MLB Betting: How To Handicap Closers
by Trevor Whenham - 06/19/2008
There are few things as exciting as when a top closer enters a game. If it's a home game then the theme music blasts from the sound system, the crowd whips into a frenzy, and you know that there is going to be some raw power on display. It's one of the things that makes baseball the great sport it is.
Dealing with closers as a bettor is more difficult. A team with a good closer is one that wins, and one that builds leads and holds them, so from that perspective they are attractive. You can't know when a closer is going to come into a game, though, so they are of limited use from a handicapping perspective. If the starting pitcher can't play well enough to get a lead then it doesn't matter how the closer would do against the opponent, or how dominantly he is pitching of late. It would seem, then, that closers have a bigger impact on the betting public than they probably should.
Before we accept that theory, though, let's take a look at closers this year and how teams with top closers have performed.
The first thing to notice is that teams with good closers aren't always the ones you would expect. Some are - Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels is leading the league in saves, and that makes sense given that his team is running away with their division. It's similarly understandable that Jonathan Papelbon of Boston is third, and Philadelphia's Brad Lidge has rebounded from disaster last year to be in fifth. It's the players that those three sandwich that are more surprising. Second in the majors is George Sherrill of Baltimore. The Orioles are a real surprise to be above .500, and Sherrill is either benefiting from the surge or helping to lead the way depending upon your perspective. If that's a surprise then the fourth place closer in saves is a total shock - Brian Wilson of San Francisco. Only four teams have fewer wins than the Giants, yet Wilson has been on the mound for almost two-thirds of the wins (19 of 31).
Of more interest to bettors than the specific closers is what they mean to their teams. Of the five teams mentioned above, only the Giants are not profitable on the season. That trend continues - eight of the top 10 closers and nine of the top 13 (there is a four way tie for 10th) play for teams that are profitable. That's only noteworthy because just 14 teams are profitable overall, so only five of the remaining closers play for teams that are winners at the betting window. We can say, then, that a team that has a god closer who is in a groove is more likely to be a winner than one that doesn't.
That's interesting, and it's even a bit exciting for a while, but is it helpful for bettors? Only barely, I guess. For the teams that are playing well, the fact that they have a strong closer is a key part of the equation, but it doesn't tell us anything in and of itself. That is to say that you can't make a betting decision based upon the fact that the closer will be strong when he takes the field because a whole lot has to happen before he gets there. It would be like betting on a hockey team because they are better in the shootout, or a soccer team because they are better at penalty kicks. Those are key factors, and they will be important if the game turns out a certain way, but it shouldn't be the basis of a good betting decision. For the weaker teams that have good closers, like the Giants, you can't really factor that into your betting decisions either because they lose about 60 percent of their games, so you first have to figure out if the game is going to be a rare win.
So, we can't necessarily use closers as a key part of our betting decisions, but what else can we learn from what is happening this year? Here are a few interesting facts that have shown up from among the men who toil in the final inning:
- ERA isn't nearly as important as an indicator of success for a closer as it is for a starter. Brian Wilson and his 4.40 ERA has more saves than Brad Lidge even though he is at 0.90. George Sherrill at 3.38 has more than Jonathan Papelbon at 1.95. Mariano Rivera has, yet again, the best ERA among closers at 0.84, but he has 10 fewer saves than Rodriguez.
- Closing is not a young person's game. F-Rod and Wilson are the youngsters in the top five, and they are already 26. Only Joakim Soria of Kansas City, 24, and Pittsburgh's Matt Capps, 25, are younger from among the top 13. On the other hand, look at the guys from the top half of the league that seem like they have been around forever - Lidge, Rivera, Kerry Wood, Troy Percival, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner.
- Trevor Hoffman is putting together a decent season (15 saves and only three blown saves) despite playing for a truly awful team. He turns 41 in October. I mention that only because it seems as if he has been over 40 for about 25 years.