Blowing Up Baseball’s Most Dangerous Stat

Chris PerezChris Perez trudged back to the dugout, shoulders slumped, a grim look on his face. Boos rained down from the 43,190 Indians fans who’d just seen their team’s closer blow the game on Opening Day. It was a sad scene, even for a city that has witnessed The Fumble, The Modell, The Decision, and a decades-long title-less streak that would choke the optimism out of even the most devoted sports towns.

But for all the ill will that would cause a fan base to start booing mercilessly one game into the season, Perez shouldn’t have absorbed all that blame. Some wondered if Manny Acta should have been called out, after the Indians skipper pulled Justin Masterson following eight innings of spectacular pitching. Wrong again.

If you’re an Indians fan still rattled by Thursday’s disaster, or just a baseball fan sick of suboptimal decisions resulting in painful losses, the man to blame is a late Chicago sportswriter named Jerome Holtzman. Fifty-three years ago, in an effort to shift more recognition unto underappreciated relief pitchers, Holtzman invented the save statistic. Today, that invention is responsible for far more unintended consequences, and far more heartache, than Holtzman could have ever intended. Bloody battles are fought over the ill-begotten riches that saves bestow on those who can get them. Managers lose games for their teams by getting seduced by saves. Pitchers who fail in save situations get labeled as gutless pariahs.

It needs to end now. It’s time to kill the save, send it to hell, and strand it there for eternity.

To understand the damage playing for saves can inflict, let’s return to our friend Mr. Perez. On February 26, the Indians announced they were shutting down the right-hander for four to six weeks due to a left oblique injury. That thrust Perez’s Opening Day status into doubt. This might not seem like a big deal at first blush. Assuming the tail end of that four-to-six-week timeline (or even a little longer), that would knock Perez out for the first week or two of the season. No big deal, take your time healing, give yourself plenty of time to pitch back into game shape, then return when everything’s 100 percent.

But managers can have short memories. Say Perez had returned two weeks into the season. By this point, Cleveland has stormed to a 11-2 start. Replacement closer Vinnie Pestano, already coming off a much stronger season than Perez in virtually every statistical category except saves, has been outstanding. And the Indians, heavy underdogs to dethrone the loaded Tigers in the AL Central, sit in first place, the talk of baseball. Would Manny Acta take stock of the situation, ignore the great starts put up by his team and his new closer, and give the job back to Perez?

Because if there’s any possibility that he wouldn’t, Perez would (and should) be motivated to make sure that decision never needs to get made. The 26-year-old Florida native made about $3.5 million over the first four years of his major league career. To be clear, that’s a lot of money, more than many people his age will make in their whole lives. But he also knows he has much greater earning potential ahead of him, the kind of money that can leave him, his children, and his children’s children set for life. In fact, Perez more than doubled his lifetime earnings this winter, signing a one-year deal for $4.5 million. Relief pitchers coming up for arbitration for the second time typically have no shot at making that kind of money … unless they collect saves for a living. If Perez were to lose his closer job, those substantial riches would plummet, and in a hurry.

So he busts his butt to rehab his injury. He makes it back to the mound, then starts blazing through his recovery. By the time Opening Day rolls around, Perez, his doctors, and the Indians all pronounce him ready to resume closer duties. He’s worked hard to fight through pain, but he’s also driven by self-interest — as any sane human being would be. If he doesn’t come back quickly, his whole career could change. His whole life could change.

He gets his first save chance on day one, and it’s one of the cushiest save situations a closer could ever hope to get: Up three runs, ninth inning, bases empty, three outs to go. Granted, the top of the Jays order is coming up to start the inning. But the odds are very, very heavily in Perez’s favor. By now we know what happened. Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson led off with singles, putting runners at the corners with nobody out. Jose Bautista cashed in a run with a sacrifice fly, then Adam Lind walked, putting runners at first and second with one out, and sending Edwin Encarnacion to the plate. Toronto’s DH worked the count to 2-2, then got a fastball — 91 mph, thigh-high, middle-in, straight as an arrow. And he crushed it. High and deep and off the left-field wall. Just like that, Perez blew the lead, ruining a terrific start for Masterson and canceling the expected ninth-inning celebration. Perez walked Eric Thames two batters later, prompting Acta to pull his closer for Pestano, and triggering the barrage of boos that chased Perez off the field.

Pitchers have bad outings all the time, whether they’re starters, middle relievers, or closers. A blown save might be tough to swallow on Opening Day, but it’s still just that, one blown save. Maybe Perez blows the game even if he never tweaked his oblique this spring. Maybe Mariano Rivera blows the game. It’s baseball. Shit happens.

But the idea that Perez had to rush back for Opening Day, and that Acta had to use him as the closer right away, is the direct result of the save rule. If teams didn’t base bullpen decisions on saves, all of this could have been avoided. The trick is to find a way to reward relief pitchers for great performance without turning it into nothing more than a grand conspiracy to tamp down salaries bloated by gaudy save totals.

There is a way to do that. It’s called shutdowns and meltdowns.

A dual stat devised and tracked by baseball analysis website FanGraphs, shutdowns and meltdowns (also known as SD/MD) answers a simple question: “Did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game?”

