Where Can the White Sox Bullpen Improve? Not Saves but Shutdowns

Jonah Keri at Grantland (RIP) pleaded to the baseball world to get rid of the “save” statistic four years ago, yet it still remains as prominent as any other statistic in baseball. Keri had a replacement in mind as well – one that makes much more sense. Fangraphs has developed two statistics that truly measure a relief pitcher’s contribution to the game – the shutdown and the meltdown. Both statistics use win probability, which the traditional save does not particularly get close to including in its calculation.

A save has a few subtleties in its definition but a minimum limitation is a successful inning pitched, closing the game, with a lead of three runs. Baseball-reference defines that situation as between 95% and 97.5% likely to conclude in a victory. There is not very likely a chance of many nervous sweats in that type of scenario.

The old saying of a hopeful baseball fan in need of a comeback is, “a bloop and a blast” – which means a two-run lead is able to be erased by a base runner and a home run. Fans grasp on to this belief, but probability-wise, are only looking at about a 6.5% to 11% chance of that occurring. Barely a hint of a chance, but still more likely than coming back from a three-run deficit.

The people over at Fangraphs may have used a two-run lead as their benchmark to define the shutdown and the meltdown. For a pitcher to earn either, they have to increase their team’s winning percentage by six percent, or decrease the likelihood of winning by six percent. This becomes a much stricter metric than a save but also helps display a means of showing when a pitcher is detrimental to the team by something other than a blown save, or even worse, the often-undeserved “L.”

Any website that shows MLB statistics will show that Mark Melancon of the Pittsburgh Pirates had the most saves in either league last season, but that does not tell the whole story of how dominant he was. Not only did Melancon come in second in total appearances by any pitcher (Kevin Siegrist led the league), but he also led the league in shutdowns. He furthered his dominance by the fact that he had only four meltdowns. His 12.25 to 1 shutdown-to-meltdown ratio ranks as the fifth-best ratio in the last ten years. Here is a list of the top 15 ratios in the last ten seasons, the only 15 to have at least a 9 to 1 ratio.

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Melancon’s season would be impressive enough on its own, but he wasn’t the only dominant arm in the Pittsburgh bullpen. Tony Watson was second in the entire league in shutdowns with 44. Watson, not a household name due to not accumulating the fantasy-friendly “save” stat, was nearly every bit as dominant as Melancon. The Kansas City Royals get the fame for their outstanding three-headed bullpen, but the Pirates trio of Melancon/Watson/Jared Hughes went 49/44/27 in shutdowns. The Royals trio of Davis/Kelvin Herrera/Holland went 40/27/25.

The Chicago White Sox bullpen was much improved in 2015 from a disastrous season in 2014, but the numbers show that they still have a lot of room to improve to match the Pirates or Royals. Their total of 102 shutdowns was 22nd in baseball. David Robertson led the team with 30 shutdowns, followed by Zach Duke (24) and Jake Petricka (16). On the other side, the White Sox were 15th in the league in meltdowns. Robertson had ten – much higher than the team would want out of their closer. Brad Boxberger of the Tampa Bay Rays was the only closer with more than 25 saves to have more meltdowns than Robertson. Robertson was not even top on the team – Duke had 14 meltdowns, good enough (or rather, bad enough) to tie for the third-highest total in the league.

The White Sox have many arms with the potential to make the Opening Day bullpen and there is clearly room to improve on last year’s totals. The Pirates, with 98 wins, and the Royals, the defending champions, have shown that a bullpen capable of shutdowns (not saves!) – and avoiding meltdowns – is a good recipe for success.

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