The Tigers and Successful Setup to Closer Conversions

Barring a late-spring signing of Jose Valverde, the Tigers will be turning to a pitcher new to the closer’s role (or, in the case of Octavio Dotel, many years removed from his last closing opportunity). Things have been rough in the bullpen in spring training, particularly for the assumed front-runner Bruce Rondon, who has allowed five hits (including a home run) and five walks in just four appearances to date.

The competition appears now to be a bit more wide open. Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel join Rondon as options for the ninth inning in Detroit. Who fits best? To help answer that question, I took a look at what characterized the most successful pitchers to move from a setup role (or other bullpen role) into a closer role the next season.

In a research piece for FanGraphs+, I found that relievers who typically make a 20+ save jump from the previous year exhibit two characteristics in particular: a high strikeout percentage and high fastball velocity. I don’t think this should be a terribly shocking discovery; managers have always had a preference for gas in the ninth inning since the advent of the closer. The piece also made a few other conclusions, most notably that walk rate was a poor predictor of who picked up saves (perhaps a good sign for Rondon or Alburquerque, both owners of walk rates over 15 percent last season).

But this was a fantasy-slanted piece, and so it was less concerned with the effectiveness of these relievers and more concerned with simply whether or not they picked up saves. After all, there have been 40 seasons in which a pitcher has recorded at least 15 saves with a 5.00 ERA or worse; save totals don’t necessarily reflect effective pitching.

For this exercise, I looked at the 48 pitchers to go from five or fewer saves in at least 50 innings pitched one year to 15 or more saves the next from 2003 to 2012, and I looked at K%, BB% and fastball velocity as potentially predictive statistics. Were they?

BB%

Observe, those 48 newly-minted closers ordered by BB%:

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The above chart shows frequency of previous year walk rate among these 48; three pitchers had a walk rate between four and six percent; 10 had a walk rate between six and eight percent, et cetera. The shades in the bar represent the ERA- (top) or FIP- of the pitcher. This can be viewed as a heatmap of sorts; if one side of the graph exhibits particularly dark shades, it suggests more successful pitchers come from that extreme.

In the case of walk rate, there isn’t much differentiation. The bins from a four percent walk rate through a 12 percent walk rate all have an average ERA- between 63 and 81; the average FIP- marks fall between 73 and 88. Some of the best pitchers — such as Aroldis Chapman, who walked over 20% of batters the year before he ascended to Cincinnati’s closer role — have high walk rates. I would assume there is some selection bias in here, as a manager won’t put a high-walk pitcher in a high leverage role (or possibly even on the team) if he doesn’t have a blazing fastball.

That’s good news for Rondon and Alburquerque, who both fit the poor control but great stuff model that has a decent history of success as closer.

K%

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Strikeout rate is clearly one of the most important selection criteria for closers — a large majority of new closers had a strikeout rate over 21 percent the year before assuming ninth-inning duties. Phil Coke is the only one of the Tigers’ potential closers to post a strikeout rate under 21 percent in 2012.

Unsurprisingly, the high-strikeout pitchers have been significantly better as closers. The dark shades cluster towards the right of the chart. Not a single bin above 24 percent strikeouts averaged an ERA- over 73, whereas three of the four under 24 percent did (a similar but less extreme pattern holds for FIP-). This is the same reason Carlos Marmol was able to have a relatively successful run as closer despite having no idea where his pitches were going — even once he puts runners on base, the opposition eventually has to make contact to move them around.

Alburquerque owns a tremendous 36.2 percent career strikeout rate over parts of two seasons. Benoit struck out over 29 percent of hitters in 2012. Rondon struck out over 24 percent of hitters at every level in the minor leagues. All four of the non-Coke options should be above-average relievers in terms of whiffs next season.

Fastball Velocity

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We already knew a pitcher almost always needs plus velocity to earn a shot at the closer’s role — just two of the 48 pitchers in our sample had a fastball velocity under 90 MPH the previous year. But does truly high-end velocity help?

It appears it does. Although the samples are small at the extremes, looking at the four most common velocities suggests more speed means more outs. The 91-92 MPH velocity pitchers averaged an 80 ERA- while the 93-94 MPH velocity pitchers averaged a far superior 65 ERA-.

Again, Rondon (no hard data, as he didn’t pitch in the majors, but he can touch the upper 90s) and Alburquerque (94.7 FBv), despite their lack of control, exhibit great velocity and that could be enough to make them effective closers. Benoit also brings heat at 93.7 MPH on average. Coke and Dotel bring up the rear at 93.1 and 92.8 MPH respectively.

