Wins Above Average Closer

It’s HoF season again, and I’ve never been satisfied with the dicsussion around relievers.  I wanted something that attempted to quantify excellence at the position while still being a counting stat, and what better way to quantify excellence at RP than by comparing to the average closer?  (Please treat that as a rhetorical question)

I used the highly scientific method of defining the average closer as the aggregate performance of the players who were top-25 in saves in a given year, and I used several measures of wins.  I wanted something that used all events (so not fWAR) and already handled run environment for me, and comparing runs as a counting stat across different run environments is more than a bit janky, so that meant a wins-based metric.  I went with REW (RE24-based wins), WPA, and WPA/LI. 

IP as the denominator instead of PA/TBF because I wanted any (1-inning, X runs) and any inherited runner situation (X outs gotten to end the inning, Y runs allowed – entering RE) to grade out the same regardless of batters faced.  Not that using PA as the denominator would make much difference.

The first trick was deciding on a baseline Wins/IP to compare against because the “average closer” is significantly better now than 1974, to the tune of around 0.5 normalized RA/9 better. 

I used the regression as the baseline Wins/IP for each season/metric because I was more interested in excellence compared to peers than compared to players who were pitching significantly different innings/appearance.  WPA/LI/IP basically overlaps REW/IP and makes it all harder to see, so I left it off.

For each season, a player’s WAAC is (Wins/IP – baseline wins/IP) * IP, computed separately for each win metric.

Without further ado, the top 20 in WAAC (REW-based) and the remaining HoFers.  Peak is defined as the optimal start and stop years for REW.  Fangraphs doesn’t have Win Probability stats before 1974, which cuts out all of Hoyt Wilhelm, but by a quick glance, he’s going to be top-5, solidly among the best non-Rivera RPs.  I also miss the beginning of Fingers’s career, but it doesn’t matter. 

Career WAAC based on REW WPA WPA/LI Peak REW Peak Years
Mariano Rivera 16.9 26.6 18.6 16.9 1996-2013
Billy Wagner 7.3 7.2 7.3 7.3 1996-2010
Joe Nathan 6.6 12.6 7.5 8.5 2003-2013
Zack Britton 5.4 7.0 4.1 5.4 2014-2020
Craig Kimbrel 5.2 6.9 4.3 6.3 2010-2018
Keith Foulke 4.9 4.1 5.3 7.2 1999-2004
Tom Henke 4.9 5.8 5.7 5.8 1985-1995
Aroldis Chapman 4.2 4.1 4.7 4.6 2012-2019
Rich Gossage 4.1 7.4 4.8 10.8 1975-1985
Andrew Miller 3.8 3.5 3.2 5.4 2012-2017
Wade Davis 3.8 3.5 3.7 5.6 2012-2017
Trevor Hoffman 3.8 8.0 6.1 5.8 1994-2009
Darren O’Day 3.7 -1.2 1.8 4.1 2009-2020
Rafael Soriano 3.5 2.8 2.8 4.3 2003-2012
Jonathan Papelbon 3.5 9.7 4.8 5 2006-2009
Eric Gagne 3.4 8.5 3.6 4.3 2002-2005
Dennis Eckersley (RP) 3.4 -0.3 5.2 7.1 1987-1992
John Wetteland 3.3 7.1 4.9 4.2 1992-1999
John Smoltz (RP) 3.2 9.0 3.5 3.2 2001-2004
Kenley Jansen (#20) 3.1 2.6 3.5 4.3 2010-2017
Lee Smith (#25) 2.5 0.9 1.8 4.5 1981-1991
Rollie Fingers (#64) 0.7 -6.0 0.8 1.9 1975-1984
Bruce Sutter (#344) 0.0 2.4 3.6 4.3 1976-1981

Mariano looks otherworldly here, but it’s hard to screw that up.  We get a few looks at really aberrant WPAs, good and bad, which is no shock because it’s known to be noisy as hell.  Peak Gossage was completely insane.  His career rate stats got dragged down by pitching forever, but for those 10 years (20.8 peak WPA too), he was basically Mo.  That’s the longest imitation so far.

Wagner was truly excellent.  And he’s 3rd in RA9-WAR behind Mo and Goose, so it’s not like his lack of IP stopped him from accumulating regular value.  Please vote him in if you have a vote.

It’s also notable how hard it is to stand out or sustain that level.  Only one other player is above 3 career WAAC (Koji).  There are flashes of brilliance (often mixed with flashes of positive variance), but almost nobody sustained “average closer” performance for over 10 years.  The longest peaks are (a year skipped to injury/not throwing 10 IP in relief doesn’t break it, it just doesn’t count towards the peak length):

Rivera 17 (16 with positive WAAC)

Wagner 15 (12 positive)

Hoffman 15 (9 positive)

Wilhelm 13 (by eyeball)

Smith 11 (10 positive)

Henke 11 (10 positive)

Fingers 11 (8 positive, giving him 1973)

O’Day 11 (7 positive)

and that’s it in the history of baseball.  It’s pretty tough to pitch that well for that many years.  

This isn’t going to revolutionize baseball analysis or anything, but I thought it was an interesting look that went beyond career WAR/career WPA to give a kind of counting stat for excellence.

4 thoughts on “Wins Above Average Closer”

  1. Nice analysis. But I think my main takeaway is “only Mo belongs in the Hall” (and maybe Gossage based on peak), more then “Wagner deserves a vote.” Wagner and Nathan seem equivalent, and not that far ahead of the rest of the pack.

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    1. Gossage is clear enough from the pack on peak excellence and career WAR that I think he’s a safe include. If nobody besides those two had ever gotten inducted, that’s a reasonable line to draw. But going by career WAR, we have 6 HOFers top 7, Wagner #3, Nathan #8, and Sutter #14. Wagner’s above the group median in both career WAR and peak excellence. I see it as a cosmic injustice that everybody else is in and he’s not, especially when contemporary Hoffman wasn’t ever in doubt. If you JAWS it, then the next player below Nathan with a decent peak and career value is Henke, and that’s a solid step down in both.

      Wagner and Nathan are also kind of the end of an era. Papelbon is short of the Henke line both ways. It should be at least 10 years until there’s any possibility of a comparable candidate, and even that looks like a serious underdog to happen. Kimbrel with a career resurgence or Chapman staying strong into his late 30s (Britton’s way low on career WAR). If their arms don’t fall off, they could well limp over the Henke line right before they retire, but there’s a LOT of work to do to approach the Wagner/Nathan line. I don’t think there’s much danger that electing Wagner causes a flood of similar RP elections or a particularly slippery slope.

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  2. I agree that if Hoffman, Smith, Fingers, and Sutter belong in the Hall, then so does Wagner. But I would argue those 4 were mistakes. Trying to correct that injustice just opens the door to more, even if not in the short-term. And if Wagner, why not Nathan? And if Nathan belongs, why not F-Rod — he’s not qualified by your metric, but he has more IP, more saves, same ERA+. Sometimes, it’s better to just admit mistakes were made (like all those 1930s .300+ hitters), rather than permanently lower HOF standards to try to right a short-term “cosmic injustice.”

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    1. If it were just Fingers and Sutter from forever ago, then it would be whatever, but they made a clear mistake with Smith and elected a worse pitcher in Hoffman while Wagner was on the ballot. Making an inconsistent mistake is worse than making a mistake here for me.

      KRod isn’t really close. He’s .3 wins over the Henke line on career value, which is still 2 wins behind Nathan, despite 50+ more IP, and his peak is only 3.3 WAAC (career negative).

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