Let’s play a game. Below are four very similar stat lines of major league closers through June first.
Player A: 21 Games, 15 saves, 6 earned runs, 23 strikeouts
Player B: 18 Games, 12 saves, 9 earned runs, 32 strikeouts
Player C: 22 Games, 19 saves, 4 earned runs, 17 strikeouts
Player D: 22 Games, 15 saves, 4 earned runs, 37 strikeouts
The first thing we can see when looking at the stat lines is that Players B and D both have a large strikeout lead, while Player C has the lead in saves. Player B has allowed the most runs, but not a drastic amount more. All four appear to have put up solid numbers and nearly any team would sign up for that level of production from their closer. Picking out one above the others would be difficult. While at first glance, you might gravitate toward Player C who has the most saves, a more seasoned fan will realize that Player C also has the lowest amount of strikeouts and since the number of save opportunities afforded to a pitcher is relative to the team on which he plays. You want to go for the pitchers with the higher strikeout totals since they will be more likely to dominate hitters. Thus Players D and B are the better picks.
Since we have established that Player D is probably the best player in the list, it should not be a surprise that Player D is Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel is widely acknowledged as the best closer int he game today and this little test does nothing to disprove that notion. However, many may be surprised to learn that Player B is actually David Robertson, the questionably maligned closer for the Yankees. If you discount the five spot Robertson was tagged with on Sunday against the Twins, the stat race between him and Kimbrel narrows quite a bit as each would have given up the same number of earned runs and there is a difference of only 5 strikeouts between the two. Robertson also missed two weeks of the season on the DL.
Players A and C are both the great Mariano Rivera. Player A is young Mariano in 1997, his first season as a closer after being a setup man for John Wetteland in 1996. Player C is old Mariano last season, his last in the majors. Mariano’s career is amazing not just for his records but for his consistency. Over the course of his career, dozens of closers have had individual seasons far exceeding Mariano’s best season but no one has ever been as consistent, over such a long time, as the Sandman.
In the wake of two blown saves in 10 days, there has been a big push by fans and pundits to replace Robertson at closer with the young phenom, Dellin Betances. Betances is having an amazing season on par with Mariano’s masterpiece 1996 season but we need to remember that 10 weeks ago, Betances was headed for Triple-A. Robertson is the safer and correct pick to remain at closer. As discussed above, Robertson has numbers on par with any closer in the game. Even the best closers blow saves every once in a while. It may seem sacrilegious to say, but even Mariano Rivera blew the occasional save. In fact, it happened 80 times in his career, including 9 times in that 1997 season and 7 times last season.