I set this whole series up as a search for the Closer of the Year, so I guess that now that I've taken the time to explain who I don't think that is, I might as well go ahead and devote some time to covering a few pitchers who deserve recognition for their top notch work. In particular, there are three relievers I want to examine, although one of them is not a closer. There are a few more relievers who had great years which I won't cover here, like the always good and under-appreciated Joe Nathan, the no-longer-under-the-radar Joakim Soria, and the breakout Brad Zeigler (ok, he's just listed here because he's from my hometown, but he did have an unexpectedly good rookie campaign), but these three set themselves apart with their remarkable production in 2008.
The first 2 will surprise no one. They are, as you can probably deduce by process of elimination, Mo Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon. If you read my last article (who am I kidding?), you knew one of those names for certain. The third, however, will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows. As I said, he's not a closer, and he was buried in a very deep bullpen. He went continuously under the radar this year and inexplicably missed making the All Star team. His name is Hong-Chih Kuo.
Kuo ranked in the top 5 among relievers in WHIP, WPA/LI, REW, and K:BB ratio and led all relievers in FIP. He's not here as a dark horse or shock value candidate. He's here because he belongs (well, if you take the term "Closer" out of the title anyway). A while back, I wrote a brief article on the artificial inflation of LH specialists' stats due to two primary advantages (the platoon advantage and the advantage of being used later in innings), but that's not what we're looking at with Kuo. Strangely enough, he actually faced right-handed hitters more frequently than the average pitcher in 2008, probably a product of staying in the game to face all the RH pinch hitters opposing managers sent in to face him, and while he did pitch slightly less with 0 out and more with 1 out than average, he pitched less than average with 2 out. Kuo is no left-handed specialist by any sense of the term. In fact, Kuo only failed to complete a full inning 4 times (10% of his relief appearances) all year, compared to 26 times (67%) he went 4 or more outs and 6 times (15%) he went 3+ innings in relief. He was also used as an emergency starter 3 times last year. So he's got the stuff for regular use, and his usage is actually less optimal for his stats than that of most closers who go only an inning at a time in most cases.
So when we see Kuo's K/9 mark of 11.16, it's not just some specialist dominating lefties with a frisbee slider that he can't throw to righties without hitting them in the knees. It's legit. It's also pretty much right on target with what he's done in his career as a reliever (11.07). His BB/9 (1.95) saw a lot of improvement this year (3.94 career as a reliever), which propelled him from a high power strikeout artist to an elite overall level. A graph of his GB:FB ratios over his career looks like a game of Pong, but it was back up to 1.38 in 2008, which helped keep his HR rate, which has always been very good regardless of his GB:FB ratio, down.
Next is Papelbon. Boston's version of Joba Chamberlain put the kibosh on his own return to the rotation and has emerged as the top candidate to take over the torch being passed on by Trevor Hoffman and Mo Rivera. In his third year as Boston's closer, he put forth arguably his finest effort yet. His dominance of the strike zone hit a new high this year as he struck out 77 and walked only 8 (K:BB ratio of 9.63). His walk rate of 1.04 was third best in baseball behind Matt Capps, who strikes out far fewer batters, and Mo Rivera, and the next lowest after Papelbon is over a half a walk per 9 higher. Papelbon has always been a great K:BB pitcher (5.77 and 5.60 in his first 2 seasons), and this year he took it to a new level. He was second to Mo in K:BB ratio and second to Kuo in FIP in baseball.
Even with by the highest BABIP of his career (.313) and by far the worst strand rate of his career (69.5%, after being above 88% in each of his first two seasons), Papelbon still posted a 2.32 ERA. He led baseball with 11 multi-inning saves, more than twice as many as everyone but Mo Rivera and Brian Wilson. His 4 "tough" saves (saves where the tying or winning run is on base when the pitcher enters the game) were second in baseball. The Sox didn't hesitate to bring in their bullpen ace when things got tough in the 8th inning and let him play his own set-up role once in a while. It's hardly the old days where the bullpen ace came in for the biggest outs no matter when they came, but Papelbon is the closest thing to that we have in the game today. While a large part of that is certainly just the philosophy of the Red Sox, it takes the right pitcher to make it work, and it's a more difficult usage pattern Papelbon is following than most closers.
