Saturday, April 12, 2008

Closing time

My grandpa often tells me a story from the 1930's when St. Louis starting pitcher Bud Parmelee (Roy Parmelee) first faced his former team, the New York Giants. As you can imagine, Parmelee was a competitive guy who really wanted to beat his former team more than anyone; and he actually made it through the first seven innings with little or no problem--and a 1-0 lead. But he could tell he was tiring by the time the 8th inning rolled around. Common sense said it was time for a call to the bullpen, but Parmelee was a man on a mission and he took the mound in the 8th inning...

As my grandpa relates the story, Parmelee's tiring arm was obvious in the 8th as the opposing hitters crushed ball after ball... to the warning track for lucky outs. However, Parmelee's luck ran out in the 9th inning as he walked the bases loaded, nobody out, and a one-run lead. The Cardinals made a call to the bullpen and brought in none other than Dizzy Dean.

Parmelee felt terrible that he had let his new team down. He hung his head and handed the ball to Dizzy, but Dizzy just patted him on the back and said, "Don't worry, you won the ballgame." Dizzy then proceeded to strike out the next three batters for the win.

I always liked that story for various reasons. First off, I can relate to wanting to beat your old teammates; second of all, the story has a struggle, a hero, and a happy ending. It's great.

But the bigger issue at hand is having a pitcher who you can trust with the game on the line. There really aren't many pitchers like that in baseball today. Yeah, every team has a closer. But seriously, not every team has a closer.

For my money, Jonathon Papelbon and Joe Nathan are the two best closers in baseball. Although, I also like Bobby Jenks in a playoff situation (you gotta respect a World Series champion). In the end, I give the edge to Papelbon. He's got the stuff, the experience, and a proven plan to stay healthy.

Note: From a fantasy standpoint, it's a tougher call. Part of Papelbon's health regimen is to not pitch more than two or three games in a row. As a result, he will rack up fewer saves and strikeouts than he otherwise could.


Greg said...

After hearing my grandpa tell me the aforementioned story many times over the course of a decade, I finally asked him a few questions about it. After all, just because it's a good story doesn't mean it's true. I had done some Googling on "Bud Parmalee" and wasn't finding anything.

Well, my grandpa told me that he had heard the story first hand from Bud Parmelee himself. Apparently when my grandpa was still in college (in Toledo, Ohio) he went to study at his buddy's house. As it turned out, his buddy's dad was friends with Parmelee who was over there visiting.

I've since gone back online and discovered that I had been spelling Parmalee wrong--it's ParmElee. After carefully searching the Baseball Almanac online, I discovered that 1936 was the first season LeRoy "Bud" Parmelee played for the Cardinals. Early in that season, their first two games against the Giants were one-run victories. One was 3-2 and the other 4-3. The way my grandpa had told the story was that it was a 1-0 victory, so that part is likely off. But the rest of the story seems very likely true.

See, I'm not passing crazy rumors on this blog! (At least not yet.)

Chairman said...

It's interesting how people define "best" when it comes to closers.

It's hard to argue w/ Papelbon or Nathan, really. Putz and Saito both had splendid seasons last year. K-Rod and BJ Ryan put up huge numbers back in 2006.

So how long does it take to be established? And what value does longevity have?

Even that 2nd full year as a closer doesn't guarantee anything. Francisco Cordero lost his job after a tough 2 weeks in 2006, and was traded later that season. Of course, the Rangers are a mess, so maybe that's not the best example.

Putz has had 1 year. Saito has had 1.5. Papelbon and BJ Ryan have had 2 years. K-Rod has had 3 years. Joe Nathan for 4 years. All of these guys are good. But, as I'm sure that you've noticed, I like the idea of experience and stability in baseball.

Izzy has been doing it well for 8 years. Billy Wagner's been doing it for 10 years. Mo Rivera for 11. Trevor Hoffman for 13.

Hoffman used to throw heat, but since he got hurt in 2003, he's used that changeup more and more. Interesting to note that Hoffman's K/9IP is way higher than Mo Rivera's. But now he looks more like Todd Jones out there than your prototypical closer... which is what Billy Wagner has been for a decade, since he came up with the Astros. He just deals heat. I still buy into the Mo Rivera mystique - that cutter still devastates lefties.

I don't know - if I had to rank, I still lump the top guys into the same group, and then sort by how good I think the team is going to do. More W's = more save opportunities. Unfortunately, we measure closers with SV, which requires a W, so you can't get away from that.

