one big difference is an advanced metric called Win Probability Added, a category Goldschmidt led all NL position players in, thanks in part to his .350 average in high-leverage situations and nine home runs in late and close situations (second-most in the majors to Chris Davis). I'm confident Goldschmidt is the right choice here.

Second base: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (.320/.394/.484, 11 HR, 78 RBI, 6.7 WAR)
An easy choice as Carpenter leads the NL in runs, hits and doubles while ranking in the top 10 in numerous other categories. I'm guessing Molina garners more MVP support, but Carpenter is just as worthy to finish in the top five.

Third base: David Wright, Mets (.308/.393/.516, 18 HR, 57 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Pedro Alvarez leads the NL with 36 home runs and has knocked in 100 but a .233 average and sub-.300 OBP means he created a ton of outs to generate those runs. Ryan Zimmerman waited too long to start hitting. Chris Johnson hit .321 for the Braves. None were above-average defenders. So almost by default I'll go with Wright, who easily has the highest WAR even though he missed 50 games.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Braves (.244/.292/.390, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 6.5 WAR)
I've been raving about Simmons all season so I can't change now. Troy Tulowitzki was great once again and relatively healthy (125 games), although he hit 61 points higher at home. Hanley Ramirez was the best on a per at-bat basis but played just 86 games. Ian Desmond flew under the radar year for the Nationals. But Simmons is my guy, even with that sub-.300 OBP. His defense was that good.

Left field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (.302/.367/.591, 26 HR, 70 RBI, 5.1 WAR)
Starling Marte had an excellent all-around season (41 steals, great defense) for the Pirates and Matt Holliday was solid for the Cardinals. Gonzalez's season was similar to Wright's -- if he'd remained healthy, he'd be the obvious choice, but he missed 50 games. Unlike Tulo, he actually hit better on the road, so it's not a Coors-inflated season. I'll go with CarGo just barely over Marte.

Center field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.317/.404/.508, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 8.2 WAR)
Carlos Gomez would be an MVP candidate if he had better teammates. Shin-Soo Choo gave the Reds exactly what they needed, a leadoff hitter who got on base. But this was McCutchen's season as he often carried a mediocre Pittburgh offense and hit .339/.441/.561 in the second half, helping keep the Pirates in the division title race. He's the likely MVP winner and not a "weak" MVP, as some have speculated. His WAR is higher than the past three NL MVPs, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Votto. He may not drive in 100 runs or score 100 (he's at 97), but it was the best all-around season in the league.

Right field: Jayson Werth, Nationals (.318/.398/.532, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 4.8 WAR)
A loaded position, and that's with Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton missing significant time. Jay Bruce, Yasiel Puig, Hunter Pence and Marlon Byrd all have their supporters (and Gerardo Parra leads in WAR). The knock against Werth, like Wright and Gonzalez, is that he missed significant time (129 games). But Bruce has a .329 OBP. Puig didn't get called up until June and Pence's monster September (11 HR, 29 RBI) came after the Giants had long been eliminated and arguably against dubious September pitching.

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kersaw, Dodgers (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 8.0 WAR); Cliff Lee, Phillies (14-8, 2.87 ERA, 7.2 WAR); Jose Fernandez, Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 6.3 WAR); Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (19-9, 2.94 ERA, 6.2 WAR); Matt Harvey, Mets (9-5, 2.27 ERA, 5.4 WAR)
Oh, Cliff Lee is still good. There were no shortage of top starters in the NL as 18 qualified starters have posted an ERA of 3.25 or under, the most since 17 did it in 1992 and 10 more than last year.

Left-handed setup guy: Luis Avilan, Braves (5-0, 1.55 ERA)
Part of Atlanta's dominant bullpen, Avilan fanned just 38 in 64 innings but allowed a .173 average and just one home run. He gets great movement on his two-seam sinking fastball, resulting in fewer K's but a lot of groundballs. Honorable mention to Pittsburgh's Justin Wilson.

Right-handed setup guy: Mark Melancon, Pirates (3-2, 1.39 ERA)
He had a couple rough outings in September, but was dominant throughout the season, first setting up Jason Grilli and then earning 16 saves when Grilli was injured.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (4-3, 50 saves, 1.23 ERA)
He did blow four save chances and wasn't quite as statistically dominant as last season -- and still finished with 1.23 ERA and 50 saves.







