The 2014 Proven Closer Disaster

After another late-game meltdown, Grant Balfour is officially out as closer for the Tampa Bay Rays, at least for now, and the Rays will go closer-by-committee for a little while. While no one player can doom an entire team, Balfour’s problems are one of the primary reasons the Rays have the worst record in baseball, especially given that Balfour’s $6 million salary is a larger share of Tampa’s budget than it would be for many of their competitors. But interestingly, Balfour isn’t really an outlier here. This year, nearly every team who spent resources to acquire a “proven closer” would have been better off lighting their money on fire instead.

While the definition of a “proven closer” is up for interpretation, I would suggest that seven relief pitchers changed teams last winter and were paid something of a premium due to their ninth inning experience. They are effective relievers and would have been valuable even without ninth inning experience, but their end-of-game history likely earned them a little more money than they would have had they been career setup men. Those seven, and their contracts, are listed below.

Joe Nathan: 2 years, $20 million
Brian Wilson: 2 years, $18.5 million
Joaquin Benoit: 2 years, $15.5 million
Fernando Rodney: 2 years, $14 million
Grant Balfour: 2 years, $12 million
Jim Johnson: 1 year, $10 million
Edward Mujica: 2 years, $9.5 million

Six of them changed teams as free agents, while Johnson was traded in a salary dump by the Orioles, and was effectively available to any team who wanted to pay the amount he would get in his final trip through arbitration. Here’s how those seven pitchers have done this year, with their 2013 performance listed below for reference.

2014 IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Joaquin Benoit 27.2 6% 30% 34% 3% 82% 0.215 47 53 78 0.7 1.0
Fernando Rodney 23.2 10% 28% 44% 6% 80% 0.344 57 71 82 0.6 0.6
Brian Wilson 20.2 15% 25% 40% 15% 71% 0.345 175 147 123 -0.4 -0.7
Grant Balfour 23.2 19% 19% 49% 9% 62% 0.266 171 136 133 -0.4 -0.8
Jim Johnson 23.2 12% 15% 60% 7% 67% 0.386 167 112 116 0.0 -0.6
Edward Mujica 23.0 7% 15% 42% 18% 66% 0.320 160 136 110 -0.3 -0.5
Joe Nathan 23.0 11% 20% 38% 14% 59% 0.313 173 124 110 -0.2 -0.9
Total 165.1 11% 22% 44% 11% 69% 0.315 133 109 106 0.0 -1.9
—– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —– —–
2013 IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Joe Nathan 64.2 9% 29% 32% 3% 87% 0.224 33 54 83 2.5 3.5
Joaquin Benoit 67.0 8% 28% 42% 8% 87% 0.256 49 71 80 1.6 2.6
Grant Balfour 62.2 10% 28% 38% 11% 84% 0.263 67 91 86 0.6 1.5
Edward Mujica 64.2 2% 18% 45% 12% 86% 0.263 77 102 94 0.0 1.4
Jim Johnson 70.1 6% 19% 58% 11% 79% 0.327 72 85 85 0.9 1.5
Fernando Rodney 66.2 12% 28% 51% 7% 73% 0.298 89 75 79 1.3 0.7
Total 409.2 8% 25% 46% 9% 82% 0.274 63 79 84 7.1 11.8

As a group, they have been replacement level by FIP, and two wins worse than replacement level by runs allowed. Walks and homers are up, strikeouts are down, their low HR/FB% and BABIPs have regressed past the mean and are now worse than the league average, and the combination of hits and homers allowed have meant they haven’t been able to strand many of the copious amounts of baserunners they’re allowing. This group has been dreadful.

It says something about the group’s ineffectiveness when Fernando Rodney is the shining beacon of consistency. Benoit and Rodney look like Mariano Rivera next to the rest of these guys. Johnson and Balfour have already pitched their way out of the ninth inning, and at this rate, Joe Nathan isn’t far behind.

Interestingly, this mostly isn’t a case of old school GMs getting fooled by inflated save totals. The A’s, Rays, and Red Sox were all buyers on the list above, and each have previously been among the organizations to place the least amount of emphasis on ninth inning track records. In the case of the A’s and Rays, both had some money to spend in free agency but didn’t want to extend long commitments, and relief pitchers now offer one of the few places in free agency to spend money while sticking to one or two year commitments. As the closer disaster of 2014 shows, however, the “there’s no such thing as a bad one year deal” truism isn’t really true.

It’s just two months worth of performance, and these guys are likely going to perform much better over the rest of the season than they have so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was even more hesitancy to spend on relief pitching next winter. The price of proven closers has been steadily dropping over the last few years, and this dumpster fire of a performance isn’t going to help the flaky reputation of ninth inning specialists.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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