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Looking at the Top Closers Using WPA

By Mike Silva ~ January 25th, 2011. Filed under: Mike Silva, Sabermetrics, Statistical Analysis.

Over the weekend I mused about whether there needs to be a better way to evaluate the effectiveness of closers. Marty Noble suggested a point system, while Tom Tango of “Inside the Book” pointed me to a piece of his that used Leverage Index to weigh performance. Yesterday, NYBD reader Birtelcom recommended Baseball Reference’s WPA or Win Probability Added.

Win Probability Added (WPA) is system in which each player is given credit toward helping his team win, based on play-by-play data and the impact each specific play has on the team’s probability of winning. You can read more about it in depth at The Hardball Times. So, historically, who are the top 20 closers of all time using WPA?

Rk Player WPA
1 Mariano Rivera 50.814
2 Trevor Hoffman 34.352
3 Rich Gossage 32.623
4 Hoyt Wilhelm 30.124
5 Billy Wagner 29.321
6 Joe Nathan 25.204
7 Troy Percival 23.681
8 Tug McGraw 21.621
9 Francisco Rodriguez 21.439
10 Tom Henke 21.410
11 Lee Smith 21.409
12 Dan Quisenberry 20.844
13 Keith Foulke 20.564
14 Stu Miller 19.817
15 Randy Myers 19.536
16 John Franco 19.273
17 Todd Jones 19.161
18 John Wetteland 18.926
19 Bruce Sutter 18.342
20 Jonathan Papelbon 18.142
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/24/2011.

No surprise that Mariano Rivera is number one by a wide margin. Trevor Hoffman is a distant second, but still very solid. As a matter of fact, Hoffman is far ahead of Hall of Fame closers such as Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, and Bruce Sutter. Lee Smith, who garnered decent support in this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, is number eleven, but behind closers that don’t appear to be in the Hall of Fame class like Tom Henke, Troy Percival, and K-Rod. The surprise in the top five is probably Billy Wagner.

Although Wagner had a very good career (422 saves, 0,998 WHIP), he is remembered for giving up big homers and lousy postseason performances (career ERA of 10.03). That doesn’t take away that Wagner is one of the most productive closers statistically, and that his supported by WPA.

Former Mets and Phillies closer Tug McGraw fares very well too, coming in at number eight.

What about the 2010 season? Who were the most productive firemen in baseball?

Rk Player WPA
1 Joakim Soria 5.061
2 Heath Bell 4.953
3 Rafael Soriano 4.918
4 Brian Wilson 4.548
5 Daniel Bard 4.180
6 Carlos Marmol 4.010
7 Hong-Chih Kuo 3.957
8 Neftali Feliz 3.902
9 Matt Thornton 3.293
10 Brandon Lyon 3.195
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/24/2011.

What a surprise! Mariano Rivera came up number 18 in the 2010 WPA. That could be due to a strong Yankees offense that gave Rivera enough cushion when entering the ballgame. The same cannot be said for San Francisco’s Brian Wilson, KC’s Joakim Soria, and San Diego’s Heath Bell.

Perhaps WPA is a tool that could be used in evaluating the effectiveness of closers, and help the BBWAA writers make decisions on their Hall of Fame worthiness. In the end, you want the closer to be most effectiveness when the stakes are the highest. This metric seems to move analysis in that direction.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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5 Responses to Looking at the Top Closers Using WPA

  1. birtelcom

    Mike: Thanks for following up on my comment. One thing I think Mariano’s relatively lower WPA in 2010 is picking up on is that he had 5 “blown saves” in 38 regular season save situations in 2010, for an 86.8% successful save conversion rate. That was Mo’s lowest conversion rate for a season since 1997. In 2008 and 2009 combined, Rivera had totaled only 3 blown saves. A few extra blown saves have a big effect on a closer’s seasonal WPA, as they probably should given it’s a closer’s main job to avoid them like the plague.

  2. birtelcom

    Billy Wagner’s appearance among the greatestrelief pitchers of all time should be no surprise. 177 pitchers have appeared in at least 500 games in relief. Among those pitchers, the two lowest career ERAs (regular season) are Rivera at 2.23 and Wagner at 2.31, well below anyone else. The two lowest career “OPS Against” numbers (that’s the average OPS by hitters hitting against a particular pitcher) are Mo’s .552 and Billy’s .558 — well below anyone else. With Wagner’s retirement, we’re losing one of the handful of the greatest relief pitchers the game has ever seen.

  3. Jay

    Birtelcom thank you for introducing me to this stat and Mike thanks for facilitating that introduction. Very interesting stuff.

    Nice to see Wagner getting his due the guy was very good overall, I think for some Mets fans Wagner unfortunately falls into the “every fan hates his own team’s closer (except if you’re a Yankee fan)” category.

    Speaking of that I need to go look up Armando Benitez’ WPA.

  4. Jay

    To follow up on that here’s Benitez’ WPA NL ranks as a Met

    1999: 8th overall, 4th reliever
    2000: 5th, 2nd
    2001: 4th, 1st
    2002: 4th, 3rd
    2003: (not in top 10, traded to AL in August)

  5. birtelcom

    Billy Wagner certainly did have his troubles in the post-season — a negative 0.9 WPA in the post-season is another indication of that. In terms of saves, he blew one of his four post-season save opportunities although his Astros won that 1998 NLDS game when they scored in the bottom of the ninth off of — Trevor Hoffman.

    Mariano’s post-season WPA is an astounding 11.6. That’s comparable to the WPA numbers for the entire careers of prestigious relievers such as Ron Perranoski, Willie Hernandez, Rod Beck, Dick Hall, Todd Worrell,etc. Mo has blown 5 of 40 post-season save opportunities (three of thiose blown saves coming during the 2004 post-season)

    Armando Benitez, who was a superb relief pitcher most of the time, had a post-season WPA of minus 1.1. He managed to blow 6 of 10 total post-season save opportunities.

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