Trying to Understand the Closer Role


Sep 19, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Chris Perez (54) delivers in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Are Closers Really That Important?

The Indians are a smart team when it comes to analytics, as evidenced by their wise decision to provide an internship for one of our own this past season. The team has been highly respected for quite some time by those who statistically divulge the game, and the club may be showing part of its philosophy this off-season due to their recent John Axford acquisition.

Axford signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal (with another $1.75 million possible through incentives) earlier this month, replacing two-time All-Star (by default?) Chris Perez, whose closing career went up in smoke (pun certainly intended) when the Indians released him early this off-season. Perez just signed-on to be a set-up man for the Los Angeles Dodgers all closer bullpen (Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, Brandon League, and J.P. Howell all have closer experience, as well), but he took a huge pay-cut to take the gig. Regardless of Perez, Axford steps into a role that has long been assumed by those who can pile on the save statistic, while posting pretty offensive peripheral statistics.

If you say that the closer is the person with the most saves in a given year (although that person could be replaced in mid-season or due to injury), this is what the Indians have provided over the last decade:

Not every year has been horrible, but the overall numbers show that the Indians have been rewarded with a 3.63 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and 274 saves for $42,591,800 worth of closer salary, or a whopping $155,444.53 per save over the last ten seasons. So, if John Axford is able to earn the save in 40 games this season while finishing a total of 60, to earn all of his incentives, paying his $6.25 million deal is actually $32,218.80 more than the last decade closer would have earned on a per-save basis…but maybe they won’t have the atrocious seasons that so many had mixed in during the one-year deal for Axford, at least, that is what Cleveland fans are likely hoping for.

Oct 23, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher John Axford (34) throws against the Boston Red Sox during the sixth inning during game one of the MLB baseball World Series at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like a lot of money to pay per save, but at least is isn’t $15 million per season, or even $10 million per season like Kerry Wood was earning for the Tribe. Perhaps, this is the type of calculation that the Cleveland Indians analytics department used to determine Axford’s deal, perhaps I am giving myself too much credit…

The most interesting concept to grasp out of Axford’s signing when thinking about the last decade at closer is that the Indians didn’t have their best relief pitcher pitching in that role. It is difficult for a reliever to produce dominant WAR numbers when considering how little they are pitching, but given the same 2004 through 2013 seasons, the top relief pitcher for the Indians in each season goes like this (based on FanGraphs WAR):

Only two seasons out of the last decade have the Indians closers actually been their most valuable bullpen asset, and it always seemed to change from year to year. It never made sense for the club to go to arbitration with Chris Perez prior to the 2014 season because he proved that he is replaceable, much like every other reliever this side of Mariano Rivera in baseball history, and we’ll find out if David Robertson is capable of producing similar numbers when and if he takes over the closer role in New York in 2014.

The Indians have had some very electric arms out of their bullpens over the last decade, but it hasn’t been their closer fulfilling that role for a majority of that time. While a lot of teams rely on their closer to shut the door and help them win games, it appears that the Indians have been shutting the door on their opposition with Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and now with Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen, prior to the closer entering the game in the 9th inning.

It may be just a matter of time before the club goes with the hot hand and utilizes a closer by committee finisher due to their success in finding valuable arms without a label over the last ten years. It would certainly help keep the costs down in the arbitration process by allowing young, electric arms like Pestano (prior to injury) and Allen to pitch in the highest leverage situations, rather than earning the save and the millions that come along with that seemingly overpriced and overvalued role.