Sunday, March 1, 2009

An Open Letter to Everyone Who Still Thinks Francisco Rodriguez Was MLB's Premier Closer in 2008

Dear Everyone Who Still Thinks Francisco Rodriguez Was MLB's Premier Closer in 2008,

I really hate to tell you this. I know you're enamored with that saves record. "62," you find yourself mumbling for no apparent reason, your suddenly awestruck eyes trained on the horizon. "62!" Yes, Francisco Rodriguez set the single-season record for saves last year. And yes, he pitched well while doing so. But he wasn't the best closer in baseball last year. He wasn't even the best closer in the American League, and he may not have been in the top five in the junior circuit, for that matter!

I know you're upset right now. I know you think I'm crazy. But bear with me here: let's break K-Rod's year down together, starting with that "62" in the saves column. The fact of the matter is that the saves record was largely due to good fortune (from a closer's perspective). The Angels didn't score an awful lot of runs last year (765 RS, good for 10th among 14 AL teams), but had solid pitching (697 RA, 5th in the AL), which resulted in a lot of close games, which in turn resulted in a lot of save opportunities for Rodriguez: 69, to be exact (itself a big league a record). K-Rod converted 62 of those save opportunities and blew 7 saves for an 89.8% conversion rate. Not bad, but not automatic.

"But wait," you may say, "nobody except Brad Lidge was automatic in 2008!" Fair enough. So what about the rest of the stats? And what about these so-called "superior" closers (at least in 2008) I've made veiled reference to already?

I'm so glad you [may or may not have] asked! As I hope this list will indicate, K-Rod did have a good year, but if you ignore the number "62" for a moment, he's nowhere close to the guys at the top of the 2008 heap (particularly Mo, who had an obscenely good 2008 to almost no fanfare).

76 G, 69 GF, 62/69 S/Opp, 68.3 IP, 2.24 ERA, 198 ERA+, 77 K, 34 BB, 1.288 WHIP

Mariano Rivera:
64 G, 60 GF, 39/40 S/Opp, 70.7 IP, 1.40 ERA, 317 ERA+ (!), 77K, 6 BB (!!), 0.665 WHIP (!!!)

Joakim Soria:
63 G, 57 GF, 42/45 S/Opp, 67.3 IP, 1.60 ERA, 266 ERA+, 66 K, 19 BB, 0.861 WHIP

Joe Nathan:
68 G, 57 GF, 39/45 S/Opp, 67.7 IP, 1.33 ERA, 305 ERA+, 74 K, 18 BB, 0.901 WHIP

Brad Lidge:
72 G, 61 GF, 41/41 S/Opp, 69.3 IP, 1.95 ERA, 225 ERA+, 92 K, 35 BB, 1.226 WHIP

Jonathan Papelbon:
67 G, 62 GF, 41/46 S/Opp, 69.3 IP, 2.34 ERA, 198 ERA+, 77K, 8 BB (!), 0.952 WHIP

So we have six closers, all of whom pitched a very similar number of innings across a similar number of games, of which they finished a similar number and with roughly the same success rate in save situations (ignoring Lidge and Rivera, who combined to blow one save all year). But K-Rod finished with 23 more save opportunities than any other man on this list. TWENTY-THREE! I should hope he'd save more games than the others!

What's more impressive than K-Rod's individual "62," I should think, is that the Angels even gave him 62 chances, let alone 69! 69: that's roughly 43% of all Angels games in 2008. Not 43% of all Angels wins; 43% of all the games that the Los Angeheim Angels of Anangeles stepped onto the field for during the regular season. 43% of those games ended with K-Rod stepping onto the rubber in a situation that has been arbitrarily determined to be worthy of an "S" in the box score.

Now, as we shift away from the saves column, K-Rod looks a lot less impressive. Even Lidge, "Mr. Automatic" in 2008, pales a bit in comparison to Rivera, Soria, Nathan, and Papelbon. Rodriguez's K/BB ratio is worse (often much worse) than everyone else on the list, as is his WHIP. His ERA+ is at the bottom of the heap, as well. And unlike Lidge, he didn't make up for high walk totals with absolutely ridiculous K-rates (though he did strike out a lot of hitters--let's be fair, here), or for his high WHIP with ridiculously "clutch" save rates (he saved games at just under a 90% rate, which is good but not Lidgean or Riveran--and Rivera combined his 97.5% success rate with an absurd 0.665 WHIP!).

K-Rod was good in 2008. But he wasn't anywhere near as dominant as Rivera, Soria, Nathan, Papelbon, or Lidge. And I only chose the easy cases; a case could be made that Bobby Jenks (57 G, 52 GF, 30/34 S/Opp, 61.7 IP, 2.63 ERA, 174 ERA+, 38 K, 17 BB, 1.103 WHIP) was at or above Rodriguez-level last year as well, for example.

Listen: I know you like the saves record. And I'll admit that it's pretty cool. It's a Major League record, after all, and who among us didn't dream of breaking records on our way to first-ballot HOF induction while slapping pine cones with sticks in our backyards? Hell, I'd be buying rounds if I broke the single-inning record for balks. But dominance in a closer is about more than the saves column. Joakim Soria in '08? Dominant. Mariano Rivera basically every year ever? Dominant. But I'm afraid that, good though he is, Francisco Rodriguez is not now, was not in 2008, and probably will not ever be at Mariano Rivera's level.

I hope we can still be friends.


P.S. - My sister thinks you're cute.


  1. I should mention that although Bobby Jenks > Francisco Rodriguez is ARGUABLE, I'm not trying to suggest that it would be an easy argument. But the fact that there are legitimate arguments to be made that K-Rod wasn't even the fifth best closer in the American League last year seems significant enough to warrant mention in a letter such as this.

  2. I don't know if it's still true (although it probably is with seasons like this one) but Rivera at one point had the best ERA+ of all time. He is the definition of dominant.

    That being said, a good question is will he be better than Billy Wagner. Considering Wagner is out of 2009 with injury the answer is probably.

  3. Rivera is still the all-time leader in ERA+. And not by a little bit, either:

    It's worth noting that Pedro, despite dropping off the planet the past three years (though, admittedly, he was pretty solid in his second season with the Mets), is #2 on that list. Pedro's 2000 season still boggles my mind, particularly since every banjo-hitting second baseman seemed to be hitting 20+ home runs in double-aught.

    But getting back to your response: I assume that by "he" you are referring to K-rod. Yes, he's an upgrade to a broken Billy Wagner for the Mets, no question. But if Putz bounces back to 2007 or even 2006 form, K-Rod might not be the best closer on his own TEAM (though I'm not claiming he's Joe Borowski or anything--K-Rod's damned good but overrated).