Will Keone Kela be the Pirates' Closer in 2020? Will they Even Have One?

The existence of a defined closer on a roster has long been a foregone conclusion, and Keone Kela seems to be the best equipped to fill that role this year for the Pirates. But, should the Pirates even use a closer?

Whenever the topic of addressing Pittsburgh Pirates’ relief pitcher Keone Kela's status on the team is brought up, many people immediately oppose this proposition. The main reason people give for their opposition is that Kela has to be the Pirates’ closer for the upcoming season. My first reaction to point out to them that Kela is in his final year of arbitration (he will be due around $3.4 Million). I go on to explain that after the 2020 season he will be an unrestricted free agent, so we have one of two options; 1) Trade Kela before he is no longer under the Pirates’ control. 2) Extend him beyond the one year of control that currently exists. In no way have I ever said that Kela needs to be traded or that he needs to be extended. I have yet to plant my flag in either camp as I can see the potential benefits of either decision. After giving my initial arguments, or maybe explanations would be a better description as to my reasoning, I started to think about why almost everyone is dead set on Kela being the Pirates closer in 2020. Well because they need a closer, of course. But do they? Do the Pittsburgh Pirates NEED a closer? Does any team for that matter? 

Ever since I can remember a closer has been discussed as a necessary position on every baseball team. But is it really? If a team does not have a closer on their 26-man roster, are they at that much of a disadvantage? Is a closer as integral to putting together a 26-man roster as a starting shortstop, a starting third/second/first baseman or a starting outfielder? Of course not! So why has the closer position become so engrained in our baseball vocabulary as a necessary position on a baseball team? Well for many of us it is probably because it feels like it has been around as long as we have been baseball fans. For anyone that became a baseball fan before 1990 you may remember a time without the term closer. The early 1990’s was when it started to be used on a regular basis. For anyone who became a fan before at least 1960, you may remember a time without the term 'save', a fundamental statistic of the closer. 

In 1959, a young writer named Jerome Holtzman invented the term 'save' and laid out the rules for exactly what constituted one. To Holtzman a save was awarded to a pitcher if his team wins and he is not the winner of the contest and that he faced the tying or go ahead run. The only two exceptions were if the pitcher came into the final inning with a two-run lead and pitched a perfect inning or if he comes in with a three run lead and pitches two or more innings, finishes the game and does not give up the lead. Major League Baseball and other writers made adjustments to Holtzman's requirements/guidelines over the next 15 years or so until the official definition of a save was set in 1975. The save rule as it stands today requires that the pitcher has to enter the game with the tying or go ahead run on the bases, at the plate or in the on deck circle and that when the pitcher comes into the game his team is ahead by 3 or fewer runs and pitches at least one inning. If a pitcher pitches at least three innings and does not qualify for the win, he can also be awarded the save. A central requirement for a save is that the pitcher must finish the game, so only one pitcher can earn a save. 

I realize this got us nowhere near determining whether or not a closer is needed by the Pirates (or anyone else), but I feel it was a necessary sidebar to give everyone some perspective of the origins of the save and the closer position. I am a numbers guy, it should be no surprise to you that I opened up FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, amongst other sites in an attempt to answer the question in the most educated way possible. The first thing I looked at was the number of saves each MLB team had in both 2018 and 2019. Next, I wanted to see the top pitchers that we responsible for each of the individual teams saves, how many blown saves they had and how often they entered the game in save situations. After that I looked at the pitchers that had saves for the Pirates during the last decade; taking all of these statistics into account, along with another statistic, holds. This led me into writing down the Pirates records in each of these years with the run differentials beside them and then going back to the top 10 MLB teams by saves over the past two years and doing the same. Of course, after I did that, I had to look at all the pitchers that had saved for these teams and put them under the same microscope as the Pirates pitchers over the years. Finally, I looked at some specific examples of closers repeating success by studying the top relievers in the American and National League starting in 1995. Before I get into the number crunch, I wanted to point you guys to an article by Shane Tourtellotte in The HardBall Times from December 28, 2017 called The Unofficial Rules: Of Holds and Blown Saves in case you need more info on these stats. Now let’s get started, but if please bear with me if I jump around a little because there is an almost overwhelming amount of information/statistics to cover. 

