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Steve Cishek and the attrition rate of closers

The Miami Marlins may try to keep Steve Cishek to appeal to Giancarlo Stanton. But would they be making a bad move to bank on a reliever?

Rick Yeatts

The Miami Marlins are stuck in a point between being a buyer at this year's deadline and a seller. The team has some interest coming in for its players, particularly third baseman Casey McGehee and relievers Steve Cishek and Mike Dunn. But according to some sources, the Marlins are unwilling to make moves on those players in part because of the impending contract situation with Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton wants to see the team try and compete, and the thought is that trading a "now" piece like Cishek or McGehee would run counter to that principle.

We'll discuss McGehee and his own comparisons tomorrow, but let's start today with Steve Cishek. In the last three years, Cishek has been one of the better relievers in baseball. His numbers leave him ranked 11th in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement since 2011, at just under five wins produced. All but one player above him was or became an elite closer, with Matt Belisle being the only odd exception. So betting on Cishek would seem like a smart idea, right?

Well, not exactly. The Marlins are going to be betting on Cishek and his ever-increasing salary. He stands to make something around $24 million over the next three years as an elite closer type of player; he already made $3.8 million this year in his first arbitration season as a Super Two player. The Marlins have him under team control at their discretion each and every year, but every season that passes brings less trade value and risks the natural attrition of relief pitchers.

It is easy to look at Cishek's last three seasons and proclaim him an elite reliever. But what is difficult is to figure out whether he can remain an elite reliever for a long period of time. To make my point, I took a look at a three-year window of time between 2008 and 2010 and found all the qualified relievers who posted an ERA or FIP less than 2.90. One could have used ERA- or FIP- for this, but I kept things simple enough. This is close to a representation of "elite" performance, as it shows a reliever putting up numbers over a long stretch (at least 100 innings) which any team would be happy with.

You can see the list here. It ranges from Mariano Rivera (1.64 ERA, 2.56 FIP) to Brian Sanches (2.82 ERA, 4.24 FIP). All of these guys performed well enough over a three-year time period to deserve recognition, but only some were closers. A total of 12 players spent at least one season as their team's primary closer, with three other guys spending parts of one season as the closer. As a group, this was a good set of pitchers; they posted a collective 2.55 ERA and 3.06 FIP. The closers were better, posting a 2.44 ERA and 2.93 FIP. This is a favorable comparison point to Cishek's performance from 2011 to 2013.

How did these guys fare in their next two seasons? You can take a look at the list here, but the overall picture looked much worse. As a collective group, those 32 pitchers were significantly worse, posting a 3.42 ERA and 3.59 FIP. In other words, the group lost a half run compared to their previous baseline, and that came at a time when the scoring environment was decreasing, which means their performance actually looked worse if you compared it to the league average run environment. The closers fared no better, as they posted a 3.32 ERA and 3.45 FIP over that time span.

Let's look at the closers more closely. The 15 names we put in as closers, guys who spent time finishing games for their teams, showed significant attrition.

Name 2008-2010 ERA 2011-2012 ERA Missed Cutoff?
Mariano Rivera 1.64 1.94
Jonathan Papelbon 2.69 2.68
Jonathan Broxton 3.21 3.09 x
Joakim Soria 1.84 4.03 x
Brian Wilson 2.97 3.32 x
Carlos Marmol 2.86 3.76 x
Heath Bell 2.77 3.78 x
Joe Nathan 1.72 3.63 x
Rafael Soriano 2.43 2.94 x
Takashi Saito 2.59 3.49 x
Francisco Rodriguez 2.74 3.51 x
Andrew Bailey 1.70 4.26 x
Neftali Feliz 2.42 2.84
J.P. Howell 2.48 4.22 x
Brad Ziegler 2.51 2.34

An astonishing 11 out of 15 players missed the arbitrary 2.90 ERA or FIP cutoff that we used to first acquire these names. Of the bolded "true" closers, only Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, and Neftali Feliz hit the marks in 2011 and 2012. That is a 75 percent attrition rate for closers going from "elite" to merely "good reliever" level.

If we do the same exercise for the next time period, spanning initially from 2009 to 2011 then re-examining from 2012 to 2013, we get a similar result. The first batch of relievers from 2009 to 2011 included 43 names, 16 of which were considered true closers. Indeed, the percentage of the so-called "elite" relievers who were also true closers is exactly the same between samples (37 percent). Those 43 players put up a 2.61 ERA and 3.04 FIP. The closers had a 2.67 ERA and 2.87 FIP.

In the two subsequent years, the elite relievers posted a ghastly 3.92 ERA and 4.13 FIP, while the closers put up a 3.54 ERA and 3.93 FIP. A lot of the players had overlap from the previous group, but the new time periods included new relievers and closers who often stumbled as well. In addition, a number of players were injured and pitched very minimal time between 2012 and 2013. Ryan Madson has not thrown a single inning in three seasons now. Neftali Feliz has thrown just five innings. Brian Wilson, just 15 innings. Joakim Soria, just 23.

Player 2009-2011 ERA 2012-2013 ERA Missed Cutoff?
Jonathan Papelbon 2.72 2.67
Mariano Rivera 1.82 2.12
Brian Wilson 2.50 1.72 x (DNQ, injury)
Joakim Soria 2.66 3.80 x (DNQ, injury)
Heath Bell 2.36 4.59 x
Andrew Bailey 2.07 4.91 x
Neftali Feliz 2.55 1.59 x (DNQ, injury)
Rafael Soriano 2.79 2.68
Ryan Madson 2.78 --- x (DNQ, injury)
Joel Hanrahan 3.38 3.49 x
John Axford 2.26 4.35 x
Jonathan Broxton 3.46 3.05 x
Francisco Rodriguez 2.88 3.72 x
J.J. Putz 3.06 2.64
Jose Valverde 2.52 4.18 x
Francisco Cordero 2.84 7.55 x

Four players were lost essentially to injury over the next two years. Only four of the 16 names made the cutoff. Once again, the attrition rate was at 75 percent. The high odds are that, if you are an elite closer over the previous three seasons, you will not be one for the next two.

If we went backwards in time further, this would almost certainly be the same case. Relievers are fungible commodities, at almost any age. John Axford was coming off an another elite closer season at age 28. A year later, he completely collapsed. At age 27, Broxton suffered an injury. At 28 years old, he came back strong, earned a multi-year contract, and collapsed. Soria was great at age 26, had a bad year at age 27, and was hurt at age 28, and just now has recovered form. Not everyone is Cordero or Valverde on this list, a guy on his last legs and his final seasons.

The point of this exercise is to show how fungible and unpredictable relievers truly are. One day, they can be one of the best-looking commodities on your team. The next, they can be be a disaster. Miami's view of Cishek as a building block is fundamentally incorrect; to say that is to say that the team has found another Rivera or Papelbon, and the odds of that happening are too slim. Chances are that Cishek is just another excellent reliever who may turn into just a good one overnight, leaving him little trade value with a hefty salary on Miami's books.

Keeping Cishek does lend itself to winning more games next year, though how many more is hard to say. But the odds are against him being a long-term asset for Miami, so the faster they can get some return via trade for him, the better off the team will be.