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Dodgers Make Correct Closer Call

When the Los Angeles Dodgers retained reliever Brandon League [1] in October by guaranteeing him $22.5 million over three years, with the chance to earn an additional $10 million in incentives, it was a move that was largely panned in the baseball world.

League is a good-but-not-great reliever in a world where expensive multiyear contracts for nonelite relievers almost invariably end poorly for the team. Over the past four seasons, League’s 3.51 ERA is nearly identical to that of Matt Belisle [2] (making $4.1 million this year for Colorado) and Brandon Lyon [3] (with the Mets for one year and just $750,000).

Why? Because League saved 37 games with the Seattle Mariners in 2011 and has earned the closer label. The excessive money may not bother the obscenely wealthy Dodgers as much as it would other teams, but general manager Ned Colletti compounded the decision [4] by declaring that League would be the team’s closer in 2013 despite the presence of the undeniably more talented Kenley Jansen [5].

This thinking is par for the course at Chavez Ravine. Last year, Javy Guerra [6] began the season as the closer even though he is inferior to Jansen, and he lost the job to Jansen, who lost it to League when he had to miss a month with a cardiac issue.

While it’s unclear if the Dodgers actually think League is better than Jansen, what is clear is that they are better off with League in the ninth and Jansen in a setup role.

It’s long been a sabermetric principle that managers shouldn’t preserve their best relievers for the ninth inning with a lead, because it’s often not the most important moment in a game. There’s clearly more danger in a reliever trying to hold down a one-run lead with two on in the eighth against the heart of a lineup than on a closer starting a clean inning in the ninth against the 7-8-9 hitters, but reliever usage doesn’t reflect that.

The reason why is that it takes the right circumstances to make it work. For example, if a team has an established veteran closer — think a Jonathan Papelbon [7] type — telling him he’s being moved to the eighth can be seen as a demotion. If a club has only one above-average reliever, it’s understandably going to be difficult for a manager to keep him out of the ninth for long if the closer is blowing games and the media is breathing down the skipper’s neck.

The Dodger combo of Jansen and League just so happens to be perfectly situated to make this work, even if it seems odd to keep the better pitcher away from save chances. Jansen is a young player who did well as a closer but hardly had the standing to be untouchable. If not for that missed time, we might not be having this conversation, because League was terrible in his first weeks as a Dodger and posed no threat to Jansen otherwise.

However, after some side work with Dodgers coaches Rick Honeycutt [8] and Ken Howell [9], League allowed just one run in his final 21 games, converting all six save opportunities in Jansen’s absence. When Jansen returned Sept. 20, manager Don Mattingly [10] chose to work him back in slowly as League’s setup man. (He was still excellent, striking out 13 in 8 1/3 innings.)

That sequence of events is what led Colletti and Mattingly to determine that Jansen should continue to set up League, though it’s probably more of a happy accident in the “it wasn’t broke last September, so don’t fix it” vein than it is any indication that the team is suddenly thinking especially sabermetrically.

Year Low Medium High
2010 .481 .721 .745
2011 .512 .536 .716
2012 .586 .633 .671

Whether it was on purpose or not, it makes sense. League can be a solid reliever — perhaps more than solid if the mechanical change means he can maintain that excellent September performance — yet he’s also a flawed one. Using Baseball Reference’s Leverage Index, we can see how he has performed over the past three years in situations deemed as low, medium and high leverage (see table).

In each of the past three seasons, League has been hit harder when the most pressure is on. Jansen, by comparison, has continued to blow away batters no matter whether the situation is tense (.465 career OPS against in high-leverage situations) or less critical (.452 career OPS against in low-leverage situations). He has also been effective against both lefty and righty hitters, unlike League, who has shown a massive platoon split over his career, limiting the tactical situations a team would want to use him in the first place.

It’s clear that Jansen is the man the team should want on the mound in the most critical situations, and while it may seem counterintuitive to have a reliever who performs better in lower-pressure situations as the closer, it’s important to remember again that bases empty in the ninth inning is often less important to winning a game than two on and one out in the eighth.

There’s no question that Jansen is the more effective reliever, a statement that even League would probably agree with, and he may yet end up back in the ninth if League’s inconsistent history returns. Yet as long as League can hold things together as the closer, Jansen will provide the Dodgers one of baseball’s most dangerous bullpen weapons in the most important situations — even if he’s not the one actually collecting the saves.