Closer, stopper, fireman -- call it what you will. The role of the relief ace has changed greatly over the years, but despite the different ways in which managers have deployed their best relievers, the rate at which teams convert save opportunities has remained constant since the save rule took its current form prior to the 1975 season.
Since 1975, major-league teams have converted 67.8 percent of their save chances. Year-to-year, that rate has never gone above 71.5 percent (1988) nor below 64 percent (2008), and within that narrow range of fluctuation there has been just one discernable peak (70.7 percent from 1988 to 1992) and no multiyear valleys. One might argue that the expansions in 1977, 1993, and 1998 as well as the surge in run-scoring in the late 1990s undermined the gains made by management, but the recent slowdown in run-scoring has not seen a corresponding increase in league-wide save percentage, suggesting that whatever gains might have been counterbalanced were either negligible, transitory, or simply non-existent.
That might seem contradictory for anyone looking at the all-time saves leader lists. Of the top 46 single-season saves totals, only three were recorded prior to 1988, and of the three that occurred between 1988 and 1990, two were by Dennis Eckersley. That's significant because Eckersley and his manager, Tony La Russa, ushered in the era of the modern, one-inning closer in 1988. As this chart by Baseball Musings' David Pinto shows, prior to 1988, more than half of all saves lasted more than three outs. But by 1991, three-out saves were the norm, and their frequency has only increased since, surpassing 80 percent of all saves in 2007.
La Russa's revolution did increase the rate at which closers converted their save opportunities. Eckersley converted 89 percent of his save chances during his five-year peak from 1988 to 1992, compared to Bruce Sutter's 80 percent conversion rate in the five seasons in which he led the National League in saves (1979 to 1982 and 1984). The one-inning save, however, did not improve teams' ability to convert saves, as it left the extra outs to lesser relievers who would blow just enough save opportunities before the ninth inning to bring the league average back down to its established level. Even the LaRussa/Eckersley A's were susceptible to a bad year from their setup men. In 1991, they finished 20th in the majors in save percentage with a 65 percent rate despite Eckersley's typically strong 84 percent in the ninth inning. What the one-inning save actually did was reduce the impact of the closer, despite the inflated saves totals it ushered in. Compare Francisco Rodriguez's record-setting 62-save season from last year to Sutter's then-record-tying 45-save season in 1984. Using Baseball Prospectus' win-probability-based WXRL, which measures a reliever's cumulative impact on his team's chances of winning the games in which he pitches, K-Rod's season was worth 5.167 wins compared to Sutter's 7.647 wins, or just 67.5 percent as much despite Rodriguez's saving 17 more games, in large part because Rodriguez threw just 56 percent as many innings as Sutter.
As Pinto wrote in the article that accompanies the above-linked chart, "teams score less than three runs in an inning 93.6 percent of the time, and shutout innings are thrown 70 percent of the time." That's the average result with a league-average pitcher on the mound. Because getting three outs before giving up three runs is a task most major-league quality pitchers can handle, teams have slowly begun to realize that they needn't invest in elite "proven" closers and can easily convert a solid in-house arm or low-cost pickup into a sufficiently reliable closer. Indeed, a full third of the teams in the majors entered the 2009 season with their closing duties in the hands of a pitcher who had never spent a full season in the role in the major leagues.
Here's a tiered look at which teams are devoting significant resources to their closer and which aren't, along with where each team ranks on my list of the 30 major-league closers.
These are teams that acquired established closers or re-signed or extended them into their free agency years at a premium. The Twins and Yankees deserve credit for establishing Nathan and Rivera in their roles, but they both have chosen to shell out huge contracts to keep those players rather than attempt to repeat the feat with younger, less expensive pitchers. Valverde, Gonzalez, Gregg, and Street haven't reached free agency yet, but their teams each traded for them after they had spent full seasons closing elsewhere, so the Astros, Braves, Cubs, and Rockies qualify as teams who devoted resources to acquiring an established closer. Hoffman and Percival weren't particularly expensive, but they're both old (41 and 39, respectively), and with more than 900 combined saves they certainly qualify as established closers imported by their teams. The Mets are the worst case here as they're also paying Billy Wagner, who is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, $10.5 million on the last year of his four-year deal and previously traded away new Padres closer and current major-league saves leader Heath Bell (10) and Marlins closer Matt Lindstrom. The Mets are thus spending $19 million on closers this year while the Padres are getting a thus-far superior performance out of Bell for less than $2 million.
These are teams enjoying the budget-priced fruits of having established a closer in-house. None of these six pitchers has reached free agency yet, but all have enjoyed successful full seasons as closers prior to the 2009 season. The one odd case is Sherrill, who was not a closer when the Orioles acquired him as a throw-in in the deal that also netted them top-outfield prospect Adam Jones and three minor-league pitchers. The O's will remain on this list after Chris Ray, whom the Orioles drafted in the third-round of the 2003 amateur draft, reclaims the job from Sherrill. Of the seven pitchers listed here (including Ray), the one earning the highest salary in 2009 is, appropriately, Papelbon, who avoided an arbitration hearing by signing a one-year, $6.25 million deal in January. He earned just $775,000 in 2008.
These 10 teams all hope to be in the "Do-It-Yourself" category a year from now as they are attempting to establish players developed in-house or acquired on the cheap as closers. Lone major-league free-agent acquisition Franklin is on a two-year, $5 million contract and is likely to yield to either Jason Motte or Chris Perez, both acquired in the amateur draft, before the year is out. Francisco and Lindstrom had not thrown a major-league pitch when they were acquired in minor trades. Qualls was one of three players the Diamondbacks acquired for Valverde and worked as a setup man prior to this year, as did Bell, who was just one of two pitchers the Padres obtained for that minimal return. The highest-paid player on this list is Rodney, who avoided an arbitration hearing by signing a one-year deal worth $2.7 million this January, and he could well be replaced by Joel Zumaya, who is making $735,000 this year. Note that the rankings in this category stand the greatest chance of improving as the season rolls along. In the early going, these 10 teams have had their closers (including Joel Hanrahan and Julian Tavarez of Washington, the Cardinals' Jason Motte, and David Aardsma of Seattle) convert 56-of-65 saves, 86 percent, in the ninth inning or later. Meanwhile, the 14 closers listed in the Big Spenders category have converted 57-of-69 saves, or 83 percent, and the six DIY closers have converted 34-of-38 chances or 89 percent.
Corcoran:Closer rankings, from No. 1 to 30Verducci:Ranking the 10 best closers everReact:How do you rank today's closers? All time?Corcoran:Closers in waitingAschburner:Twins' Nathan is unsung -- just how he likes itKeith:Bell filling Hoffman's shoes nicely in San Diego