One of the many question marks for the New York Yankees going into the 2015 season is who should take over for David Robertson as the closer. The two main candidates are, as many people know, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Neither player has closed games in the past but will be counted on to do so this season. While I do not fully believe in the concept of a closer as it is used in today’s game there is no denying that teams do like to have the one guy who pitches the ninth when winning by three or more runs.
In order to decide who should take over as the closer it is important to determine the qualities wanted in a closer. In my opinion, a closer needs to be well above average in several key statistics. For one, a closer should be excellent at limiting base runners. As Moneyball and Billy Beane made famous, you can’t score if you don’t get on base. So in that sense the best way of evaluating a closer’s ability to limit base runners would obviously be WHIP. However, if someone does happen to get on base they need to be able to strand him there. There are a couple different ways of looking at this, either by looking at straight LOB%, or a combination of K% and GB%, as a strikeout doesn’t allow any runners to advance and ground balls get double plays. Lastly, if they do happen to allow hits it is best if these hits don’t go for extra bases, especially not allowing home runs. HR/9 and ISO allowed should be useful in looking at this. With these stats in mind lets at a look at the two players and determine who best fits the description.
There is a lot to like when looking at the big right-hander. Betances broke onto the scene in 2014, having one of the best seasons by a reliever and finding himself a member of the All-Star team. His electric fastball coupled with one of the best breaking balls in the game lead to his high strikeout numbers (39.6 K%). He was also excellent at limiting base runners, walking only seven percent of hitters and finishing the year with a WHIP of 0.78. Betances was impressive at keeping his opponents in the ballpark with a minuscule .4 HR/9. When guys did happen to get hits against him they often did not go for extra bases, as evidenced by his ISO allowed of .075.
Miller was just as impressive in 2014 as Betances, if not even more. The lanky left-hander struck out 42 percent of hitters he faced while also only walking seven percent. Miller features a similar arsenal to Betances — except from the left side — with a two-pitch mix of just a power fastball (93.8 average MPH) and a wipeout slider. Like Betances, Miller excelled at keeping runners off base (0.80 WHIP) and keeping hitters within the confines of the ballpark (0.43 HR/9). Once again extremely similar to Betances, Miller’s ISO against was .074.
Who Should Win?
As the stats show these two were extremely similar in 2014, with only the slightest of margins separating them in each of the statistics I outlined as signifiers of a good closer. So based off their 2014 seasons it is tough to predict exactly who will win. In Betances’s case however, that is really the only significant sample size to look at, as before last season he had pitched only 7.2 innings at the Major League level. In the minors he struggled with walks, posting a few seasons where he walked over ten percent of hitters faced. Miller has a much more extensive MLB track record, and over the past three seasons he has struck out over 30 percent of the hitters he has faced. However, 2014 was the first season of his career in which he posted a walk rate in the single digits. It will be interesting to see if that carries over into 2015 or if it regresses back to his career average. Additionally, Miller is left-handed and has predictably been more effective against lefties in his career (.316 versus .349 wOBA). Betances has been dominant against both lefties and righties in his career. Left-handers have a wOBA of .209 versus the .242 right-handers posted against him. Since the closer typically pitches the ninth and will have to face a variety of left- and right-handed batters, Betances’s dominance of hitters from both sides of the plate gives him an edge.
While both pitchers had similar 2014 seasons, Andrew Miller’s one season of all around dominance does not match with his rest of his career. Between that and the fact that Betances has been nothing but dominant in MLB, I think Betances will likely open the year in the role.