Greg said...

It's interesting how people define "best" when it comes to closers.

Yeah, there are a lot of different angles to approach this one from. As I see it, there were three general categories that I was thinking about: #1) You need to win a big game tonight, you have a 1-run lead, who do you want on the mound in the 9th? (that's essentially the poll question) #2) Over the course of a 162-game season, who will be the best for a team (based on past performances) and #3) Who will put up the best fantasy numbers this year?

Plus I do think that there is a certain mentality needed to close big games. I'd be curious to see a stat that shows whether or not a pitcher can close after allowing the first batter to reach base (i.e., does the pitcher get rattled if his inning gets off to a bad start?) Some guys have awesome stuff, but if they get in any trouble then things spiral out of control. Other guys might not have as good of stuff, but they're mentally tough and never give up.

For what it's worth, I think Brad Lidge is capable of putting up great fantasy numbers but I don't want him on the mound in the playoffs. But a guy like Todd Jones or Rod Beck (R.I.P.) will fight to the end no matter what.

I remember when I used to always try to get at least 2 or 3 top closers in the early rounds. But you and CLauff always made so much fun of me that I finally stopped. Plus it was bad strategy. =)

Also, it's interesting to take a closer look at who really gets the most save opportunities. A co-worker of mine (who also happened to make a trade that I will be blogging about soon) reminded me that it's not necessarily so bad to have a closer on a bad team. For instance, rather than just looking at W's, it's W's by 3 or less that are key. So a team that wins 75 games might actually win as many games by 3 or less than a team like the Boston Red Sox.

But yeah, closer is a funny position to judge. It also happens to be a position that Yahoo pre-rankings can get really wrong at the start of the season. If a guy has been an awesome set-up man for two years, and now via a trade he's getting his first opportunity to be the closer, Yahoo tends to treat that player as though he's only going to get 2 saves (same as he has the past 2 seasons).

Oh well.

Pauly said...

Just take a look for yourself at last year's leaders in saves (with ERA):

Valverde, Jose ARI 47 2.66
Borowski, Joe CLE 45 5.07 Cordero, F. MIL 44 2.98
Hoffman, Trevor SD 42 2.98 Jenks, Bobby CHW 40 2.77 Putz, J.J. SEA 40 1.38
Rodriguez, F. ANA 40 2.81 Saito, Takashi LA 39 1.40 Jones, Todd DET 38 4.26 Cordero, Chad WAS 37 3.36
Nathan, Joe MIN 37 1.88 Papelbon, J. BOS 37 1.85 Wagner, B. NYM 34 2.63 Weathers, David CIN 33 3.59 Gregg, Kevin FLA 32 3.54 Isringhausen STL 32 2.48 Accardo, Jeremy TOR 30 2.14 Rivera, Mariano NYY 30 3.15

All of the top 5 closers from last season were definitely not the most popular fantasy picks. Every year, people spend too much money on closers from a contending team -- when the reality is that a contender generally wins more games without save chances than a mediocre team that has to scrap together a 2-run win every night.

My theory has always been to let the other owners spend on closers (I know this harder to do in a roto format) and I'll be fine with the guys from the bad teams.

It doesnt work out perfectly all the time (good Lord, I had Gagne last year -- who was fine until he joined the, ahem, Red Sox). But this year I'm looking like a genius by drafting Capps and Sherrill after all but 5 closers had come off the board at the draft.

Give me Capps, Soria and Sherrill over Papelbon, Mariano and Billy Wagner any day of the week!

Greg said...

Yeah, it's tough to judge who will be the saves leaders from year to year.

I haven't done any statistical analysis on it, but if given a choice, I do tend to go after NL closers. I just figure that NL games tend to be a bit lower scoring and thus more likely to have a save situation.

Also, it's interesting (and often frustrating) how the "save" is the most fragile stat in fantasy baseball. Here's what I mean...

As the Chairman referenced earlier, being "the closer" on a team can be a difficult job to keep--just look at Francisco Cordero losing his job with Texas after a relatively brief period of struggles (a hitter can slump for 2 weeks, but a closer usually can't unless they're named Mo Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, etc.)