Umm, yeah, here come the Nationals

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
5:17
PM ET
Quick thoughts on the Nationals' ninth-inning 6-5 comeback win over Craig Kimbrel and the Braves in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader ...
  • How rare of a blow-up was it for Craig Kimbrel? It was the first time he'd allowed three runs in game in his career and just the third time in two seasons he's allowed more than one run. He'd walked two batters in a game just three times previously in 2013, and in one of those appearances one of the walks was intentional.
  • So great job by Adam LaRoche to start the inning by working the walk on the 3-2 fastball. A little surprising that Kimbrel didn't go to the slider there. Lefties were hitting .068 against the slider -- with 33 strikeouts and no walks in 44 plate appearances ending with that pitch. Basically, when Kimbrel gets to two strikes, the slider is unhittable.
  • From there, an infield single, another walk, an RBI groundout and the rare error from Andrelton Simmons that allowed the winning runs to score.
  • Where is Jayson Werth on your MVP ballot? He had an RBI double off Mike Minor in the Nationals' three-run first inning and is hitting .322/.398/.536 with 23 home runs and 74 RBIs. Certainly he's been a huge key in keeping the Nationals from disintegrating with a monster second half in which he's hit .352 with 41 RBIs in 52 games. Still, he missed all but one game in May, and those 30 missing games count against him. He's been Washington's most valuable position player, but I'm not sure he'd crack my top-10 MVP ballot due to the injury.
  • The Nationals' chances to catch the Reds are still pretty slim, sitting 4½ games back heading into Tuesday night's games. Put it this way: If Washington goes 10-2 in its final 12 games, it needs Cincinnati to go 5-6 over its final 11 to match the Reds at 90 wins. Now, that's possible; the Reds do play the Pirates in six of those games, but they also get the Astros twice more and the Mets three times next week. The Nationals face the Marlins after the Braves but finish up with a six-game road trip to St. Louis and Arizona. The Cardinals will still be fighting for the division title, although Arizona may be thinking about golf by then. Our playoff odds from coolstandings.com gives the Nationals a 4 percent chance of making it. Things will look a lot more interesting after Tuesday night, however, if Washington wins again and Cincinnati loses.
  • What's been the big turnaround for the Nats? On Aug. 19 they were 60-64. Since then they've gone 20-6. Well, the schedule has been key. Twenty-two of those 26 games have come against sub-.500 teams (thank you, NL East). They've hit .293/.359/.479 over those 26 games. Thank you, bad pitching. OK, Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman finally got going.
  • Washington starts rookie Tanner Roark in the nightcap against Freddy Garcia -- yes, that Freddy Garcia -- so it's a good opportunity for another win since Freddy Garcia is Freddy Garcia. Roark is making his third start, but he's kind of been a good-luck charm of late with a 6-0 record. I'm guessing Kimbrel is unavailable, and maybe Luis Avilan as well. Kimbrel threw 27 pitches, Avilan 13, and there's little incentive for Fredi Gonzalez to burn through his best relievers with division all but clinched.
  • The Reds start Mike Leake in Houston against Jordan Lyles. The Nats' chances may be slim, but at least they've given their fans a reason to watch that out-of-town scoreboard.
Back in March, Goose Gossage said he thinks Mariano Rivera is pretty great, but also added, "I think that these guys are so dominant in that one-inning role that they've forgotten what we used to do. It takes three guys to do what we used to do."

He's right, of course. I wrote about Gossage versus Rivera at the time, so I'm not going to revisit that debate. But in writing earlier about Koji Uehara's terrific season, I pointed out that Gossage's 1975 season with the White Sox rates as the most valuable relief season ever, at least by Baseball-Reference WAR.

Gossage was 23 years old that year, turned 24 in July. It was his second full season in the majors and he went 9-8 with a 1.84 ERA and league-leading 26 saves. More impressively, he pitched 141.2 innings, held batters to a .201 average and allowed just three home runs.

I thought it would be fun to take a quick look at Gossage's season. Let's compare it to Craig Kimbrel's 2012 season, certainly one of the greatest seasons ever by a modern closer.

Appearances
Gossage: 62
Kimbrel: 63

One concept of the modern closer is that using him for one inning supposedly means he is available to pitch in more games, but that wasn't the case with Gossage's season.

Innings
Gossage: 141.2
Kimbrel: 62.2

Gossage threw more innings than Kimbrel has in two seasons.

