Most closers only stay in role for a single season

Daily Life & Activities / Sports

Few Baseball Closers Return for Seconds

Posted By: David Gassko
For Yankee fans, it is “ Enter Sandman;” for Red Sox fans, “ I’m Shipping Up to Boston;” for Twins fans, “Stand Up and Shout.” Those songs, respectively, are the entrance music for the closers of each of those teams, and when they come blaring through the stadium loud speakers they serve as a notice that, in all likelihood, the game is about to be over.
Mariano Rivera
Image via Wikipedia

The closers for these teams—Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and Joe Nathan—are as dependable as they come. Not only are they better than the average closer in any given year—in 2008, they had 131 save opportunities and converted 119, or 1 in 1.1, compared with odds of 1 in 1.17 for all closers. But what it truly impressive about this cohort is that they are successful year after year, a very rare trait for a bullpen ace.


Data from Sean Lahman’s Baseball Archive [Internet]. The Baseball Archive. [accessed October 14, 2009]. Available from:

In 2006, Papelbon’s first year closing, Rivera saved 34 games, Papelbon saved 35, and Nathan saved 36. That was good enough to place them all among the top ( baker’s) dozen closers in the MLB—good but not great. But of the top thirteen closers in 2006, in 2008 only four were within five saves of their 2006 total—three of the four being Rivera, Papelbon, and Nathan. In fact, all three actually improved on their 2006 numbers, which is quite a feat.

Jonathan Papelbon
Image via Wikipedia

Most closers only stay in that role for a single season—at least for a single team. If we look at every closer since 1969—the season saves became an official statistic—and define a closer as the pitcher who led his team in saves that year, we find that 1 in 4.06 was not his team’s closer the next season. That number is actually significantly understated since a handful of pitchers—like Rivera, Papelbon, and Nathan—close year after year after year, while most are one-and-done.

If we look at it a different way, we find that most—1 in 1.78, to be exact—closer stints with a team last just one year. 1 in 5.64 last two years, 1 in 9.19 last three, and after that, it’s a real crapshoot. The graph to the right demonstrates just how few players closed for many years in a row. Only 11 players have ever lasted a decade or more in the closer’s role.

The record, 14 years, belongs to Lee Smith, who also held the record for career saves until 2006. Smith closed for the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles, and Angels from 1982 – 1995, amassing 470 saves in that time span, or a little under 34 per year.

Mariano Rivera currently lags one year behind, having led the Yankees in saves since 1997. He seems likely to break the record, given his superhuman dominance over that time.

Still in the long term, “in closers we trust” is probably not a very good philosophy to live by. After all, in the first playoff series of 2009 Papelbon – who had never allowed a run in 26 post-season innings – blew a two run lead against the Los Angeles Angels, providing an unexpectedly early end to the Red Sox Season.

From the Book Of Odds Beta


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