The closer is under attack. His main stat---the save---they call illegitimate. They say he's overpaid, overglorified, and underqualified. But I say he's the missing piece of your 2009 Texas Rangers.
A pitcher is credited with a save when he obtains at least one out to finish a game won by his team. He cannot be the pitcher credited with the win, and he must have entered the game with at least three innings left or with the potential tying run on base, at bat, or on deck.* You can see the value of a stolid closer---a fireman in the mold of the fabled Goose Gossage---by looking at conversion rate. The conversion rate is the percentage of times a closer records a save when he has the opportunity to. Mathematically:
Saves / (Saves + Blown Saves)
A pitcher blows a save when he gives up the lead, regardless of the end result of the game. The value of the conversion rate lies in its measure of a closer's reliability, of his ability to do what he's supposed to do. To illustrate, we'll compare a pitcher who recorded a high number of saves to the closers for recently successful teams and the closers of one of the most consistently dominant teams in recent history.
In 2008, Francisco Rodriguez saved a record-breaking 62 games for the Angels, helping them win the AL West for the fourth time in five years. But he also blew 7 saves. His conversion rate was only 90 percent. In Game 2 of the ALDS against the Red Sox, he came on in the top of the 9th to keep the game tied at 5. Instead, he gave up a two-run home run to J.D. Drew. The Angels lost 7-5 and fell behind two games to none as the series headed to Boston. The Angels won Game 3, despite Rodriguez's nerve-wracking, six-batter 10th inning, only to lose the series in Game 4 on Jed Lowrie's walk-off single. You'll notice who they didn't bring on in the bottom of the 9th to keep the tie. Rodriguez signed with the Mets in the off-season, and the Angels didn't much care.**
Now let's look at recently successful teams. Philadelphia's Brad Lidge converted all 41 of his save opportunities in 2008. At the same time, Tampa Bay's Troy Percival and Dan Wheeler combined to convert only 41 of their 50 save opportunities---a paltry 82 percent. The Phillies won the World Series in 5 games.
In 2007, Boston's Jonathan Papelbon converted 37 of his 40 save opportunities (93 percent), and Colorado's two closers combined for 7 relief losses and 10 blown saves---a conversion rate of only 80 percent. The Red Sox swept the Rockies, and Papelbon is credited saving three of those games. (To be fair, Colorado never presented its closers with a save opportunity.)
What about the 2007 Cleveland Indians? Their rotation included CC Sabbathia, Fausto Carmona, Paul Byrd, and an up-and-coming Cliff Lee. They started games just fine. But when they needed somebody to hold onto a close game, they could only turn to Joe Borowski. His 5 relief losses and 8 blown saves limited his conversion rate to only 85 percent. The Indians slipped past the Yankees with two blowouts in the ALDS, then fought Boston to the bitter end in the ALCS. Borowski finished Games 1, 2, 3, and 6 against the Red Sox, racking up a 4.50 ERA while giving up 6 hits and 3 walks and striking out only 1 batter in 4 innings. It's hard to say how much his performance mattered. He didn't blow any saves, but Game 3, for which he earned the save, was the only close one.
Finally, let's talk about America's team: the Atlanta Braves. From 1991 until 2005, they won their division every year except 1994.*** The 1991 Braves won the pennant but lost the World Series. Three relievers were presented with at least 10 save opportunities, and their combined conversion rate was 90 percent. The 1992 Braves tried the same tri-closer strategy. The trio combined to convert 74 percent of the time, and the Braves lost to the Blue Jays in the World Series. In 1993, they dropped one of their closers, converted only 85 percent of their opportunities, and lost the NLCS to the Phillies. In 1994, Greg McMichael was their ninth-inning guy, and he converted only 68 percent of the time. (That's the year they finished second in the NL East.) In 1995, Mark Wohlers took over closing duties, but he only converted 86 percent of his opportunities.**** Over the next decade or so, their closers, on average, converted only 85 percent of their save opportunities. The best three years came when an aging John Smoltz took over ninth-inning duties. Even he, however, could convert only 91 percent of the time from 2002 to 2004.
The lesson: If you don't have a reliable closer, you probably won't win the World Series. That is why, my friends who have held on this long, the Rangers will probably not win either the AL West or the AL Wild Card. Even if they did, they would probably not survive the ALDS, much less the ALCS or the World Series. C.J. Wilson and Frank Francisco have combined to convert only 38 of their 46 save opportunities, a lame 83 percent conversion rate. I like C.J., and I like Frank, but without a stolid closer, we lose too many heartbreakers. Like tonight's 7-6 tear-jerker against the Devil Rays.
But there's always next year.
* This explains the traditional rule of thumb, i.e., that the pitcher pitches at least one inning and the lead was no bigger than 3 runs.
** Nor have they much noticed his absence. Brian Fuentes has converted 44 of 51 save opportunities (a rate of 86 percent), and they will (hopefully not) win the AL West by a comfortable margin. Sounds like the same old song and dance to me.
*** I think it's worth noting that the Expos were only up by 6 games with almost 50 left to play when the players struck. It's not unreasonable to think that the Braves might have caught on fire or the Expos fallen asleep during those six weeks.
****Admittedly, they beat the Indians in the World Series. The Indians closer, Jose Mesa, converted 46 of 48 saves that year, a highly respectable 96 percent.