Closers: The Trouble with Non-Save Situations

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…. “Baseball is a funny game”. Baseball is great for so many reasons, but one of my favorite aspects of the game is its inherent quirks. Speaking of quirks, nothing is quite as quirky as closing pitchers. It takes a special breed to trot out in the 9th inning with the game on the line to try and nail down the victory. Perhaps because of this, closers are often the subject of much discussion in regard to both their mental make-up as well as their sometimes bizarre stat lines.
One of the most interesting phenomena in regard to closing pitchers is the dreaded “non-save situation”. Who hasn’t cringed whenever the closer from their favorite team enters the game when it is not a save situation? Why do we cringe? Because more often than not, the closing pitcher gets battered around.
Why this happens is anyone’s guess but it may be chalked up to the fact that the same mental make-up that makes a closer so well-suited for a save situation, is their very undoing in a non-save situation. Think of it like this… a closer is a closer because they get all psyched up to come in and close the game for the win. When you take them out of that situation, you take them out of their element and we all know what a fish out of water is like. It struggles to survive.
So, why would Managers use closers in non-save situations? The reasons can vary but often can be chalked up to the fact that the pitcher may need some extra work or the Manager’s desire to keep the pitcher fresh during stretches between save opportunities.
Let’s take a look around the Majors at some examples of closing pitchers and how they have fared in different situations so far in 2011:
Ryan Madson (PHI)
On May 24th, the Phillies closer came into a game having not surrendered a single earned run in a save situation all season. With Madson coming off 7 straight save situations (all successful), Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel brought him into a tie game in the 9th inning. The closer promptly gave up 3 runs on 3 hits in 1 inning pitched.
J.J. Putz (ARI)
Putz, acquired in the off-season to fill the closers role for the Diamondbacks, has fared very well in the role converting all 14 of his save chances so far in 2011. Although he sports a nifty 0.64 ERA in save situations, he has seen that stat jump to 3.86 when not in a position to get a save.
Drew Storen (WAS)
After getting the chance to close games over the final third of 2010, Storen has locked down the role this season pitching very well along the way, sporting a fantastic 0.75 ERA when closing out games. When brought into games in non-save situations however, his ERA increases almost a run and a half.
Brian Wilson (SF)
Wilson, considered by many to be the premier closer in the game entering this season has delivered exactly as advertised iby saving games with a 1.98 ERA and a stellar 11.2 K/9. However, when used in non-save situations his ERA skyrockets to 5.79 and his K/9 plummets all the way to a bewildering 5.8.
John Axford (MIL)
Not one to buck the trend, when appearing in ballgames where the game isn’t on the line, Axford’s ERA increases by a full run and his K/9 drops by 5.
Jose Valverde (DET)
Indeed the “Papa Grande” of the non-save situation, Valverde’s stats are mind-boggling. When saving games, he sports an impressive stat line: .98 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 13.1 K/9 and a K/BB ratio of 4.00. Those are some extraordinary numbers. When games are not close however, Jim Leyland should really consider leaving Jose in the bullpen. When Valverde pitches in non-save situations, his stat line gets ugly: 6.30 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, 4.5 K/9 and with a K/BB rate of .83, he walks more than he strikes out.
In deference to “Papa Grande’s” profound stats, I would like to suggest renaming the non-save situation and calling it a “Dirty Valverde”. How about it? Let’s start a trend.

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