Thursday, September 13, 2007

Joe Bo Knows Baseball

Apparently, Joe Borowski is a horrible closer, or so I’ve been told. I wasn’t aware of this, but it must be true; sportswriters and disgruntled fans have been saying it all year. I’ve heard people complain about and generally abuse Cleveland’s closer all season, but does he really deserve it? Sure he’s blown some saves and has an ERA bigger than Kansas City’s entire payroll, but just how bad is he compared to the competition?

The following table compares closers from the four playoff contenders in the American League (CLE, ANA, NY, BOS). All statistics were taken from Baseball Reference and the Hardball Times and are current as of 9/12/07.

Note: ERA+ is a comparison of a pitcher’s traditional ERA against the league average (ERA / lgERA), adjusted for ballpark factors. An ERA+ over 100 is better than average, while an ERA+ less than 100 is below average. For example, Sabathia’s traditional ERA of 3.15 translates into a 141 ERA+.

LOB% is the percentage of baserunners allowed that didn't score a run. LOB% is one way to measure how good a pitcher is at getting out of jams or, how lucky he is. It does not take team defense into account.

2007 Season Stats for Select AL Closers

J. Borowski 56.7 5.40 82 1.46 65.2 3.4 40 6 87
F. Rodriguez 59.3 3.03 143 1.26 76.6 2.68 34 6 85
M. Rivera 62.7 3.02 144 1.06 76.5 8.12 25 3 89.3
J. Papelbon 52.3 1.55 295 .764 91.1 5.26 35 2 94.6

If you look at Borowski’s overall stats, they don't stand up too well. Rodriguez, Rivera, and Papelbon have him seriously beat in ERA and WHIP. Borowski also allows more of his baserunners to score by at least an 11% margin. Borowski’s K/BB rate is actually pretty good, so comparing it to a 27 year-old flamethrower (5.26) and one of the greatest closers ever (8.12) is somewhat misleading. If you ignore Joe’s pure pitching peripherals for the moment (more on those later) and focus on his save-oriented stats, it’s a different story. Borowski actually leads all AL closers with 40 saves and his 87% save conversion rate is better than or comparable to the majority of closers (the exceptions would be freaks like Papelbon and Putz, who sport rates of 94%+).

According to the save stats, Borowski is a top 5 closer this season. How can a guy who does his job so well still face such harsh criticism and doubt over the course of a season? Well, part of the problem is perception. 87% of the time, Borowski gets the job done, but when Borowski does blow a save, it’s often so spectacular and catastrophic that it becomes ingrained in his ERA and the fans’ minds for quite a while.

By now, Tribe fans are familiar with the peculiar situations manager Eric Wedge has called on his closer. For whatever reason, Borowski just can’t find success in non-save situations. He can even come in with more than 3 runs and still blow the lead; it’s utterly amazing. You would think the manager would stop putting Borowski in such volatile situations after a while right? Nah, where’s the fun in that? I knew Joe’s stats were inflated in large part to his forays into non-save territory, but had yet to look at the actual splits. Below are Borowski’s splits for 2007 in non-save situations:

13 19 3 16 11.07 1.69

The above numbers were actually a lot worse than I thought they would be, but you can see right away how those 13 innings would really mess up Joe’s other stats. 13 innings is kind of a small sample size, but considering they make up 22.9% of his total IP, I’d say that’s a significant sample.

I realize Wedge has no choice but to go to Borowski in certain late inning situations (like extra innings or to stay sharp during long save droughts), but he seems to go out of his way to use Borowski in certain situations. I agree that a manager should put his best pitcher out there with the game on the line, but Cleveland’s bullpen is rare in that the closer is not the best pitcher available. He’s not even the second best. I feel like I may not be giving Wedge’s use of Borowski in non-save situations proper context, but the stats make it clear that Joe is not able to perform in these situations. His lack of success outside of save situations has to be a mental issue; I really can’t think of any other way to explain the outcome of those innings as a whole.

Let’s go deeper into the splits. What’s the worst Borowski implosion that comes to mind? A lot of Tribe fans would probably point to the April 19 game at New York, where Borowski gave up 5 H, 1 BB, and 6 ER in .2 innings with a 6 run lead. Remove that one April game from Borowski’s non-save splits and you see a dramatic improvement in all categories:

12.1 14 2 10 7.43 1.32

That’s still a pretty bad stat line, but that one blow-up in New York is just another example of how a 40 save closer can end up with a 5.40 season ERA. Speaking of saves, how has Borowski done in save situations this season? I'll probably be accused of cherry-picking here, but Joe's performance in save opportunities are by far the most important, in my opinion. The stats below are derived strictly from Borowski’s save opportunities this season:

43.2 49 12 18 3.75 1.41 40 6 87

A 3.75 ERA and 40 saves still don’t seem to match up, but it’s not anywhere near as unusual as his raw ERA of 5.40. The fact that his WHIP overall and in saves is separated by just .05 points is curious. A high WHIP like that would imply Joe is either really good at holding baserunners once they’re on or just really lucky. The LOB% of 65 from earlier would imply he isn’t much of either, but no one’s been able to figure out how Wickman earns his saves either, so go figure.

My main point is that Borowski might not be a great pitcher (trust me, he knows), but he is still very, very good at what he does. Joe’s got decent stuff, but it’s his intelligence and closer mentality that allow him to walk the tightrope with as much success as he’s had. He may work the ugliest saves since, well…our last closer, but Borowski does his job and probably doesn’t care what you or I think anyway. Forty saves and counting: how much more can you ask from a closer?

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