A common outcry from fantasy owners arises when managers use their closer in non-save situations. This raises the ire of fantasy owners because, seemingly, each time the closer shows up in a non-save situation, said closer gets bombed and thus ruins ratios. Jose Valverde is one of most well-known cases of such disasters but he is not alone.
Baseball Info Solutions looked at the issue in 2005 and found that by ERA, closers were indeed doing worse in non-save situations by nearly three-quarters of a run. In 2008, Eric Seidman of the now defunct (but archived) StatsSpeak blog looked at closers from 1980 to 2007 and found 220 unique closers whose results varied ever so slightly in save situations versus non-save situations. Seidman followed up the study in a 2009 piece at BaseballProspectus in which he concluded:
A pitcher should pitch differently in non-save situations, especially those with a hefty lead, because his approach involves aspects of pitching with a higher probability of surrendering runs. In save situations or with a one-run lead, the pitcher is much more careful to not give up the tying run, but in trying to be too fine he may actually give up a few. These different approaches may occasionally produce worse rates in non-save situations, but a straight-up comparison of performance-based stats is inaccurate because the closers are implementing two different strategies.....This may lead to worse rates, but in order to really prove that a closer was worse in non-save situations, he would need to give it his all in those appearances, and from a human evaluative standpoint, this is very unlikely to occur. Do they pitch worse in non-save situations? It's not worth answering, because it's the wrong question. Do they pitch differently? Yes...and they should.
Since 2009, here is how closers that totaled at least 25 saves in that time have done in different situations:
|5 yr Saves||26847||0.221||0.291||0.342||0.284||25.8||8.2||64.7||0.280|
|5 yr >3 lead||7930||0.221||0.287||0.345||0.282||25.5||8.0||64.9||0.282|
|5 yr Tied||10005||0.231||0.318||0.348||0.290||23.0||10.5||62.4||0.284|
|5 yr Trailing||13904||0.230||0.306||0.355||0.288||23.4||9.1||63.4||0.288|
At a skill level, the group did not differ that much at all. Pitchers in saves situations struck out hitters at a higher rate and had a lower batting average, but in terms of weighted on-base average, there is negligible variance amongst the splits. Closers pitching in tie ball games are not as dominant as when they are in a save situation, mainly due to increased walks and a lower frequency of strikes thrown.
Now, here are those same splits for all closers with at least five saves in 2013:
|2013 >3 lead||611||0.217||0.272||0.353||0.269||26.2||6.5||66.9||0.275|
This year's crop is just plain weird. It is doing its best work when coming in during tied games, but is doing better in "tune-up" appearances than they are during actual saves thanks to some BABIP help.
There are just 12 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 pitches in tie-game situations this season:
Bobby Parnell - 236 pitches
Aroldis Chapman - 161 pitches
Steve Cishek - 158 pitches
Sergio Romo - 154 pitches
Joaquin Benoit - 136 pitches
Fernando Rodney - 133 pitches
Kenley Jansen - 127 pitches
Jim Johnson - 119 pitches
Ernesto Frieri - 117 pitches
Grant Balfour - 114 pitches
Koji Uehara - 108 pitches
Craig Kimbrel - 105 pitches
That list is littered with guys that have either inherited or lost the closing role at one point this season, but the ones that are used more often in tied games are the ones that have a better chance of picking up those precious vulture wins.
Just seven pitchers have worked at least 100 pitches in the dreaded "getting work in" situations this season:
Jose Veras - 170 pitches
Heath Bell - 135 pitches
Vinnie Pestano - 122 pitches
Jim Henderson - 122 pitches
Steve Cishek - 118 pitches
Kevin Gregg - 104 pitches
Kenley Jansen - 103 pitches
Most teams have an A and a B bullpen. The A team is the one that works in tie-game situations or inherits a lead. Their mission - to allow the starters to get their win. The B team is the group tasked with finishing out the game in low leverage situations in the off-chance the offense rallies and flips the script within the game.
Only five closers have thrown at least 100 pitches while up four or more runs: Benoit, Uehara, Rafael Soriano, Glen Perkins, and Greg Holland. It really is not a surprise that Davey Johnson, Ron Gardenhire, and Ned Yost have tended to be old school folks and have allowed their closers to get their work in during big lead situations. The downside to this for fantasy owners is there is a near zero chance of earning a win in this situation so the only fantasy gains are strikeouts and either minimal ratios gain in good appearances or the ratio-killing outings which are perceived to occur more frequently than they actually do.
In short, perception does not match reality with closers. Nobody is immune to a bad outing, but closers working in non-save situations is not as scary as most people believe it to be.