As much as we who follow baseball try not to be swayed by recency bias — ascribing the greatest significance to what just happened — and small sample sizes, resistance can be tough with relievers. When they fail, it’s a spectacular failing; it’s human nature to recall what happened in the ninth inning of a close game more than what occurred in the third. And, by nature of the job, their sample sizes are the smallest.
Shane Greene made the All-Star team this year. He did this on the strength of 33 innings. For a starting pitcher, that’s a month’s work. For a closer, it’s half a season. Tack on five more post-All-Star-Game innings with Detroit, and we see why the Atlanta Braves wanted him: 38 innings, five earned runs, 21 hits, 43 strikeouts, 12 walks, a WHIP of 0.87, an ERA of 1.18, three blown saves in 25 chances.
To much fanfare, Greene changed teams at the deadline. He has made two appearances for his new club. His numbers: Two innings, four earned runs, seven hits, one strikeout, one walk, a WHIP of 4.00, an ERA of 18.00, one blown save, one loss.
Greene's outings of Saturday and Sunday served as a one-two punch to the solar plexus of fan base that had already been pummeled — and had, for what seemed good reason, begun to believe the bullpen follies were at an end. Those were, we concede, two awful innings. In the space of four hitters Saturday, the Reds strung together three singles and the game-tying run. In the space of five batters Sunday, the Reds amassed three singles and the game-winning home run. (A double-play grounder was interspersed.)
Tucker Barnhart’s homer came off an 85-mph cutter than looked like a cement-mixer slider and was hit like one — a terrible pitch, in sum. The double shot of the new savior failing to save anything was almost enough to make Braves fans think wistful thoughts of Luke Jackson. (Who did, to be fair, strike out the side in the 10th inning Saturday after Greene’s blown save.)
At such times, I’d love to use analytics as a balm: This is but a blip; Greene’s track record proves he’ll be fine; et cetera. Alas, the analytics on closers can be dodgy. (We say again: small sample sizes.) His history of closing essentially dates to last season, when he had 32 saves in 38 chances with an ERA of 5.12. Maybe you look at the 32 saves and say, “That’s pretty good.” But then you check his WAR, which was minus-0.5, and think, “How is that possible?”
Analytics struggle to analyze closers because analytics don’t buy into what TV analysts are wont to say — namely, that a game’s final three outs are the hardest. Often they aren’t: You can earn a save by holding a three-run lead with three outs to go. Analytics are bigger on “how” than “what.” Analytics don’t count saves or blown saves. Analytics assign higher value to strikeouts than other sorts of outs. For demonstration purposes, here’s one of those Player A vs. Player B comparisons.
Per nine innings, Player A averages 9.9 strikeouts, 2.9 walks, 1.4 home runs and 6.3 hits. His FIP (fielding independent pitching, a go-to metric in which lower is better) is 4.02.
Per nine innings, Player B averages 12.4 strikeouts, 3.4 walks, 1.2 home runs and 9.2 hits. His FIP is 3.43.
Player A, as you might have guessed, is Shane Greene, 2019 All-Star. Player B is Luke Jackson, who's tied for the big-league lead in blown saves and who lost his closer's job to Player A. Indeed, Dan Szymborski, among the leading lights of the sabermetric set, remains high on Jackson, writing in FanGraphs: "It's true that Jackson has only saved 17 of 24 games for the Braves, but save percentage is actually a rather poor predictor of future save percentage."
In this space, an otherwise effusive appraisal of the Braves' acquisition of three relievers in 19-1/2 hours carried one caveat: Neither Greene nor Chris Martin nor Mark Melancon was a heat-bringer on the order of Aroldis Chapman. Martin throws the hardest of the three, but many guys throw harder. Nor has any of the imports had the sustained success of Craig Kimbrel or Wade Davis. (Then again, Kimbrel has an ERA of 5.68 with two blown saves in five weeks as a Cub, and Davis was just replaced as Colorado's closer.) Melancon was an All-Star closer three times over four seasons with Pittsburgh, but he hurt his forearm and hasn't been quite the same since.
For those still wondering why latter-day front-office types balk at investing big money in a closer, there’s why. General managers want to pay for what a player will do, as opposed to what he has already done, and relievers are the hardest to project.
Exhibit A: Melancon, who has four saves over the past two years, is due to make $14 million next season; that’s almost what Kimbrel will make. Exhibit B: The Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014 — with a different closer each time. Exhibit C: Jim Johnson saved 101 games for Baltimore over two seasons, whereupon the Moneyball A’s traded for him; they released him after four months. (He’d work for four more clubs over the next four years, the Braves among them.)
In a sport where almost anything can be measured in cold numbers, relievers remain the hot button. If we recall one pitch of Dennis Eckersley’s Hall of Fame career, it’s not from any of his 390 saves; it’s the one Kirk Gibson hit over the wall. There’s angst today in Braves Country — when is there not? — because Greene showed up and stacked his worst two innings of 2019 back-to-back.
The belief here is that better days are ahead. (Two innings! Small sample size!) But the human side of this jaded correspondent must confess that the fat pitch to Barnhart didn’t trigger circumspection. It prompted instead a “here-they-go-again.”