A Closer’s Stumbles Are Outnumbered Only by His Saves

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Johnson has worked for the most of the season, yet the Orioles, struggling for surviving in a tight American League wild-card race, continue to base their hopes on him with games on the draw. Johnson has compiled an American League-leading 41 saves, becoming a good example for the save statistic’s flaws.

The deep roots of the problem can be followed to 1960. Holtzman, a sports article writer in Chicago, was trying to proove the problems inherent in another statistic: wins.

Holtzman wished to demonstrate for readers that Roy Face, a Pittsburgh reliever who won 18 games in 1959, was actually less effective in that heavily publicized season than he was in 1958, when he won only five games.

Borrowing a seldom-used term, the save, which at the time was awarded to any relief pitcher who got the final out in a victory, Holtzman redefined it for The Sporting News to resemble the way it is used now. By Holtzman’s count, Face saved 20 games in 1958 but only 10 in 1959.

Unfortunately for Holtzman, who was renowned in the business and who went on to become baseball’s official historian, the save statistic has proved every bit as problematic as wins, with Johnson’s numbers creating one of the bigger arguments against its validity.

If saves are removed from the equation, Johnson becomes something less than spectacular. Through Thursday, his adjusted earned run average, which takes into account a pitcher’s league and home park, was 97th in the majors among pitchers with 50 or more innings. Johnson had allowed an overall batting average of .276, which was 216th best among pitchers. He had also allowed the 11th-most base runners of any full-time reliever.

In terms of a modern metric like wins above replacement, Johnson was more effective in 2011, the year before he became a full-time closer, than he has been in either of the last two seasons despite his major-league-leading 92 saves. As his salary has increased, along with his profile, Johnson’s WAR has gone from 2.7 to 2.4 to 0.6. He has nine blown saves and seven losses this season, and one of his three wins came after a blown save.

On the basis of his prodigious save totals, though, he is likely to receive a hefty raise for next season, his last year of arbitration.

Baltimore’s bullpen in general has struggled, one year after being one of the team’s primary strengths. It has blown an American League-leading 22 saves.

The two bright spots have been Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter, who have surpassed Johnson in terms of effectiveness. Yet Johnson, carrying the label of closer, continues to get the plush assignment of pitching to start the ninth inning. On Thursday he came through, protecting a one-run lead against Boston.

On Friday at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles began a three-game series that could greatly affect their postseason chances.

With the redefined save statistic, the flaw that Holtzman could not see coming was that it would lead managers to pick a reliever.— not always the best reliever — and have him pitch almost always in save situations.

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