30 January 2011
Regardless of his recent struggles, we've been spoiled with an elite closer for five years now and it's strange to imagine seeing some random reliever trotting in from right field in the 9th. But after this season, it's anyone's guess who will be closing games here in Boston, so I wanted to see how important a quality closer really is, in relation to making the World Series.
Below is a chart featuring the four teams that made it to the ALCS and NLCS since 2005. The chart also shows us the closer for those teams, their save percentage and MLB rank, the team's overall bullpen ERA and MLB rank, the team's total saves and blown saves... and finally, the team's total ERA and rank (this includes starters).
The stat that many pointed to when discussing Papelbon's struggles in 2010 was his save percentage. Paps blew a career high 8 saves last year and his 82.2 SV % ranked 24th among 30 qualifying closers... not good. But consider this: The average SV% of the closers listed below is 86.7%... which tells me your team can still be successful, even if your closer isn't performing as well as you would like.
Take Jason Isringhause in 2006. The Cardinals won the World Series with a 76.7 SV%, good for 25th in the league.
But, to be fair, that's "cherry picking." In reality, four of the last six World Series winners had a closer than ranked in the top six in save percentage, so while you can make the playoffs with an average closer, teams with an elite closer tend to win when it matters most.
And while your closer plays a large role in the performance of you bullpen, it usually takes at least one or two other relievers to close out a game, so having quality setup men is important also. In fact, the average bullpen ERA below was 3.57 and the average MLB rank was 7, so you could argue that your having a quality bullpen is more vital to your success than just haviong a good closer.
Looking at this from one more angle, I wanted to see how the starting pitchers factor in. They typcially pitch 6 of the 9 innings in after all...
Last year, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series with the top ranked pitching staff and the 2nd best bullpen and a top flight closer. That would explain how they wer able to beat the Phillies and Rangers - teams that featured solid pitchers, but much better offenses.
Overall, the teams listed below posted an average team ERA of 3.90, which works out to an average MLB rank of 6.8. That tells me that having quality starters, along with a quality bullpen, will get you far in the postseason... but that's kind of obvious, right?
So what's more important: Your starters or your bullpen?
Based on what we've discussed so far, I'd say your starters are the most important piece, but the chart below proves that a quality bullpen is more important than a quality closer. Just look at the 2007 Indians, who made the ALCS despite Joe Borowski (8 BS, 5.07 ERA) thanks to guys like Rafael Bentancourt (1.47 ERA, 31 HLD, 68 G) and Rafael Perez (1.78 ERA, 44 G).
If you believe that, as I do, then you should feel pretty good about Theo Epstein's decisions this winter.
He locked up a solid starting five last winter and with Papelbon on the verge of free agency, he made a serious push to strengthen the bullpen, by signing Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler (among others) to help Daniel Bard in the 7th and 8th.
Bottom Line: Jenks and Bard could play huge roles in 2010, especially if Papelbon continues to struggle or is traded at the All-Star break, but going forward I think the Sox need to think about finding another elite closer. Maybe Bard is that guy. Maybe they make a run at a guy like Matt Capps (27) or Johnathan Broxton (27) next winter.
They don't grow on trees, but recent history suggests that an elite closer is worth his weight in gold in October... regardless of how good the rest of your team is.