Conclusions

Rondon, Albuquerque and Benoit fit the new closer bill exceptionally well in terms of velocity and strikeout rates, with Benoit and Albuquerque ahead of the pack. Although it’s entirely possible one of the three (or five) fails upon promotion to the ninth inning, it seems unlikely all three would collapse under the bright lights of the closer’s role.

So do the Tigers need another elite reliever? It always depends on the cost, but the club has at least two and possibly three relievers who have a historically successful profile for moving from setting up to closing. If the Tigers can get them leads — and their roster looks like it should have no problem doing so — Jim Leyland should be confident his relievers can save games.




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36 Responses to “The Tigers and Successful Setup to Closer Conversions”

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  1. Matty Brown says:

    They have 5 viable late inning options depending on match-ups (if you include Rondon). They simply will have to approach the final innings with a committee/suitability approach.

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  2. asaw780 says:

    Here’s the thing, and I’m surprised that I’ve had to say this on so many articles that have been discussing the Tigers ‘pen this offseason. Being a “closer” isn’t just about your pitches and your success – nearly any reliever could close games if it was just about that. The “proven closer” tag is earned with mentality, earned with tenacity. There was an interesting article today about Mo Rivera on Yahoo Sports saying that it’s about having the “necessary mettle to recover from failure”, being able to bounce back.

    Jim Leyland said early in the offseason that he doesn’t believe Joaquin Benoit doesn’t have this necessary mentality – “With all due respect to Benoit, he doesn’t bounce back.” He’s gone on record as saying that the manager’s job is easier when he has a proven closer, and he seems like the kind of manager who gets one guy and sticks with him. Sorry to get so detailed here but it seems obvious to me that Leyland wants to keep Benoit at setup where he’s excelled.

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    • byron says:

      Yeah, no one buys that at this site.

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    • guest says:

      To be a good closer you need:

      1: The look.
      2: “It”
      3: Big beard or something unique
      4: Or…be a failed starter or random setup guy that previously didn’t have the aformentioned three requirements but matured to be a “man.”

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      • guest says:

        Old school guy: We should put X in there cuz he’s stable and has a closer mentality.

        Guy that studies stats+scouting reports: Well, he’s ok but his FB/HR ratio is kind of high and his walk rate is creeping up. He does have a negligible platoon split.

        Old school guy: what?

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    • wobatus says:

      Yeah, Mariano Rivera is so great at recovering from all that failure he’s had.

      Some trivia I read or heard on the radio today about Rivera: More men have walked on the moon (12) than have scored against Rivera (11)in 141 post season innings. Actually, that turns out to be untrue. Rivera’s given up 11 earned runs, 13 runs in all, in the post-season.

      He could give up 20 earned runs in a row without recording an out this post-season, and his career post-season era would still be under 2.00.

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      • larry says:

        he’s had a couple untimely chinks in his armor, don’t forget. cost his team the championship, of course they wouldn’t have been there without him…

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    • jdr says:

      The “bounce back” comment was about Benoit pitching on consecutive days. Leyland said earlier this spring he doesn’t think Benoit pitches well the day after an appearance and that he therefore wouldn’t make a good closer. I have no idea if Benoit does in fact pitch worse than the rest of the population of pitches when pitching on consecutive days (I’m sure someone else has the know how to run the numbers) but that’s the opinion Leyland has of him.

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      • Darrell Berger says:

        Yes. Thanks for clearing this up. Albuquerque is the same way. Throws too many sliders too violently to go back to back often. Rondon was sent down because the first time they pitched him 2 days in a row, he walked two, balked a run home and lost his composure. But Leyland is a good bullpen manager, even if he’d prefer to have everybody with narrowly defined roles. Hey, if neither AA nor Benoit can pitch back-to-back, they don’t need to! Not if both prove effective on alternate days. Gerry Staley and Turk Lown did this for 1959 White Sox. Oops, they ran into rubber armed rookie Larry Sherry in the World Series. Tigers will find a closer from a losing team’s fire sale in July if they need one.

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    • Old Smokey says:

      This is actually 100% correct. Some pitchers even thrive under pressure. Jose Valverde was great in save situations, but in non-save situations he sucked.

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      • guest says:

        No, he wasn’t that great in save situations either. He got extremely lucky and gave up a lot of hits and walks but managed to get through a lot of times. Also, is you have a 2 or 3 run lead, it’s not that hard for an average reliever to preserve the victory.

