Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Closer Implosions

Good morning, Fackers. We began yesterday talking about Huston Street's blown save and how it fit into a trend of closers not being able to lock it down so far this postseason. Aside from the aforementioned meltdowns by Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan and Ryan Franklin, other shutdown late inning relievers like Phil Hughes and Ryan Madson stumbled as well.

These late inning offense outbursts, couple with the long layover before the League Championships Series begin have swung a huge amount off attention towards the closer role and have fans of various allegiances doing a fair bit of hand wringing.

It's not just the fans though. David Pinto, a former chief researcher for Baseball Tonight whose Twitter moniker is "@StatsGuru" thinks Joel Sherman might be somehow jinxing the Yankees with this column, entitled "Rivera Gives Yankees Edge In October". Pinto says:
After watching Nathan, Papelbon, Street and Franklin get lit up, Joel Sherman really shouldn’t write this headline.
Pinto's own headline is "Bad Time To Put Your Faith In Closers", implying that they rise and fall in relation to each other as if they are some sort of commodity. That would be like saying that the LCSes are going to be terribly umpired even if Phil Cuzzi and C.B. Bucknor are watching at home. Anyone feel comfortable making that prediction? I don't think I have to remind a "Stats Guru" that a rash of bad performances by someone's peers doesn't make them anymore likely to mess up themselves.

Tom Verducci over at attempts to unlock the mysteries of October in a single column, entitled: "Here's why it's so hard to close out a game in October". Intriguing, yes? What secrets has Tom uncovered? How long must it have taken him to research countless postseasons to find the relevant trends? Enlighten us with you timeless findings, Mr. Verducci! [emphasis mine]
Take all the closers this postseason [...and] look at what they did in their 18 ninth-inning appearances of the Division Series, and compare that to the major league average ninth inning -- not just those thrown by closers -- for the 2009 season.
Wait, what??!?! Where do we even start with this statistical atrocity?

First and most obviously, he looks at one round of the Divisional Series with a robust sample size of 18 innings (or an average of just over 2 per pitcher) and tell us why "it's so hard to close out a game in October"? That's not even a good method of comparing data for this year, let alone postseason play in general. Apparently Dane Cook was right, there really is "ONLY ONE OCTOBER!!".

Secondly, why the Major League average 9th inning? If you wanted to find out what is unique about closing out games in October, it would probably be wise to compare that to closing out games in other months of the year, don't you think?

With this shoddy methodology, Verducci's main conclusions, aside from pressure which he mentions briefly, are that hitters have better scouting reports which they can only really pay attention during the postseason and batters have a more "intense focus".

But baseball is a zero sum game. So pitchers have better scouting reports and a more intense focus, too, right?

I'll grant Verducci the point that it is harder to close out games in October, but I think he's forgoing Occam's Razor in a major way here. Maybe closers' arms are a little bit worn out when the postseason rolls around, but does it really come down to much more than pressure and facing better offensive teams?

Did you see Joe Nathan's face when he was on the mound on Friday night? He looked like he was heading through US Customs with a kilo of cocaine in his suitcase, except even a tweaked out drug mule wouldn't have been doing that thing with his lips.

It's easy to dismiss pressure as a contributing factor during the regular season. Closers are built to handle the stress of closing down games and do it all the time, but rarely is there anything more on the line. Once the playoffs roll around, a blown save doesn't just cost you a game, it could very well cost your team their season. It's human nature to feel that pressure - we all do it as fans, just watching it on TV.

If it really was scouting reports and batter's focus, would Mariano Rivera have an 0.74 ERA in the postseason, almost exactly 1/3 of his regular season mark despite facing better competition and averaging more innings per appearance? I think not.

Mariano Rivera isn't perfect, but he's a lot better at dealing with pressure than any other closer remaining in the postseason, so Joel Sherman and Burt Blyleven don't think twice about the titles to their columns even though a bunch of lesser closers lost their shit in the LDSes.

There's no guarantee that Mo gets through this postseason perfectly. In fact, he already failed to clean up for Phil Hughes in Game 2, allowing an RBI single to Denard Span. But he came back out the next inning and got three outs. And he popped up on the mound in Game 3 in Minnesota to break Joe Mauer's bat like stale loaf of bread in the 8th inning and lock down the save in the 9th.

Saying that he gives the Yankees the edge isn't going to somehow jinx him, because there are no such thing as jinxes. He's the best postseason pitcher of all-time by a mile and if someone gets the best of him it's because nobody's perfect.

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