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The Best Closer in the NL isn't Named Gagne
by Ray Flowers
July 7th, 2004 

OK, can you tell us who these stats belong to? 

Svs ERA WHIP BAA

25

0.84

0.81

.194

*BAA= batting average against 

If you said Eric Gagne, well…you’re mistaken. If you said Armando Benitez, try again. Danny Graves? Keep guessing. In fact, we would stipulate that these stats belong to the closer who has been the best in the National League during the 2004 season, and since we already know these stats don’t belong to Gange, we might be stating the unthinkable to some of you: 

The best closer in the National League in the first half of the 2004 season is… Danny Kolb. 

Blasphemous you say? No we haven’t lost our mind, and no this isn’t a joke. All we ask is that you keep an open mind and listen to the evidence and let it speak to you. Forget what everyone says, forget your own preconceived notions, let the statistical information inform your opinion. On the day after Gagne blew his first save after converting 84 straight chances, we will examine the question of who the best closer in the NL is thus far in 2004. 

THE EVIDENCE: PART I- TRADITIONAL 

Let’s look at the traditional information that we use to judge closers and compare the numbers of Danny Kolb, the aforementioned Eric Gagne, the league leader in saves in Danny Graves, and the Marlins Armando Benitez.  

  Svs ERA WHIP BAA

Kolb

25

0.84

0.81

.194

Gagne

21

2.00

0.83

.165

Graves

31

2.89

1.07

.251

Benitez

27

1.07

0.88

.154

In this initial comparison there is little to tell the four apart unless you go by the save total. However, as we will explain, the raw total of saves is often what gets people into trouble as they become fixated upon it to the exclusion of other more relevant information. In order to show just how hallow Graves save total is, let’s take a look at blown saves. Here are the blown saves for each pitcher in 2004, followed by their save percentage (a figure which is more informative of a closers effectiveness than his raw save total):  

  BS SV%

Kolb

1

96.2%

Gagne

1

95.4%

Graves

7

81.6%

Benitez

2

93.1%

 

Again not much to tell the pitchers apart other than the fact that Graves falls rather precipitously in this statistical measurement.  

How about we look at each player’s Rolaids relief points as of July 7th and see how they stack up. Rolaids points are figured by scoring 2 points for a win, 3 points for a save, 4 points for a "tough save" (which is entering the game with the tying run on base), and a minus 2 points for a loss or a blown save. The Rolaids standings:  

Kolb

73

Gagne

66

Graves

75

Benitez

83

 
We will admit to having a few issues for the way that Rolaids tabulates its points our most salient contention being how is it that you are awarded three points for a save and only a (–2) points for a blown save? Shouldn’t a failure at least weigh as much as a success? Some people, including the author, would even argue that a failure should count for more, but any way you look at it, there is no common sense reason that it should count for less. Another issue that we have is with the definition of the save itself: should a pitcher really receive a save if he enters the game with the tying run on deck? On May 6th Gagne earned a “save’ on 3 pitches after coming into the game with a 9 to 4 lead and the bases loaded. If he had given up a grand slam his team would have still been in the lead! Anyway, this is not the place for us to make this argument, that time will come in an upcoming piece.

Why don’t we move on to list some less well-known statistical information to buttress our contention that Kolb has been the best NL closer in the first half. 

PART II-NON-TRADITIONAL ANALYSIS 

Lets chart our four hurlers according to these non-traditional, but equally important categories.

  K/BB OBPA SLGA OPSA

Kolb

2.20

.235

.194

.429

Gagne

5.56

.234

.299

.533

Graves

5.20

.273

.458

.731

Benitez

2.33

.231

.273

.504

*K/BB= Strikeouts divided by walks.
**OBP Against, SLG Against, OPS Against 

Again, Gagne has done nothing to distance himself from the other three and we are beginning to see just why we are making the argument in favor of Kolb. Kolb allows an OPS that is 96 points less than Gagne, a rather staggering difference of almost 20%!  