        In a non-save (I.e, no cushion), a run allowed will lose the game.

        His ERA IS lower than his expected one based on his peripherals but he was definitely not that great.

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        • Old Smokey says:

          Peripherals/FIP don’t matter much when it comes to closers. That’s what much of this article was about. Some will never learn to use advanced stats I guess.

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    • commenter #1 says:

      can’t tell if stupid or trolling.jpg

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    • Don Zimmer's jowl sweat says:

      We need a stat to measure tenacity, toughness, and “playing the game the right way”, or the gamer stat.

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  3. Polka says:

    as a Tiger fan, Double A has the nastiest stuff on the staff, and if he remains healthy would be more than a viable option in the 9th!

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  4. marlins12 says:

    Is Brayan Villareal not a candidate? He had a high strikeout rate last year, good ERA, and throws harder than all of the pitchers listed…

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    • Kevin says:

      Question is if he will be on the roster. He really underwhelmed at the end of the year, and that made sure he wouldn’t be an automatic lock.

      Whereas you know Coke, Benoit and Dotel will be there, and AA simply has stuff that is too nasty to not be on the starting roster. That leaves maybe one additional slot for Villareal and a few others to fight over.

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    • brett says:

      Thank you. Villareal has a fantastic shot at this. Leyland doesn’t want to mess around with a bullpen that has success through defined roles. Arguably the only guy with “closer stuff” and no defined role is Brayan Villareal. If Rondon doesn’t cut it, this is where to look.

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  5. Detroit Michael says:

    Alburquerque has a hard time staying healthy and he’s not durable enough to pitch on back-to-back days.

    Villareal’s control deserted him over the second half of 2012.

    Either guy is plausible as a closer, but I doubt either one will get the nod to start the season.

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  6. byron says:

    What exactly makes a particular manager worth millions of dollars more per year than some bum off the street if he can’t look at his relievers and pick who the best option is to get a particular set of outs?

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    • guest says:

      Sometimes incompetent people occupy high-level positions. :(

      It sucks being a Tigers fan sometimes because Leyland makes a lot of nonsensical decisions but it could be worse…Detroit has a good team at least.

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    • brett says:

      Which particular set of outs? Leyland has a right handed specialist, a lefty, an 8th inning guy, and one for emergency Ks. These are the four guys mentioned as closer replacements. This community should be applauding Jim Leyland (if only this once) for not caving to the philosophy that 9th inning outs are more important than otherwise high leverage outs.

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      • guest says:

        I’m referring to his unwillingness to consider new ideas (“I’m a Slugging percentage kind of guy–not an OBP guy.”) as well as his habit of keeping the same position in the same batting order. For example, when replacement level scrub Don Kelly would give a starter a breather, he would bat second often. I hope that he is an AMAZING guy in the clubhouse because he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

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        • Old Smokey says:

          guest doesn’t know the first thing about baseball.

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        • guest says:

          Guest doesn’t care what you think. I will listen to educated people like Dave Cameron and the like who present evidence and don’t rely on their “feel-good” stories about what makes baseball players perform so well.

          Sabermetrics are not perfect, but a heck of a lot better than the RBI, BA, and win crowd.

          (Some pitchers regularly beat their expected ERA, like Matt Cain, and guys like Austin Jackson have a very high career BABIP over a relatively large sample size)

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        • Old Smokey says:

          You got one thing right. That sabermetrics aren’t perfect. Let that sink in next time you say something stupid.

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        • byron says:

          Pretty sure Old Smokey is a troll pretending to be Leyland. Haha. Very nice.

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        • commenter #1 says:

          old smokey is the worst fangraphs troll account ever

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      • byron says:

        Everything I read sounds like Leyland is sending Dombrowski sixteen emails a day begging for a “real” closer. And as for the “particular set of outs,” it shouldn’t be the same guy when a team’s L-R-L 2-3-4 guys are coming up down by one as when it’s R-R-R, or 6-7-8, or you’re up two, or the guy you’d like to use in the first spot has pitched three of the last four days and is looking gassed. There are a lot of variables that I’d want someone who knows what they’re doing to evaluate.

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        • MLB Rainmaker says:

          Whoa whoa whoa, you think Leyland has email? The man thinks an ipad is what you put on your face after taking a bad hop on a grounder…

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  7. Nathan says:

    The problem isn’t the Tigers need to get a better closer option. The problem is they need to improve the bullpen in general.

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