Already one of the games best closers, Papelbon took another step forward in 2008. But he didn't take over the mantle of best in the game just yet. That still belongs to the old master, Mo Rivera. With a WHIP of 0.67 and a K:BB ratio of 12.83, Mo gave us a once in a generation type season. The only other pitcher to post either a WHIP or a K:BB ratio that good was Dennis Eckersley, way back in 1990, when he struck out 73 and walked only 4. Mo's 77 K, 6 BB 2008 season is unrivaled by pretty much anyone since.
Mo's 39 saves (in 40 opps) came with 5 tough saves, the most in baseball. Only 3 times all year did he fail to complete an inning, but in none of those 3 did he record a loss or a blown save, nor did he allow a run, a walk, or an extra base hit. In those 3 games, he faced 3 batters, struck out 2, and gave up a ground ball single to the other. Not once the entire season did he allow more than 1 run in a game. Only twice in Major League history has a pitcher thrown that many games without allowing multiple runs in any of them (Rafael Betancourt last year and Mike Myers in 2000, though Myers was a lefty specialist who mostly went 1 or 2 outs at a time and never went more than an inning), and never has a closer performed such a feat in as many games or innings. Never has anyone done it with so few appearances under an inning.
Mo led baseball in getting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone (36.3% O-Swing%). He also led baseball in BB/9, WPA/LI, and REW by pretty healthy margins. He was third in FIP and second in WPA. Fangraphs places him at the top of their Value Wins (a stat based on FIP and IP) list for relievers (Papelbon is second and Kuo fourth, by the way). His OPS against of .423 was a full .080 points better than the next best reliever (Joakim Soria at .503). He was also excellent, as always, at preventing home runs. His GB:FB ratio of 1.77 was a bit lower than his career mark (1.86), but he was still a decidedly ground-ball pitcher. He is one of the few pitchers who has shown a legitimate skill at preventing HR on fly balls at a significantly better rate than average, with a career HR/FB mark of 5.6% since 2002 (when batted ball currently data goes back to) and no single season over 7.5% (a high he actually posted in 2008). His career HR/9 rate of .47 is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 250 IP since 1993 (Tom Tango's documented beginning of the HR explosion), and 2008 was no exception to his inside-the-park ways. His famed cutter has also allowed him to consistently post better than average BABIP rates despite pitching with consistently horrible defenses behind him, so while his .232 BABIP in 2008 was undoubtedly a bit lucky, it's not as out of line as it would be for other pitchers, and keep in mind that his skill at preventing solid contact is even greater than his career BABIP rates show because he pitches in front of such a bad defense, so we are legitimately seeing some skill here. Even if we ignore that skill and assuming it was all luck, however, and look at metrics that eliminate BABIP from consideration (i.e. K:BB, FIP, Win Values, GB:FB, and HR rates), Rivera still rates as the best in the game despite being underrated by stats that ignore his skill at preventing solid contact.
It was truly a special year from Mo Rivera. It's a shame that he never really got the accolades he deserved for it with most of the mainstream attention going to K-Rod and Lidge, but his dominance didn't escape our attention here at 3-DBaseball, nor did it escape the attention of analysts across the country. I'm far from the first to point out the supremacy of Mo's season, and I'll not be the last. When people look back on his HOF career, they'll see his 2008 season shining on an already brilliant resume. He'll be the Eckersley to K-Rod's Bobby Thigpen. It could even be this kind of performance at an advanced age that vaults him ahead of Hoffman even more than his postseason performances. For all that, Mo Rivera is 2008's closer of the year.