Eric Gagne and the Role of the Closer
Lets look at the following group of players…can you pick out Eric Gagne’s CY Young Season of 2003?
G IP H BB K W L ER ERA
74 77.1 69 15 75 9 3 16 1.86
78 79 51 33 83 12 4 26 2.96
77 82.1 37 20 137 2 3 11 1.20
72 86.2 57 20 88 9 1 20 2.08
76 105 78 26 99 6 3 23 1.97
We would hazard the guess that if one were to ignore the K column, or the ERA column, one would have a difficult time pointing out Gagne’s season (and look at the Earned Run column…a 5 or 9 run difference…are those seasons really that different?). Those on the list are, in order: LaTroy Hawkins, Nathan, GAGNE, Keith Foulke, and Gagne’s teammate Guillermo Mota. Granted, Gagne was fantastic in his role of closer in 2003, but was Gagne’s season really that valuable in the context of the others? The question basically becomes one of what is the value of a closer? To answer that question we must look at it in two ways, (PART ONE) for the fantasy player; and (PART TWO) for the professional team.
In fantasy baseball the steal and the save are king. No one can argue with that logic because of the “scarcity” of the stat. So, lets look at the save totals for the five players listed above: Hawkins 0, Nathan 0, Gagne 55, Foulke 43, Mota 1 (look at that again…Gagne has a total of 55 but the Big Four would have totaled 44…a difference of only 11).
Is too much spent too early in most drafts on closers? The answer is of course YES. For what it would have cost you to purchase Gagne last year, lets be kind and say $35…for that same $35 you could most assuredly purchased Nathan, Hawkins, Mota AND Foulke (since he was coming off a down year with the White Sox). So would your pitching staff have benefited more from Gagne’s 2 wins and 55 saves -or- from the 36 Wins AND 44 Saves that foursome of RP’s would have provided. Think about that…36 Wins…that’s like having Mark Prior and Greg Maddux on your staff and still ending up 2 wins short!
What about the “other” stats you say?
K’s- Gagne: 137 Big Four: 345
Whip- Gagne: 0.69 Big Four: 1.00
ERA- Gagne: 1.20 Big Four: 2.20
The question then becomes one of innings. Yes, Gagne would have only taken up 82 innings, or less than 7% of the standard total in most leagues (assuming that total to be 1250 Innings). On the other hand our Big Four would have totaled 348 innings or roughly 28% of your teams innings…is the trade worth it? In my opinion the answer is an unqualified YES.
Earlier we mentioned Prior and Maddux…what were their combined stats from last year?
34-17, 369 K, 3.20 ERA, 1.14 Whip in 429.2 innings.
Gagne: 2-3, 137, 1.20, 0.69 in 82.1 innings.
Big Four: 36- 11, 345, 2.20, 1.00 in 348 innings
(And remember, there is pretty much no way you would have been able to buy Prior AND Maddux for our baseline total of $35 in most leagues last year)
So the Big Four outperform Prior and Maddux and you would have SAVED 81 innings!
On the other hand the Big Four vs. Gagne would yield you the following totals:
Sure your ERA/Whip would be higher (negligibly because of the gross total of innings), and you would end up 11 saves short. But is that trade really worth it? 34 more wins and 208 more K’s from the Big Four more than makes up for a mere 11 saves doesn’t it? I mean, an ERA of 2.20 and a whip of 1.00 in 348 innings…that’s like having Pedro Martinez AND Curt Schilling last year! (In fact there total would have been an ERA of 2.57 and a whip of 1.04 which is actually worse than the Big Four!… plus they would have set you back around $65 in most leagues last year).
After all of the above lets consider one last point. The following pitchers could all have been had last year for under $5: F. Cordero, S. Hasegawa, L. Carter, M. MacDougal, R. Biddle, J. Borowski, D. Kolb and R. Beck. What do they all have in common? The all saved at least 15 games, and for mere peanuts of ones budget.
So was Gagne’s save total of 55 really worth $35? I think we have laid out a persuasive argument that it wasn’t. Is Gagne more of a “sure bet” than the Big Four, or any group of RP’s for that matter in the upcoming year? Of course he is. But why not take the chance by choosing a “lesser” closer (perhaps Joe Borowski, Matt Mantei or Aquilino Lopez) and a group of steady but underappreciated middle relievers (Francisco Rodriguez, Paul Quantrill, Felix Rodriguez, Matt Herges, Tom Gordon, Scott Williamson, Damaso Marte or Brendan Donnelly for example)? Now I’m not saying forsake the save column and go with a bunch of middle relievers, just be smart about it and keep your eye out for the “lesser name” closers out there… its not only the “big names” that produce. Think about it on draft day, an extra 30 Wins and 200 K’s would be like adding Cy Young himself to your team!
The closer of today is responsible, in a majority of cases, for three outs. Only rarely do we see a closer stretched beyond that magic three outs (an example of this is Mariano Rivera who routinely pitches 2 innings in the playoffs for the Yankess). But are the last three outs really that important?
Would you rather have Jason Schmidt or Eric Gagne if you were the owner of a major league team in 2003? Lets compare.
