Chief of the Closers

With the New Year upon us, I guess it’s time to get back into some meaningful analysis. The lastest news is that Chad Cordero recently signed a 1 year $6m+ deal with the Nationals, avoiding arbitration. His salary is pretty high, although not astronomical for a closer. It got me wondering, how does Cordero actually compare to other closers?Chief I decided to compare him to others in the league, and I cut the number off at 19 saves. The number was arbitrary, but as you get below 20 saves, you really get a glut of part-time closers and guys that spent much of the season injured. Street and Gagne had 16, so I certainly didn’t want to go that low. At 19 saves, you had Lidge, Corpas and Hennessey, all part-timers, but I was curious about how Lidge and Corpas performed, so I used that as the cutoff.

In terms of the stats I used, well I started with saves. Saves are actually a pretty terrible assessment of value. The requirements are somewhat ridiculous. Most major league pitchers could get a save if they come in with the bases empty up by 3 in the 9th, and Wes Littleton famously “earned” a save in that Rangers 30-3 blowout of the O’s. However, it is a very good indicator of how managers use players, and WHO is the closer. Hence I used it to rank guys. I included ERA because I’m sure people want to see it, but it is also a bad indicator of a reliever’s performance. If a reliever comes in with the bases loaded, gives up 2 hits and 3 RBI then gets out of the inning, his ERA would be 0.00. Meanwhile, the inning load is so light that even giving up one run can look real bad. Since the salary was what made me start this little discussion, I included that information as best as I could. For those listed with a range, it means they are in arbitration and those are the team’s and players request for salary. Several have 2007 salary listed, but if it’s under a $1 million, it means they are too young for arbitration, so the 2008 salary would also be under $1 million. I honestly don’t know the story with Saito on the Dodgers, and Bob Wickman is a free agent.

Closers with Salary

Cordero is in the top 10 in salary, and Nathan, Lidge, Valverde and Fuentes should have similar salaries next season. Alright, enough of the non-predictor stats, on to the real thing. First, I wanted to look at WHIP. It is a simple stat, Walks + Hits/IP, but it has it’s issues as well. The big one, algebraically, is that the numerators units don’t match the denominator. This isn’t a picky issue, it would make more sense to be Walks+Hits/PA. This would help normalize the stat, make it more consistent across the board, but such is life.

Closers WHIP

So Cordero is pretty low on this chart. It indicates that he lets alot of runners get on base, which may indicate my level of heartburn whenever he pitches. Another big one we like to look at is K/BB ratio. The folks at Baseball Forecaster call this “Command Ratio” and there is a high correlation between command and ERA. Obviously the higher the better, and I go into more detail in the stats section of this site, but anything above a 3 is pretty good for most pitchers.

K BB Closers

Of course, closers are held to a higher standard, as the best reliever is usually put in that role. Cordero is a little low on this list, although he is really more of a mid-level command guy, we’re just comparing him to studs on this list. The next good indicator is strikeouts per 9 IP, or K/9. This is called “dominance” by the Baseball Forecaster guys, and works in conjunction with K/BB to provide better predictive ability of performance. According to them, K/9 “helps to highlight the limited upside potential of soft-tossers with pinpoint control. The extra [K/9] makes a huge difference”

K9 Closers

Cordero is towards the bottom half of this list, but a K/9 above 7 is actually still very good. While his numbers don’t compare favorably with other closers, it is good enough to not complain and anything above about a 6 or 6.5 is considered pretty good. Had enough of ratios? Well too bad, cause I got one more. It’s the infamous groundball-to-flyball ratio. This is a very key indicator because groundball pitchers don’t give up many home runs. This may be useful to look at for the Nats, who are obviously moving to a smaller stadium.

GF Closers

This isn’t so nice to see, but it’s not as bad as it looks. In fact, Baseball Forecaster call anyone with a ratio above .84 a “groundball pitcher” (possibly because liners certainly don’t scare you into thinking HR so it shouldn’t be held against them?). So anyway, Cordero isn’t a flyball pitcher, he’s actually neutral according to them, and practically a groundball pitcher. All 3 of these ratios work in conjunction to help assess a pitcher, and they have such a clear and relatively concise writeup so I will quote BF

Pitchers with higher strikeout rates had better ERA’s and WHIP’s than pitchers with lower strikeout rates, regardless of ground ball profile. However, for pitchers with similar strikeout rates, those with higher ground ball rates had better ERA’s and WHIP’s… Pitchers with higher strikeout rates tended to strand more baserunners… Fly ball pitchers tended to strand fewer runners that their GB or neutral counterparts within their strikeout profile

What they’re saying makes sense, it follows what we would instinctively believe. But it’s always nice to see stat guys putting actual evidence behind what we think we know. With all of these ratios, Cordero is not bad. He is clearly an above average pitcher for the most part, the problems come in when you start comparing him to other closers. He holds his own compared to them, but barely, and doesn’t have the impressive peripherals that they do.

One final stat I wanted to look at was WXRL. It is somewhat like VORP in that it’s cumulative, and it is expected wins over a replacement pitcher. Don’t get confused here, this isn’t the pitchers definition of a “Win” it is the wins the team got by using this guy over a replacement level player. Whether it undervalues the role of a 1-inning closer can be debated, but since we are comparing apples to apples here, it is good for that exercise.

WXRL Closers

Cordero is relatively high on this list, and it is in part because it is cumulative. He pitched alot of innings, more than anyone on this list other than Corpas, Weathers, and Gregg. Corpas, who was stellar this year, is the highest of those guys, while Weathers and Gregg has similar seasons to Cordero and rank just below him.

Next time, we’ll look at the rest of the Nationals bullpen, and see how these guys stack up compared to Cordero. My gut feeling says they compare favorably, but Cordero will still be just barely better than them.

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