What about the damage that the pitchers give up with those hits (measured by the total bases these closers give up on all the hits they have surrendered)? Through 32 innings, Kolb has not given up one extra base hit…not a single HR, not a lucky bouncing triple down the first base line, and not a broken bat double. Kolb has NOT ALLOWED ONE EXTRA BASE HIT THIS SEASON! In comparison Gagne has allowed 5 2B and 4 HR, Graves 10 2B and 9 HR, and Benitez 5 2B and 4 HR. Just think about that for a minute, Kolb has not allowed a single extra base hit, that’s utterly remarkable. Here’s the Total Base (TB) list: 

  TBA IP TBA/IP

Kolb

21

32.0

0.66

Gagne

38

35.0

1.09

Graves

82

46.2

1.76

Benitez

39

42.0

0.93

*TBA= Total Bases Allowed

Another category, another convincing “win” for Kolb. And speaking of Kolb’s greatness, look at poor Mr. Graves. Graves allows bases at a frequency that more than doubles Kolb mark, another startling reason that should be used to devalue what Graves has accomplished thus far. 

Building on Kolb’s sizable lead in bases allowed, we move on to discussing just how the balls put in play are actually hit off each hurler. Kolb keeps the ball in the park by keeping the ball down in the strikezone as evidenced by his 4.00 groundball to flyball ratio (meaning that Kolb allows 4 groundballs for every flyball). The others ratios of groundballs to flyballs: Gagne’s is 0.93, Graves 1.59 and Benitez 0.45. This is yet another reason which helps to illustrate why Kolb leads the other relievers in pitching effectiveness because its obvious that your less likely to give up a big inning if you keep the ball on the ground than if you let guys put the ball in the air. One side note: Kolb throws only 13.9 pitches per inning, just behind Graves’ 13.6 (with Gagne at 14.5 and Benitez 15.2) meaning that he is more economical than his Dodger nemesis as well.  

CONLCUSION 

So let’s present all the information that we have cited in this article in one final chart. We will award 1 point for leading the category down to 4 for a last place finish in each category. Therefore the closer who ends up with the lowest total will be the “winner.” 

SV SV% Rolaids ERA WHIP BAA OBPA SLGA OPSA TBA/IP K/BB G/F

  Svs Sv% Rolaids ERA WHIP BAA OBPA SLGA OPSA TBA/IP K/BB G/F

Kolb

3

1

3

1

1

3

3

1

1

1

4

1

Gagne

4

2

4

3

2

2

2

3

3

3

1

3

Graves

1

4

2

4

4

4

4

4

4

4

2

2

Benitez

2

3

1

2

3

1

1

2

2

2

3

4

TOTALS

Kolb- 23
Benitez- 26
Gagne- 32
Graves- 39 

After having surveyed 12 separate categories our winner is… Danny Kolb. Now this is not to say that Gagne is terrible, he clearly isn’t, and it’s not to say that Kolb is the best closer of all-time, he clearly isn’t. What it does state, and rather emphatically, is that the best closer in the NL during the first half of the 2004 season resides in the park that has the CF slide and Bernie Brewer. So the next time the game is on the line and your blood pressure goes up and you hear “Hells Bells” or some other closers anthem, remember that the man you want closing the game for your team doesn’t reside in L.A., he actually pitches for the Milwaukee Brewers. 

RAYS NOTES 

I didn’t want to write a story about the Gagne streak, so lucky for me that Tim Kurkjian of ESPN did

(http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/story?columnist=kurkjian_tim&id=1832526). Read what he wrote, he makes a pretty good argument for the idea that for all of Gagne’s greatness, historically speaking, it just doesn’t measure up to what other have accomplished.

Ray Flowers can be reached with comments/questions or suggestions at: ray@drafthelp.com

You can also visit Rays’ blog at www.wildpitch.blogspot.com for a full review of all of his recent articles an other interesting stuff or view his work at www.drafthelp.com.  


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