Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Marlins Closer Rehabilitation Program

Yesterday, the Florida Marlins traded former PCOW winner Yusiermo Petit to the Diamondbacks for closer Jorge Julio. This is significant as it allows us to bring to light a phenomenon that needs explanation. Since the Marlins' World Series title in 2003 (fuck you, Jeff Weaver), the fish have had three different closers- all of whom were years removed from their previous closing experience, all of whom bounced back to have extraordinary years (for them) finishing games in Miami. We at Immaculate Inning are referring to this phenomenon as the Marlins Closer Rehabilitation Program. First, the evidence:

Some explanation: ERA+ is Earned Run Average compared to the league average for that season, adjusted so that 100 is always average. A pitcher who has an ERA+ of 117 is therefore 17% better than the average pitcher that season. RSAR is Runs Saved Above Replacement, taken from baseballprospectus.com. It is a measure of the effectiveness of a pitcher over the whole season compared to the theoretical "replacement pitcher." I've also inclduded the RSAR figures for each closers' seasons prior to and following their Marlins stint. Now, on to each player.

Braden Looper took over as closer for Vladamir Nunez halfway through the 2002 season after being a middle releiever since 2000, and improved his numbers dramatically. He was replaced by Ugueth Urbina in September of 2003, but did go on to be very effective closing for the Mets in 2004. Urbina, meanwhile, was in the peak of his career after his best season closing for the Red Sox in 2002, and had similar success in Texas and Florida in 2003; he went on to have a solid season for Detroit in 2004 before his production decreased and personal problems forced him out of baseball.

It is in 2004 that the story gets interesting, when Armando Benitez signed with the Marlins as a free agent. Benitez was traded twice in 2003, first from the Mets team for whom he had closed games for five seasons, and then from the Yankees for no apparent reason other than for losing a game to the Red Sox in mid-July. For whatever reason, it was universally accepted that the 30-year old Benitez was washed up. The Marlins, however, took a chance and were rewarded; as his ERA+ number shows, Benitez wasn't just good, he had one of the best seasons a closer can possibly have (by comparison, Eric Gagne's legendary 2003 season was an ERA+ of 335). Benitez wouldn't hold on to whatever he gained as the Marlins' closer, however, and has battled injuries and ineffectiveness to just 60 innings pitched in the two seasons since.

The Marlins took even bigger fliers on their closers in the next two seasons. Todd Jones (who? TODD JONES!) was a primary closer for the Detroit Tigers in 2000, saving 42 games. In the next seven seasons, he had just 16 combined saves (and 11 of those came in 2001). The Marlins signed him as a free agent before the 2005 season after an unremarkable season as a middle reliever for both the Reds and the Phillies. Jones found his 20th century form and pitched remarkably, and then returned to his career norms when he went back to the Tigers in 2006.

Larry Beinfest replaced Jones with former Cubs closer Joe Borowski(ski). And when I say former, Borowski hadn't closed games since 2003; he was replaced in 2004 (with an ERA above 8.00) by former Marlin closer Antonio Alfonseca. From that point, he bounced to the Devil Rays (where he didn't close) before joining the Marlins. For the third straight year, a struggling relief pitcher turned in a solid performance closing for Florida. Now, Jorge Julio joins the Marlins, after splitting closing duties with Jose Valverde in 2006 with Arizona. Julio hasn't been a primary closer since Baltimore in 2004 (after this he was supplanted by BJ Ryan, who is now closing in Toronto). Julio fits the perfect profile set by Benitez, Jones, and Borowski.

Is there any explanation for sudden resurgency after joining the Marlins? The coaching staff may not be to blame (or credit), since the Marlins have had two different managers (McKeon and Girardi) and two different pitching coaches (Mark Wiley and Rick Kranitz). The place where the Marlins play 81 of their games may have something to do with it: since 2003, Dolphin Stadium/Joe Robbie Stadium/Pro Player Stadium/Ray Lucas Stadium has been in the bottom five baseball parks in terms of Park Factor. What this means is that fewer runs (and Home Runs, among other things) are scored in games played in Miami's spacious football stadium. Surely this has had an effect on all of Florida's pitchers. We can find evidence of this in the relative suckitude of pitchers leaving the Marlins since 2003: Beckett, Burnett, and Pavano have all struggled since leaving the spacious Florida ballpark.

However, it cannot explain all of the discrepancies and why three pitchers have had turnaround seasons closing for the Marlins. In fact, check out the home-away ERA splits for the last three Marlins closers:
Player Home/Away
Benitez 1.53 /1.05
Jones 2.21/1.95
Borowski 3.07/4.71

Only Borowski seems to have been helped by playing his home games in Florida. If we are to go with the instinct that one is random, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend- then there clearly is a trend with closers putting on the teal and black. Nothing in the statistics that is common to the three pitchers points to any reason for this anomaly.

We then have no choice but to suggest a Bogus Theorem. South Florida has warm, humid weather, it has beaches filled with beautiful women, and it has numerous bagel places. The last reason can also explain the success of Braden Looper when he left Florida- for New York, and may also explain most of Mariano Rivera's success. All of these combine to have an effect on a pitchers' confidence and stamina, which manifests itself in extraordinary seasons from otherwise ordinary closers. Jorge Julio, consider yourself lucky to be joining the Marlins Closer Rehabilitation Program.

No comments: