When it comes to the ninth inning, the statistical and the psychological simply don't mesh. While we have a mountain of mathematical data to suggest that so-called proven closers are, indeed, overrated, the psychological impact of instability in that inning cannot be overstated.
Teams generally protect their ninth-inning leads at a 95-percent clip, though the number can of course vary considerably depending on the size of that lead. According to Baseball Prospectus' Win Expectancy Matrix, the decade from 2000-10 saw teams leading by one run going into the ninth win 84.8 percent of the time -- a number that had fluctuated only slightly over the previous four decades. Two-run leads (93.1) and three-run leads (97.6) were also protected at rates almost indistinguishable from the 1960s (93.0 and 97.4, respectively), long before the proven closer even existed.
These are numbers that fly in the face of the millions of dollars doled out every year to proven closers. Yet teams still routinely make those investments, because they know how debilitating blown ninth-inning leads can be. They'll do anything in their power to create even the most miniscule mathematical advantage late in games.
I bring this up because three contending teams suffered three absolutely brutal defeats over the holiday weekend, and each is now facing pressing questions about the status or certainty of their proven closer.
It happened to the Rays on Saturday night, when Fernando Rodney blew a 3-1 lead against the Yankees to pave the way to the Rays' third loss this season in a game in which they led entering the ninth. And it happened to the Orioles and Indians on Sunday afternoon, when the O's Jim Johnson and the Tribe's Chris Perez each failed to protect a 5-2 advantage.
The losses were frustrating enough on their own, but they were each part of an unsightly trend, oft repeated. Look how quickly the likes of Joel Hanrahan, Jason Motte, John Axford and Sergio Santos shed their proven closer status for the stain of injury or ineffectiveness. Even Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman have thus far offered only shadows of their 2012 dominance.
(And yes, Mariano Rivera is the exception to this and any other discussion about closers.)
Rodney's stunning near-perfection of a season ago, when he allowed just nine earned runs and blew just two of his 50 save opportunities, has given way to a 5.75 ERA, 19 walks in 20 1/3 innings and five blown saves already in 2013. The ninth-inning drama -- even more than the struggles of and injury to David Price -- has been the single biggest impediment to the Rays sitting higher than fourth place in the deep American League East.
The O's sit just above them, and they, too, have seen a ripe ninth-inning situation go rotten, much like Rodney's magic plantain from the World Baseball Classic. The constancy of the bullpen was the primary reason the Orioles were such a revelation last year. Its dependability provided a layer of confidence and comfort to all the O's did on the offensive and starting front, and Johnson was the anchor, with 51 saves in 54 chances.
This season, Johnson's pitch-to-contact tendencies have gotten the best of him, and the O's, who have already lost five games they've led going into the ninth, after suffering just one such defeat in all of '13. Johnson has blown four of his last five save chances, and he's inducing far fewer ground balls than he did a year ago.
Both Rodney and Johnson were revelations last year, and proven closers that come essentially out of nowhere (see: Grilli, Jason) sometimes revert back to nowhere just as quickly.
For Perez, the "proven" label had a little more credibility, given that he had amassed the fifth-highest save conversion rate in MLB from 2010-12. But with proof comes wear and tear, and Perez left that Sunday outing with shoulder soreness that landed him on the DL the next day, testing the depth of a once-reliable Cleveland bullpen in which the "backup" closer, Vinnie Pestano, is dealing with elbow trouble and a loss of velocity
So in these three cases, we see how quickly ninth-inning confidence can erode, and there is no mathematical data that can account for the effects if the hitters start pressing or the rest of the relievers can't adjust to new roles. The most prickly problem for the Rays and Indians, in particular, is that they are each getting fewer than six innings per outing from their starters, so the performance and solidity of roles in the 'pen takes on added import.
The importance of a proven closer is relative only to the quality of the options backing him up. We saw how far the Giants went without their Proven Closer (Brian Wilson) last year, but San Francisco got the third-most innings of any National League team out of its starting staff, and the tandem of Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt gave Bruce Bochy multiple weapons with which to skew the handedness matchups in his favor.
Like Bochy a year ago, Joe Maddon, Buck Showalter and Terry Francona all have difficult decisions in the days and weeks ahead about how to handle the ninth. The numbers say that, by and large, what they've endured in recent days is more exception than rule, but that's little comfort when you're actually going through it. And while proven closers might be overrated, reliable ones are essential.