G IP H BB K W L ER ERA WHIP
Gagne 77 82.1 37 20 137 2 3 11 1.20 0.69
Schmidt 29 07.1 152 46 208 17 5 54 2.34 0.95
Your first reaction is probably to say you can’t compare the two; well let’s try anyway. We can easily see that Gagne’s K rate was much higher than Schmidt (15 to 9 per 9 innings) and we can also see that Gagne’s ERA is almost half of Schmidt’s. The real question is which pitcher is more valuable to their team? Lets look at this question another way.
Gagne pitched roughly 40% of the innings that Schmidt did in 2003. Would you rather have someone pitch an inning every other game, or a pitcher throw 7 innings every 5 days? Another way to look at it: If Gagne does his job, he gets 3 outs. When Schmidt is asked to do his, he get 21 outs. So who is more important to the success of the team? The guy who pitches 80% of the game or the guy who pitches 12%?
To state it another way, who depends on whom in this situation? If Schmidt pitches badly, if the defense fields poorly, if the offense fails to hit, Gagne’s job is irrelevant. It’s ONLY when the other factors of the team come together that Gagne fills an important role. Gagne can come in and get his three outs, but if Schmidt gives up 6 runs, and his offense is limited to 2 runs, Gagne appearance does nothing to enhance his teams chance of winning. Gagne merely gets his three outs and the score is 6 to 2 instead of something worse. Therefore, no pitching stat is as dependent on the rest of the team as the save category.
Why is it that Gagne was anointed with the Cy Young award last season by in effect being given credit for his teams ability to put in him a position to get three outs, when the exact opposite was true of Jason Schmidt? Schmidt wasn’t as highly valued in the Cy Young vote despite being the unquestioned ace of a team that won its division and 100 games. The general consensus as to why this was is that he “only” won 17 games (never mind the fact that Schmidt led the league in ERA, WHIP and batting avg. against). In essence, Schmidt was punished because of the failure of his teammates, whereas Gagne was rewarded for the success of his (or failure if you realize that one of the main reasons Gagne had so many opportunities to produce saves was because of the Dodgers pathetic offense which couldn’t generate any runs). Gagne was a dominant reliever no question, but if you remove the save category a teammate of Gagne’s had arguably as good a year.
G IP H ER BB K W L SV ERA WHIP
G. Mota 76 105 78 23 26 99 6 3 1 1.97 0.99
Now there isn’t a person on the planet who feels that Guillermo Mota deserved the Cy Young is there?
Even if we compare the reliever who began the current trend of closers, how much better was Gagne in 2003?
D. Eckersley 63 73.1 41 5 4 73 4 2 48 0.61 0.61
Eric Gagne 77 82.1 37 11 20 137 2 3 55 1.20 0.69
Eck was “only” 48 for 51 in saves that year, but weren’t his other stats as good or better than Gagne’s (except for K’s)? An ERA of half, and heck, even Gagne’s microscopic WHIP of 0.69 was beaten by Eck’s at 0.61!
And this brings us to the next issue, and that is the role of the relief pitcher. Below is a list of a few of the memorable relief seasons of the past 40 years:
G IP H BB K W L SV ERA WHIP
Goose Gossage 72 133 78 49 151 11 9 26 1.62 0.95
63 134.1 87 59 122 10 11 27 2.01 1.09
Dan Quisenberry 72 136.2 126 12 46 9 7 35 2.57 1.01
69 139 118 11 48 5 3 45 1.94 0.93
Bruce Sutter 62 107.1 69 23 129 7 3 31 1.34 0.86
John Hiller 65 125.1 89 39 124 10 5 38 1.44 1.02
Dick Radatz 66 132.1 94 51 162 15 6 25 1.97 1.09
Eric Gagne 77 82.1 37 20 137 2 3 55 1.20 0.61
A quick glance of the stats reveals that Gagne pitched in the most games of any reliever on this list. This leads to a rather astonishing second observation: despite pitching more games than anyone on this list, Gagne still pitched anywhere from 25 to 57 innings less than the above “greatest hits” relievers! In fact the average total of innings pitched for all the relievers on this list, excluding Gagne, yields an average of 129 innings in comparison to Gagne’s 82…a difference of over 45%! So if you had the choice between a pitcher who was just as effective over almost 50 more innings wouldn’t you take him?
Granted this isn’t fair to Gagne, the game is different today than it was in the past, and he shouldn’t be punished for that, but was he really that valuable last year because he didn’t blow a save? Did he actually deserve the Cy Young because he was perfect in save situations?
Let take this comparison to starting pitchers… which of the following 2003 seasons was more valuable?
G IP H ER BB K W L ERA WHIP
Halladay 36 266 253 96 32 204 22 7 3.25 1.07
Mulder 26 186.2 180 65 40 128 15 9 3.13 1.18
Based on innings pitched, Halladay to Mulder is roughly the same percentage as our “greatest hits” seasons to Gagne. The difference is much easier to see when we relate it to starting pitchers isn’t it?
So Gagne had a great season in 2003, and his “perfect” conversion rate of 100% in save situations might never broken. But as we have discussed, his saves were the result of his teammates putting him in a position to gain the one stat that makes his 2003 season “historic”…the save. And frankly, while the rest of his stats are truly great, they aren’t nearly as stupendous as his pundits would have you believe because ultimately his greatness depends entirely upon the position his teammates put him in.