Inning of entry
Gossage: 3rd (1 time), 5th (6), 6th (8), 7th (20), 8th (13), 9th (12), extra (2)
Kimbrel: 8th (1), 9th (60), extra (2)

Obviously, the modern closer is used only in the ninth to protect a lead, or in home games when the game is tied. Gossage was used any time the game was close, usually in the seventh inning on, but sometimes in the fifth or sixth.

Times pitched more than one inning
Gossage: 41
Kimbrel: 1

Here's an interesting nugget: Gossage pitched exactly one inning just three times. So even when he entered in the ninth, it was often after the starter or another reliever had run into trouble, not to start the inning.

Longest outing
Gossage: 7.2 innings
Kimbrel: 1.1 innings

Gossage pitched five-plus innings six times and three-plus 22 times. On this account, he's absolutely right about the modern closers. Imagine if managers stretched out the bullpens even a little bit, cut down on a reliever or two, and added another bat or pinch-runner to the bench. Would teams be better off? Gossage's 7.2-inning stint came on June 11 against Boston. He entered in the seventh inning and pitched through the 14th -- finally faltering in the 14th, giving up two runs on a Carl Yastrzemski home run and taking the loss. At least he was given three days of rest before his next appearance.

Inherited runners
Gossage: 99
Kimbrel: 4

Another huge difference between generations. Modern closers, even with their sky-high strikeout rates, are rarely brought in to actually put out fires. That's left to the middle relievers. Gossage had to escape jams and pitch the rest of the game.

So, yes, modern closers like Kimbrel and Uehara and Rivera are harder to hit and more dominant than ever. But, as Gossage said, don't forget what he used to do.

By the way, in 1976 the White Sox hired Paul Richards as manager. He was 67 and hadn't managed since 1961. That was a different and he thought it made sense to put your best arms in the rotation, so he mad Gossage a starter. He went 9-17 with a 3.94 ERA ... although did throw 15 complete games. Chuck Tanner, who managed him in 1975, got him in trade for the Pirates and returned him to the bullpen. From 1977 through 1985, Gossage posted a 2.10 ERA while averaging 93 innings per season.

Fun with numbers ...

Lowest batting averaged allowed (50 innings minimum):

1. Koji Uehara, 2013 Red Sox: .126
2. Craig Kimbrel, 2012 Braves: .126
3. Eric Gagne, 2003 Dodgers: .133
4. Carlos Marmol, 2008 Cubs: .135
5. Billy Wagner, 1999 Astros: .135

Lowest on-base percentage allowed:

1. Koji Uehara, 2013 Red Sox: .163
2. Dennis Eckersely, 1990 A's: .172
3. Dennis Eckersley, 1989 A's: .175
4. Craig Kimbrel, 2012 Braves: .186
5. Joaquin Benoit, 2010 Rays: .189

Lowest OPS allowed:

1. Craig Kimbrel, 2012 Braves: .358
2. Eric Gagne, 2003 Dodgers: .374
3. Koji Uehara, 2013 Red Sox: .393
4. Dennis Eckersley, 1990 A's: .397
5. Hong-Chih Kuo, 2010 Dodgers: .403

OK, Koji Uehara has clearly been one of the most difficult relief pitchers to hit in a single season. Throw in his impeccable control and he's also been the hardest to reach base against. He's 4-0 with a 1.06 ERA, 19 saves and has retired 37 consecutive batters entering Monday's action. So, is he having one of the most valuable relief seasons ever?

That's a more complicated question. If we look just at relief pitchers since 1960, the answer is clearly no. Baseball-Reference rates Uehara's season at 3.4 WAR, but that pales to the best relief seasons:

1. Rich Gossage, 1975 White Sox: 8.2 WAR
2. John Hiller, 1973 Tigers: 8.1 WAR
3. Mark Eichhorn, 1986 Blue Jays: 7.4 WAR
4. Bruce Sutter, 1977 Cubs: 6.5 WAR
5. Jim Kern, 1979 Rangers: 6.2 WAR

Of course, the difference here is workload. Gossage threw 145 innings with a 1.84 ERA, Hiller 125 with a 1.44 ERA. Eichhorn pitched 157 innings -- averaging more than two innings per appearance -- and went 14-6 with 10 saves as the Blue Jays' workhorse setup man.

Uehara is the modern incarnation of the closer, rarely entering with men on base or before the ninth inning (he started the year as a setup guy). Because of this usage pattern, it's impossible for a modern closer to create the same value as the relief aces of the 1970s or early '80s. Let's look at the most valuable relief seasons since 1988, Eckersley's first full season as the Oakland closer, according to WAR. Tony La Russa is often "credited" with creating the one-inning closer with Eckersley, although that's a bit of a misreading of history since Eckersley recorded 16 saves that year when entering before the ninth. Really, it's been a slow treak to the one-inning closer, La Russa and Eckersley merely being one step along the way.