Over the past decade the Pirates have had a primary closer and split duty closers in the same number of years, 5 each. 

  • 2019 - Felipe Vasquez (56 games, 28 Saves and 3 Blown saves) was the primary closer. 
  • 2018 - Vasquez (70 Games, 37 Saves, 5 Blown Saves) held the closer role. 
  • 2017 - Vasquez (73 Games, 21 Saves, 14 Holds and 2 Blown Saves) and Tony Watson (47 Games, 10 Saves, 6 Holds and 7 Blown Saves) split duties. 
  • 2016 - Mark Melancon (45 Games, 30 Saves and 3 Blown Saves) and Watson (70 Games, 15 Saves, 23 Holds and 5 Blown Saves) shared time. 
  • 2015 - Melancon (78 Games, 51 Saves and 2 Blown Saves) was a work horse for the Pirates. 
  • 2014 - Melancon (72 Games, 33 Saves, 14 Holds and 4 Blown Saves) and Jason Grilli (22 Games, 11 Saves, 1 Hold and 4 Blown Saves) each had their turn before Grilli was traded to the Angels. 
  • 2013 - Grilli (54 Games, 33 Saves, 2 Holds and 2 Blown Saves) and Melancon (72 Games, 16 Saves, 26 Holds and 5 Blown Saves) were both highly involved in closing out games. 
  • 2012 - Joel Hanrahan (63 Games, 36 Saves and 4 Blown Saves) was the main man. 
  • 2011 - Hanrahan (70 Games, 40 Saves, 4 Blown Saves) dominated the closer role. In 2010 - Octavio Dotel (41 Games, 21 Saves and 5 Blown Saves), Hanrahan (72 games, 6 Saves, 18 Holds and 4 Blown Saves) and Evan Meek (70 Games, 4 Saves, 15 Holds and 6 Blown Saves) were all in the mix. 

This is a whole bunch of information that doesn’t really give us very much insight until we add some more context to it. Also take into account that some of the blown saves that are listed don’t tell the whole story especially in split duty situations because some of them could actually be “blown holds” because those are not a separate stat; which you would have already known if you read the article I suggested. 

To give this information a little more meat, I think it is best to look at the win-loss record of the Pirates each year to see if it effects the number of saves by the lone closer or split duty closer. If you look at the years with the two worst records 2010 (57-105) and 2019 (69-93), you will also find the years with the lowest save totals by closer(s); 31 and 28 respectively. Now you may be thinking the reasoning is very easy and our exercise is over, but you would be wrong. In 2011 the Pirates record was very similar to that of 2019. The Pirates had a record of 72-90 yet Hanrahan had 40 saves, which is significantly higher than the 28 Vasquez had last year or the 31 that Dotel, Hanrahan and Meek had combined for the year before. So, what was the difference? Well in 2011 the Pirates’ season long run differential was -102, while in 2010 it was -279 and in 2019 it was -153. closer games equal more opportunities for saves. Seasons where you are getting outscored by larger numbers day in and day out, those save opportunities come along less frequently. That got me to thinking about the number of saves the Pirates had in years with low run differentials, either positive or negative. 

The years with the run differentials closest to zero were 2018 (-1), 2017 (-63), 2016 (-29), 2014 (+51), 2013 (+57) and 2012 (-23). I had set the parameters at +/-81 or equal to +/- .5 runs per game. In these years Pirates had 37 Saves (5 Blown Saves), 31 Saves (9 Blown Saves), 45 Saves (8 Blown Saves), 44 Saves (8 Blown Saves), 49 Saves (7 Blown Saves) and 38 Saves (7 Blown Saves). The opportunities for saves in each of these years were higher than every other year except for 2015, when the Pirates had a record of 98-64 and a run differential of +101. That year Mark “the Shark” Melancon has 51 saves in 53 opportunities and had the most save in MLB by a margin of 10. What can be gathered from this additional information? Well I would say that you either have to have a low run differential and/or have a team that compiles a lot of wins in order to have more save opportunities. I know this sound like common sense and it could be, but I wanted to look at the records and run differentials for the top 10 teams for the past 2 years as far as total saves are concerned to to see if this plays out across the league. 

