Blog Entry

The riskiest way to spend $15 million

Posted on: October 2, 2008 5:54 pm
Edited on: October 2, 2008 6:03 pm
After the debacle that was the bullpen last year, Mets management will be quick to overspend for bullpen help going into 2009.  Building a great bullpen is a tricky business--it's not only about talent but also timing, psychology, and the kind of value evaluation that is usually reserved for the financial markets (before last week).  The obvious splashy choice to shore up a bullpen is to hire a big-time lights-out closer.  Unless something crazy happens, the Mets will make a move for the biggest-time, lights-outest closer out there, K-Rod.

On the surface, it sure looks like a no-brainer.  He's been amazing since his promotion from setup man to closer going into the 2002 post-season, where he was on the minds of all sports fans as the next best thing.  He has gone on to deliver, setting the saves record and leading the Angels into the playoffs again this year.  As Mets fans, we can see the parallel here:  K-Rod has been a huge factor in the Anaheim of Los Angeles Orange County Angels' consistent success over the last 6 years, in a way that mirrors the performance of a closer on a team around the corner that has meant just as much to their success.

How much of a sure thing is a closer--even at the top of his game--anyhow?  They're unusual players, like a place kicker in football, it's hard to tell when they'll just lose their edge.  The major difference between the two though is that the closer has his psyche AND his physical well-being to hold onto.  Kickers--unless they get a little over-excited (see:  Grammatica, Martin) don't run the same risk.

Let's look at a few of the elite closers in baseball over the last 35 years<style type="text/css"></style>:

Rivera, Hoffman, Fingers and Lee Smith have been/were very consistent for an extended period of time.  When you look at the exceptions, it really proves how powerful the rule is.

Eckersley for instance was amazing for a short while after moving from starter to closer, but really he was only lights-out for the first five.  Look at his ERA and WHIP for the 11 years he closed full-time:

1988:  2.35, 0.87
1989:  1.56, 0.61
1990:  0.61, 0.62
1991:  2.96, 0.91
1992:  1.91, 0.91
1993:  4.16, 1.19
1994:  4.26, 1.41
1995:  4.83, 1.28
1996:  3.30, 1.18
1997:  3.91, 1.08
1998:  4.76, 1.38

Notice a trend there? For 5 years, he was pretty awesome--among the best ever.  Then suddenly things dropped off.  Now, he's an unusual case because he started to close so late in his career.  You could argue that after years of starting, the fact that he could close so well was amazing.  Smoltz is another example of this, but he started closing SO late that you really have to throw him out also. 

Let's try a guy near and dear to our hearts as Met fans, Randy Myers.  He threw hard and put a lot of work on that shoulder (a little like K-Rod):

1988:  1.72, 0.91
1989:  2.35, 1.21
1990:  2.08, 1.12
1991:  3.55, 1.48
1992:  4.29, 1.48
1993:  3.11, 1.21
1994:  3.79, 1.39
1995:  3.88, 1.38
1996:  3.53, 1.52
1997:  1.51, 1.16
1998:  4.46, 1.49

Let's even look at Gossage, who overall had more leg strength and a less violent delivery than Rodriguez:

1977:  1.62, 0.95
1978:  2.01, 1.09
1979:  2.62, 1.15
1980:  2.27, 1.12
1981:  0.77, 0.77
1982:  2.23, 0.98
1983:  2.27, 1.23
1984:  2.90, 1.08
1985:  1.82, 1.03
1986:  4.45, 1.38
1987:  3.12, 1.27
1988:  4.33, 1.49

Let's try another:  Bruce Sutter:

1977:  1.34, 0.86
1978:  3.19, 1.18
1979:  2.22, 0.98
1980:  2.64, 1.21
1981:  2.62, 1.07
1982:  2.90, 1.19
1983:  4.23, 1.34
1984:  1.54, 1.08
1985:  4.48, 1.36
1986:  4.34, 1.39

OK since we're on a roll, let's look at Dan Quisenberry:

1980:  3.09, 1.22
1981:  1.73, 1.19
1982:  2.57, 1.01
1983:  1.94, 0.93
1984:  2.64, 1.03
1985:  2.37, 1.22
1986:  2.77, 1.43
1987:  2.76, 1.39
1988:  5.12, 1.52

1989:  2.64, 1.17 (no longer closing)

OK anyhow, you can go through the stats of the top closers in the game yourselves--and the point is that paying huge money to even the best closers in the game is a high-risk proposition.  Just to complete the ol' analysis, let's look at K-Rod:

2005:  2.67, 1.14
2006:  1.73, 1.10
2007:  2.81, 1.25
2008:  2.24, 1.29

There's definitely a minor trend here, but nothing that can be extrapolated yet.  The history of great closers shows that some last 4-5 years, some last 6-8.   Very, very few are able to keep it up past that point.  The road to long-time dominance is littered with guys that looked unbeatable for 4-5 years:  Gagne, Nen, Percival, Henke, Montgomery, Dave Smith, Tekulve (who we always imitated on the wiffle ball field), Charlton, Howe and so on.  It has guys like Thigpen and Davis, who set saves records and then dropped off the face of the earth.  Will K-Rod be sitting with Rivera, Smith, Fingers and Hoffman?  Will he be this generation's Gossage, who fell in the middle?  Will all of the innings and the violent motion put him on that cliff-bound bus that has claimed so many others that seemed untouchable for 4-5 years and then...disappeared? 

There's no way to tell, but one thing's for sure.  Spending money on a sure-fire closer is never the easy bet that it seems to be on paper.


Category: MLB

Since: May 11, 2007
Posted on: October 6, 2008 10:07 am

The riskiest way to spend $15 million

Oh, sorry about that.  ERA is the first number and WHIP is the second (I thought having a 4.50 WHIP would be pretty horrible though...)

Since: Jun 4, 2008
Posted on: October 3, 2008 2:14 pm

The riskiest way to spend $15 million

Very good post.  I sums up my fears about a big name closer.  It's very difficult to do the job effectively for a long period of time because many closers rely on an overpowering fastball which usually starts losing movement and zip as a player ages.  Another factor is being deceptive.  After hitters have seen your delivery and pitches they won't find you so difficult to hit anymore.  I

 think you'll find the better long-term closers had a second very good pitch to go along with a nice fastball.  Billy Wagner has that pitch but wasn't throwing it very well this year.  If you recall a couple of the HR's he gave up were two strike sliders that hung up in the zone and ended up being gopher balls.  He had set the pitch up but wasn't able to execute it.  Was it the nagging injury, age or mechanics?  Who knows.  However I have been thinking K-Rod could be a too risky an investment for much the same reason.

Since: Jul 3, 2008
Posted on: October 2, 2008 9:29 pm

The riskiest way to spend $15 million

Amazing post but which one is ERA and which is whip

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or