To figure that out, SD/MD leans on a concept called win expectancy — the likelihood (expressed in percentages) that your team wins a game. The Indians are up 4-1, ninth inning, bases empty, nobody out. What is their win expectancy at the time? (Answer: 96.8 percent — drag your mouse over that chart at the top of the page to find win expectancy by situation throughout the game.) Perez tosses two-thirds of an inning, yielding three hits, two walks, and three runs, before leaving with the score tied 4-4. What is the Indians’ win expectancy now? (Answer: 52.2 percent) Perez has dropped his team’s win expectancy by 44.6 percent. For that — or any pitching performance in which a reliever hurts his team’s win expectancy by 6 percent or more — you earn a meltdown. Raise your team’s win expectancy by 6 percent or more and you earn a shutdown.

This might sound a bit complicated, but it really isn’t. By using 6 percent as the cutoff, you get a stat that runs on a similar scale to saves and holds. Elite closers and setup men will rack up 35-40 (or more) shutdowns and very few meltdowns, just as a dominant closer can earn that many saves, while blowing very few. If you’ve ever watched poker on TV, you’ll see a player’s odds of winning a hand rise or fall by a certain percentage based on the cards the dealer flips over. Same easy-to-follow concept here: If you retire the side 1-2-3 in a big spot (say, two runners on, none out, and you enter with the game tied in the seventh), you get a shutdown, just as hitting your nut flush on the river will usually win you a hand. The only difference is the pitcher has more control over the outcome in this case, rather than it being left to random chance.

The key is that SD/MD puts closers and other members of your bullpen on even ground. That way you don’t end up overpaying for a pitcher who happens to record the final out of a ballgame. Greatness is greatness, and it gets rewarded whenever it might occur during the course of a game. We know that at least one relief pitcher has adopted SD/MD to track his own performance: Daniel Bard kept close tabs on the stat before getting converted back to a starter’s role this offseason.

Several caveats apply. Established closers will hate this idea, as it could limit everything from their on-field earning potential to their fame and off-field earning potential. So the first team that decides to forget about saves and traditional closer roles can count on never signing a top closer on the open market. You’ll then need to consult closely with players at every level of the organization to make them understand how this new system works. Starting all the way down at rookie league, pitchers will be trained to simply kick ass, with no regard for the inning in which they do it. They’ll need to stay ready all game long and be ready to come in at any time. The whole notion of needing a ninth-inning mentality to close would cease to exist. If anything, a save situation where your team’s chances to win have already topped 95 percent would become far less important to pitchers, both in terms of prestige and their ability to make bank.

SD/MD isn’t quite as closely linked to game situations as saves are, but leverage still matters. That means you’ll need a manager who can identify his best pitchers to use in high-leverage situations through stats that aren’t saves — strikeout rate, walk rate, ground-ball and fly-ball rates, platoon splits — and then use them in the right situations. No more managing by rote, no more obsessing over a pitcher’s career save totals … so you’d better find a manager who can think while he manages. More than building what critics would dismissively call a bullpen by committee, you’re maximizing every pitcher’s strengths and minimizing his weaknesses. You’re trying to win games, not build a folder for Scott Boras.

The most challenging part would be figuring out the right compensation system to reward your pitchers for great performance. Before arbitration, a relief pitcher’s earning potential would be limited, same as with any player. But once they’ve passed that point, you’ll want to find a way to properly reward your best guys. Simply paying your relievers based on rank order of SD/MD results is a good start, as it’s both a measure of quality and a counting stat that allows your most durable pitchers to compile the best totals. If a closer eligible for arbitration for the first time might make $2 million to $3 million, a top SD/MD guy (like Jonny Venters last year with 47 shutdowns to just six meltdowns) with the same service time could earn the top end of that range. Someone like Perez, who saved 36 games last year with just four blown saves (90 percent success rate), but fared considerably worse by SD/MD (37 SDs, 10 MDs, 78.7 percent success rate) would get paid less, and be less likely to earn high-leverage chances the next season.

The key is to find a method that both the team and its players can agree on. Put in appropriate performance-based rewards and you’ll keep your relief pitchers happy, knowing they can help their team win and help put their kids through Harvard if they pitch well, whether in the sixth inning or the ninth. And if you apply those same rewards to the free-agent market, you might convince elite setup men to sign with your team too, knowing you’re still dodging the $47 million albatrosses that can shackle a team’s payroll for years.

In fact, the Indians could be a perfect candidate to blow up the save and start anew. They’re a small-revenue club that’s already opted to pass on megapriced free-agent closers. They’re run by a progressive front office and a manager who’s eager to use statistical analysis to his advantage. Their bullpen already skews young and features multiple middle relievers and setup men with the skills to succeed (depending on the situation, Pestano, Rafael Perez, or Joe Smith could be a great fit, and even Tony Sipp and Dan Wheeler can be deployed against certain batters in certain ballparks for big spots).

Whether it’s the Indians or anyone else, the door’s wide open for any other ball club with some balls and some common sense to run with a new idea. The first team to make the switch and stick with it could gain a huge advantage on the competition.

Filed Under: MLB

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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