Anyway, highest WAR for relievers since 1988:

1. Jonathan Papelbon, 2006 Red Sox: 5.0
2. Mariano Rivera, 1996 Yankees: 5.0
3. Steve Farr, 1990 Royals: 4.8
4. Jeff Montgomery, 1989 Royals: 4.6
5. Mark Davis, 1989 Padres: 4.5

(Interestingly, Farr, Montgomery and Davis were all in the bullpen for the 1990 Royals. They finished 75-86.)

Papelbon, pitching in a higher-scoring era than Uehara this year, went 4-2 with 35 saves and a 0.92 ERA, allowing just eight runs in 68.1 innings. Rivera was John Wetteland's setup man in 1996, and it arguably remains his best season as a reliever as he pitched 107.2 innings that year with a 2.97 ERA.

Overall, at least in the context of WAR, Uehara's season is special but not that special. Since 1988, he ranks tied for 64th at 3.4 WAR, the same total Kimbrel has this year for the Braves. Baseball-Reference's system for evaluating relievers does factor in leverage; it's just hard for closers to compile higher WAR figure pitching one-inning stints and entering in higher-leverage situations.

SportsNation

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,769)

That said, Uehara does fare well in some other advanced stats. Since closers only pitch in close games, they often fare better than starters in Win Probability Added -- basically, an out in a one-run game is more valuable than an out in a five-run game. Uehara is tied with Royals closer Greg Holland for the AL lead at 4.1 WPA (Max Scherzer is the highest-rated AL starter at 3.5 WPA). Among relievers, Uehara ranks 72nd in WPA since 1988 (Troy Percival's 6.58 in 1996 tops that list).

In the end, I'd classify Uehara's season as a great year -- he's right up there with with Kimbrel and Mark Melancon for my reliever of the year -- but not necessarily historic, despite his stingy totals of baserunners allowed.



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.
On this date 25 years ago, Orel Hershiser began his streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings pitched, breaking the mark of 58 that Don Drysdale had set in 1968.

Mark Simon has a great look back at Hershiser's amazing stretch -- which included two 1-0 shutouts and 10 scoreless innings in his final start to break the record.

"There was never a time early in the streak where I considered it a streak," Hershiser told Simon. "We were in a pennant race and just trying to win ballgames.

"One of the things that helped me get the streak was that the offense wasn't scoring many runs. When your team is winning big, you trade outs for runs a lot, but early in the streak, I couldn't, because not giving up runs was part of winning games."

The neat thing about Hershiser's record is that, like Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, it is seemingly breakable, not a record that will simply stand the test of time because the game has changed, like Cy Young's 511 victories or Jack Taylor's 185 consecutive complete games.

Since Hershiser, Arizona's Brandon Webb has the longest scoreless streak at 42 innings. Mark reports that Dan Szymborski estimates a league-average pitcher has a 1-in-71-million chance of breaking Hershiser's record. Of course, it will take a better-than-league-average pitcher to do it.

Besides his talent on the mound, Hershiser had favorable conditions in 1988, as it was a low-scoring season and he pitched his home games in Dodger Stadium, a pretty good pitcher's park. National League teams averaged 3.88 runs per game (tied with 1992 as the lowest since 1968, and 0.66 home runs per game, compared to 0.90 in 2013). That's the biggest obstacle now -- more home runs. One mistake, and the streak is over.

So who could break Hershiser's record? Certainly Clayton Kershaw would be the obvious choice. He's dominant, he pitches in Dodger Stadium and he doesn't give up many home runs (just nine this season). He's had eight scoreless starts so far in 2013, so all he needs to do is string those together.

Kershaw, however, wouldn't be my top choice to surpass Hershiser. My guy would be Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel, who has allowed just six runs in 55 2/3 innings a year after allowing seven in 62.2. He's allowed one run in his past 42 1/3 innings.

Of course, a reliever doing it isn't quite the same as a starter. And considering Kimbrel barely tops 59 innings in a season, he'd have to go essentially an entire season without allowing a run (or carry it over between seasons, which creates another argument). Still, as unhittable as Kimbrel is -- batters are hitting .161 against him -- he's the guy who could do it.

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