Posted by Andy on January 13, 2011
On our Trevor Hoffman Hall of Fame post, a couple of readers remarked on his career W-L record of 61-75 as being a detriment to his HOF credentials. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but let's explore the issue a little bit.
I've already written about how overrated W-L records are. Read that here first.
Closers have a hard time earning wins. Given that they usually enter a game when their team already has the lead, the typical way they can earn a win is:
1. Blow the save but remain in the game
2. Have their team take the lead while they still remain the pitcher of record
3. While they (or someone else) is pitching, have that lead stand up
Sure, this happens. It's called vulturing a win. But it's not all that likely. The other way that closers get wins is when they come in to a tie game, hold the score, and have their own team score to win the game.
Let's take a look at Hoffman's splits by situation for example.
|in No Dec.||0||0||3.37||298||0|
|in Sv Situ||12||31||.279||2.71||696||601|
The two key splits to look at the Save Situations and non-Save Situations (the last two lines of the table). Let's talk about non-save situations first. These are games that were either tied, Hoffman's team was behind, or they were so far ahead that it didn't qualify as a save situation. I'd bet my bottom dollar that most of these appearances (which comprise about a third of his total appearances) came in tie games. As one might expect, Hoffman's decisions in these games are about .500 W-L% at 49-44. This is basically the same as a starting pitcher at the beginning of a game (when the score is tied at 0). Most starting pitchers finish with records fairly close to .500.
Now look at Save Situations. These are the cases where it's tough to get a win unless it's vultured. Unsurprisingly, Hoffman has a lot more losses than wins, because in the games where he pitches well, he gets a Save and not a Win.
Add these two situations together, and that's why closers usually have losing records.]
Mariano Rivera is a fairly big exception. His splits, in terms of how he was used, is fairly similar to Hoffman, but he's won a lot more than he's lost when pitching in non-save situations. In a similar number of non-save situational games as Hoffman, Rivera has 4 more wins and 14 fewer losses (and a similar fraction of no-decisions.) The biggest reason for this is probably the Yankees' strong offense, enabling Rivera to do better (in W-L terms) in tie games.
In save situations, Rivera has 4 more losses than wins, as compared to 19 more losses for Hoffman. The biggest difference here is probably that Rivera simply blows fewer saves.
Here's a handy list of closers....guys with at least 300 career saves:
Rivera is, as usual, an outlier. A lot of Eckersley's wins came as a starter (although even as a reliever he had a .539 W-L%).
Overall, though, you can see that most of these guys tend to be a little under .500. Yeah, Hoffman has a worse W-L% than most, but it's not wildly atypical. The sum of all W and L in the table above is 1538-1583 (.493), and that's before considering what these guys did as starters. Aguilera, for example, was 40-29 as a starter.
I just don't feel like wins and losses for closers are all that meaningful...what do you think?