From a fantasy standpoint, if a hitter struggles he might get shuffled in the lineup; or if he gets injured he'll eventually recover and likely find a spot back in the lineup. In either case, that hitter still has a decent opportunity of picking up all the stats he could before. But with relief pitchers it's totally different. You might think you have a solid closer in a player, but if he hits a rough patch or an injury, then he's lost the job and could have difficulty getting it back if someone else has seized the role. I suppose right now it's kind of like the difference between having Manny Acosta and Peter Moylan on your team. ;-)

Chairman said...

Pauly - look at that list of the top closers. With the exception of Jenks (whose 40 saves on a 72 win team happens, but you're never quite sure who it will happen for), you have a bunch of winning teams who were in the playoff hunt into September: D'Backs (90 wins), Indians (96 wins), Brewers (83 wins), Padres (89 wins), Mariners (88 wins), Angels (94 wins), Dodgers (82 wins). If you have a good idea of which teams are going to do well, you have an advantage in choosing closers.

Even Capps, Sherrill, and Soria are on teams that are at or over .500 right now.

Pauly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pauly said...

My point is that Pitt and Baltimore will be 2 of the bottom-tier teams this year, but it is likely that their closers will have the same, if not a little fewer, saves than the winning teams. My theory is that the difference between the middle- to bottom-tier closers and the closers from winning teams is negligible -- yet draft prices/values are very different. None of the top 5 guys on that list were the top 5 ranked closers at the draft. (if we can agree that the top 5 drafted closers the past few years are K-Rod, Nathan, Papelbon, Wagner and Rivera).

Granted, if you knew which teams were going to be good, it would be easier to select the closers that people didnt want. I think it's definitely harder to project the teams than the players though.

Chairman said...

Do you guys also do an auction? I have to say that I'm not particularly adept with that format, since we've always just used an s-curve draft (we could never get everyone in one place for an auction).

Also, how many pitchers do you get to start? We get to start up to 6 relief pitchers, so we can stock up on closers, if we so desire.

I think that the auction vs. s-curve draft plays a big role in what you're saying. You have some control over who gets bid on, as well as what the bid is. In our s-curve drafts, you just draft whoever's available, but if you just wait, you run the risk of someone else jumping you for that closer. You don't have the opportunity to bid $1 after your opponents have spent all of their money.

Pauly said...

I have done auctions before, but our league is a traditional snake draft. I think we have one of the more unique leagues around, but I wish we started more pitchers. As it stands, our commissioner and the majority of the league believe that only closers should be used, thus we only start 2 RPs per week (this is to keep it somewhat fair in that just about every team will have 2 closers). We start 4 SPs, so you can be liberal when looking at matchups. There are heavy point deductions when a SP appears in relief or vice-versa. ERA points are calculated on a 24-point (for starters) or a 12-point (relievers) scale.

Anyway, since I joined this league in 2000, I have been amazed because at every draft, the closer run starts at the middle of round 2 or so (!!!!) -- despite the fact that based on the scoring system, closers score the fewest raw amount of points for any fantasy team.

Using this knowledge, I have never since the second year of the league fallen into the early closer mentality (Papelbon was the 1st pick of the second round this year and K-Rod was also a second rounder). I have, however, tried the "don't draft a closer at all and draft guys who might be elevated to the closer or good Middle relivers" strategy, only to see it fail miserably.

Thus my closer theory is really tied directly into my drafting strategy. While I don't auction for players, I use their auction values to determine which ones will be available for me in the middle to late rounds, and then rank them from there. This year, in fact, I had Capps, Sherrill and Soria as my 3 best closer options (projecting that most others would be already taken).

You can imagine that in most years I am trying to trade for a closer almost the entire time; however I feel like my strategy works better for the long-term health of my team. I played roto for years before I joined this league, and many times I would use the middle reliver/closer strategy to dominate WHIP, ERA and Saves (and holds if you count 'em). This is one of my favorite strategies.

Anyway, this has gotten long-winded. Later!

Greg said...

In Round 8 I was looking at taking my first closer, which would have been Bobby Jenks but somebody took him a few slots before me. Instead, I took my first closer in Round 9 (Matt Capps). We'll see how this season plays out for me. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have been more aggressive in drafting at least one established, truly elite closer.

BTW, since this post was tied to the web poll, I'll list it's final results here:

Q: In the 9th, which closer do you trust most on the mound?

Papelbon - 60%
Somebody else - 40%
Rivera - 0%
Jenks - 0%
Nathan - 0%