A Valuable Learning Opportunity

During today’s ESPN chat with Tony Jackson and Angels writer Mark Saxon, a question about Jonathan Broxton inevitably came up:

Rachel (Hattiesburg)
Hi guys. Can we expect J Broxton to return to the stellar closer he was a couple years ago? Or does he lose his job early? Thanks

tony jackson
Hey Rachel. Judging by the way he pitched late last season, I’m not sure he has a closer’s makeup, but we’ll see. Don Mattingly insists he does have that makeup, and he bases that on the fact that Broxton was never that bad until late last year. But if you look at his career saves percentage, it isn’t that great. They’re going to give him the job for about a month to prove he can still handle it. But if he struggles out of the gate, I think you’ll see a change.

I agree with Jackson’s overall premise – that Broxton has about a month to prove himself – and I generally like Jackson’s work. But the use of “career saves percentage” completely kills me. On the list of “stats that mean absolutely nothing,” it comes in ahead of RBI and only slightly behind wins in my book, and since that message just got disseminated to a wide ESPN audience today, it’s a great chance to illustrate just how meaningless it is.

Saves and blown saves, of course, are generally useless on their face; they’re a manufactured stat that only tells you who happened to be pitching during a predetermined and precise set of circumstances, namely in the 9th inning with a lead of up to three runs. That means the stat alone is heavily dependent on many, many factors outside a pitcher’s direct control – and that works both ways, because Broxton’s well-remembered June meltdown against the Yankees didn’t even count as a blown save, because he came in with a four-run lead, despite that game being basically the definition of blowing it.

Yet they’re constantly misinterpreted as having some sort of significant insight into a pitcher’s performance. Remember when Francisco Rodriguez set a record with 62 saves in 2008? What people conveniently forget is that due to a quality yet low-scoring Angels club, he also set the record with the most save opportunities of all time. That year came in 120th of all-time on the WXRL scoreboard, a much better indicator of Rodriguez’ place in history. Need I remind you of Shawn Chacon‘s 2004, in which he somehow put up 35 saves despite going 1-10 with a 7.11 ERA?

If citing saves are bad, citing blown saves are worse. It’s one thing to say that Broxton blew 7 of his 29 save chances last year. That alone is somewhat misleading, because it neglects the fact Casey Blake let a potential double play through his legs in the Phillies game, or again that the Yankee game didn’t even count. At least he was the closer. At least he was coming into games in the 9th inning with the chance to win or lose them.

But to cite his career blown save percentage? That’s just unfair. Remember, from his debut in 2005 through mid-2008, Broxton wasn’t the closer. He was the setup man, mainly to Takashi Saito. Setup men work in the 7th and 8th inning, not the 9th, and that means that it’s by definition impossible to collect saves, only to blow them. Blown saves are even particularly more meaningless in those innings, since that doesn’t even necessarily indicate that the game was lost. So sure, by the end of 2008, Broxton had 19 career saves and 19 blown saves. Is anyone really thinking that all his quality work in those years made him a 50% closer? Of course not; if so, you’re penalizing him for things he never could have done.

Again, I like Jackson, and I certainly understand the trepidation towards Broxton. Let’s just please not damn him publicly with numbers that have no actual meaning.

******

Hey, great news for anyone who thought Kenley Jansen wasn’t going to make the team. Molly Knight tweets:

Mattingly says Jansen will work 7th inning typically, 8th when Kuo is unavailable and could close if Broxton has gone three days in a row.

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  2. [...] balanced viewpoint to readers. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect – it was only a few months ago when I got on Jackson for employing “blown saves” when discussing Jonathan Broxton, for [...]