Watching for Sasquatch is less rewarding then betting on a lefty closer, but that isn’t to say that managers don’t prefer righty closers. Ceding the platoon advantage to three-quarters of the league in the ninth inning seems like a bad idea unless you really have something in your lefty.
So how often does the lefty closer happen in baseball? Answer: not as often as it should.
Lefties make up about a quarter of the pitcher population in baseball. Of the 1234 relievers that have accrued more than 15 saves in the free agency era, only 145 have been lefties. That’s only about 11.8%, or about half what you might expect.
The platoon closer is rare, but it does exist, and a few lefties might have gotten 15 saves in a committee. What about superlative lefty closers? It gets worse at the top. 10 of the 145 15+ lefty saves guys managed 40 saves (6.9%). Of the 1088 righty closers with more than 15 saves, 137 accrued 40 saves (12.6%). So it looks like, even when a manager trusts a lefty to close, maybe he doesn’t trust them all the way.
Randy Myers was one of the best, and in 1993, he saved 53 games. He was the only lefty to ever manage more than 50 saves. In 1997, he added another 45. Brian Fuentes was a good one, but Billy Wagner was better. Dave Righetti, John Franco, Eddie Guardado and Mitch Williams are the only other closers that managed to save 15+ more than four times… Well, there’s Dan Plesac and Dave LaRoche, too. Jessie Orosco, too, but he slide into LOOGY-dom fairly quickly. John Rocker… yeah.
The point is, only two or three of these guys were dominant and remained closers their whole careers. The lefty closer is, indeed, rare.
In the case of the Chicago pen that started this mini-series so far (we tackled saves on bad teams from two angles yesterday), it might be true that James Russell is out in front for the job right now. With a 4.73 career FIP (3.70 this year), he doesn’t have the lights-out resume of the elite lefty closers. And with a 5.33/3.91 righty/lefty platoon split, he might not even be a great LOOGY.
In the higher-quality case of the Angels pen, it’s not as obvious. Scott Downs has never been a LOOGY, and his overall FIP has been under 3.4 since 2007 — he’s a better pitcher with a lesser platoon split (4.18/3.13). Ernesto Frieri is crazy good (with a career strikeout rate near twelve per nine), but has less experience. They both seem to be sharing the job right now. The history of lefty closers suggests Frieri will prevail.
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