2019

  1. Cardinals 91-71 (+97)
  2. Yankees 103-59 (+219)
  3. Twins 101-61 (+169)
  4. Brewers 89-73 (+2)
  5. Astros 107-55 (+279)
  6. Padres 70-92 (-107)
  7. Rays 96-66 (+116)
  8. Reds 75-87 (-10)
  9. A’s 97-65 (+161)
  10. Diamondbacks 85-77 (+70

2018

  1. Mariners 89-73 (-34)
  2. Rays 90-72 (+70)
  3. Rockies 91-72 (+25)
  4. Yankees 100-62 (+174)
  5. Brewers 96-67 (+107)
  6. Dodgers 92-71 (+193)
  7. Astros 103-59 (+270)
  8. Cubs 95-68 (+115)
  9. Red Sox 108-54 (+262)
  10. A’s 97-65 (+134) 

So, I guess it is pretty much common sense as all the teams on these lists had either really good win-loss records or lower run differentials. Of the top-10 for last year 7 of the 10 made the playoffs, and in 2018, 8 of 10 did. What does this mean about about the need for a closer? Nothing yet. In order to determine this, I decided only to look at the top 5 teams from this past year to see if they used a primary closer or fell under the split duty closer umbrella.

  • The St. Louis Cardinals used 3 different relievers in the closer role; Carlos Martinez (48 Games, 24 saves, 3 holds and 3 blown saves), Jordan Hicks (29 Games, 14 saves, 3 holds and 1 blown Save) and Andrew Miller (73 Games, 6 saves, 28 holds and 5 blown saves). 
  • The Yankees leaned on Aroldis Chapman (60 Games, 37 saves and 5 blown saves) for the overwhelming majority of their team’s saves. 
  • The Twins operated a bit of a time share between Taylor Rogers (60 Games, 30 saves, 10 holds and 6 blown saves) and Blake Porter (37 Games, 10 saves, 9 holds and 1 blown Save). 
  • The Brewers called on Josh Hader (61 Games, 37 saves, 6 holds and 7 blown saves) more often than not, in spite of some struggles. 
  • And finally, the Rays used a closer by committee approach that involving 11 different pitches. Emilio Pagan (20 saves, 7 holds and 8 blown saves), Diego Castillo (8 saves, 17 holds and 2 blown saves) and Jose Alvarado (7 saves, 8 holds and 2 blown saves) led the way. However, 8 other pitchers combined for 11 saves, 69 holds and 9 blown saves. 

Two of the five used a primary closer approach and the other 3 used the split duty closer approach, some more than others, with an almost equal level of success. 

So, what does all of this mean for Keona Kela and all of the other relievers in the Pirates bullpen? I would think it would mean that you shouldn’t pigeon hole any of them into a specific role just yet because honestly none of us really know what direction the team is being taken by Ben Cherington and the rest of the front office, manager, coaches, etc. If they go into full rebuild mode, what use do they have for a primary closer because I wouldn’t see them being in too many games and their run differential could rise back up to near the -279 mark like it was back in 2010. If they want to see what the have from all their young guns, why would they pitch a guy with only one year of control as their closer? Would they want to see what they have from everyone in a variety of roles? On the other hand, if they see Kela as part of their future and are considering extending him, by all means see if he can perform closer duties like he used to with the Rangers. 

I know I probably didn’t change anyone’s mind as to what role Kela should play for the Pirates in the 2020 season, if they don’t trade him by then. I just hope everyone can be a little more open-minded about not forcing players into roles that may not be a part of the Pirates’ plans; whatever those plans might be. 

 Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement