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Why save your best reliever?

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Valverde, left, passes

Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Valverde, left, passes manager Jim Leyland as he leaves the game in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the ALCS. (Oct. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

Jim Leyland is no different from any of his peers. He believes in the value of the modern-day closer. He believes that to consistently withstand the pressure of getting the final three outs of a game, "it takes a special cat.'' He believes that closers are not interchangeable.

"If I was ever in the right place to have a lot of people on my side, this is the place,'' Leyland said this week. "Because they had a guy named Mariano Rivera that I don't think they wanted to interchange too damn often.''

He made those points in defense of Jose Valverde, his own struggling closer. But in the process, he made a point that lends credence to an opposing idea. Said Leyland: "Sometimes the biggest out is in the seventh inning or eighth inning, not always in the ninth inning.''

Given that assessment, isn't it possible that managers are wasting their best relievers by using them exclusively for save situations? Wouldn't it make more sense for the best arm in the bullpen to put out the fires, regardless of when they begin to burn?

That is the problem with the save statistic, which overvalues pitchers such as Valverde while undervaluing the contributions of other relievers.

The save assumes that the final three outs of the game are always the most critical. And over the years, managers have reserved their best relievers for the save situation.

But in 2012, teams leading going into the ninth inning went on to blow only 5 percent of their games. When they lead entering the seventh, that number jumps to 12 percent. It's proof of what Leyland himself acknowledged: Sometimes the biggest outs of a game come much earlier than the ninth.

Yet it remains standard procedure for managers to use a supposedly lesser arm to work out of a jam with runners on in the seventh, all so the closer can be saved for the ninth.

In Leyland's case, the problem is made worse because despite his closer title, Valverde has been one of his team's least effective relievers.

Of the five relievers who made at least 50 appearances for the Tigers this season, Valverde's 3.78 ERA ranks fourth, as do his 1.2 walks and hits per innings pitched. In that group, Valverde's 1.78 strikeouts-to-walk ratio ranks him dead last.

Given that performance, his 35 saves prove only that he has developed a knack for starting ninth-inning fires before finding a way to stomp them out.

In the playoffs, he has been burned. He has blown saves in each of his last two appearances, including ALCS Game 1 against the Yankees, when he allowed two-run homers to Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibañez.

In Game 2, Leyland used lefty Phil Coke to slam the door. In Game 3 tonight, he again might skip Valverde in favor of matchups, in effect making his closer interchangeable.

For the Tigers, taking Valverde out of the equation ultimately might be a good thing, though their manager won't see it that way.

Said Leyland: "That guy No. 42, they didn't interchange him very often.''


Much Mo value years ago

Mariano Rivera's best season ever might be the one when he finished with only five saves.

In 1996, the all-time saves leader arguably was the Yankees' best reliever with a team-best 2.09 ERA and a 3.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With John Wetteland locked in as the closer, a role in which he racked up a league-leading 43 saves, the Yankees benefited by having their most dominant reliever available to put out fires before the ninth inning.

Two-thirds of Rivera's outings were longer than one inning and he stranded all but six of the 22 runners he inherited. Rivera gave the Yankees 1072/3 innings of lights-out relief, only because his use wasn't limited by the constraints created by chasing after saves.


When specialization works

The whole goal of choosing a specific person to do a specific job is the expectation that results will improve. Consider NFL kickers, who exemplify the value of specialization.

In the early days of the game, placekickers usually were other position players who happened to have strong legs, such as the great Cleveland Browns lineman Lou "The Toe" Groza. With specialization, teams now carry a player on the roster specifically for kicking duty, allowing them to refine their techniques. The improvement in the kicking game has been dramatic.

The same can't be said about baseball's specialization of relief pitchers.

Big-league teams now fare no better or worse at protecting late-game leads than they did 50 years ago before the advent of the modern bullpen. When a lead is taken into the ninth inning, winning percentages have remained the same -- roughly 95 percent. In that same span in the NFL, field goals have gone from mere 50-50 propositions to virtually automatic.

The following chart -- somewhat broadly -- compares the success rates of field goals in the NFL with the winning percentages of major-league teams when leading at the start of the seventh, eighth and ninth innings:

Year   7th    8th    9th    NFL FG%

1962   84.4  89.7  94.7  50.8

1972   86.3  89.9  95.8  61.1

1982   84.4  89.3  95.5  68.2

1992   86.7  90.7  95.0  72.6

2002   86.8  91.3  95.3  77.5

2012   88.1  91.9  95.0  88.6

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