Should WPA Replace the Save Rule?

Phil Rogers, mlb.com:

Let’s change the save rule to say that in the games that generate a save under the current rules (margin of three runs or fewer), the save will now go to the reliever not getting the win who has the highest WPA, not the guy who gets the final out.

I commend Rogers for wanting to replace the save rule. I agree that it is an outdated way of measuring how effective a relief pitcher is. It’s an even more outdated way of determining a reliever’s salary in arbitration. In addition to the silly save examples he mentions, Wes Littleton earned a save during the Texas Rangers’ 30-3 blowout of the Baltimore Orioles in 2007.

But I don’t think WPA is the best stat to replace the save. It doesn’t get us what we’re really after, which (I think, anyway) is to reward the best relief pitching performance during the game. One component of WPA is leverage, which is naturally higher in the 9th inning because there is very little time for the team to come back. This means that relievers who enter in the 9th will have more opportunities to compile high WPA. We’ve simply replaced one 9th-inning stat with another.

I suggest using WPA/LI. This stat removes the leverage from the WPA equation, enabling comparisons across all pitchers regardless of when they pitched in the game. Dominance wins out; whether that dominance occurred in the 9th or in the 6th does not factor into the equation.

Rogers lists the top 10 WPA leaders in 2015, those who would be rewarded the most under his system:

  1. Mark Melancon
  2. Dellin Betances
  3. Andrew Miller
  4. Wade Davis
  5. Tony Watson
  6. Shawn Tolleson
  7. Brad Ziegler
  8. Jeurys Familia
  9. Hector Rondon
  10. Craig Kimbrel

The top 10 in WPA/LI:

  1. Wade Davis
  2. Dellin Betances
  3. Brad Ziegler
  4. Tony Watson
  5. Mark Melancon
  6. Andrew Miller
  7. Zach Britton
  8. Andrew Chafin
  9. Jeurys Familia
  10. Shawn Tolleson

The order of these lists tells you that Wade Davis did not get as many high-leverage opportunities as, to pick one reliever, Mark Melancon. The average LI when Davis entered a game this year was 1.53; for Melancon it was 1.69. But Davis’ FIP- was 57, whereas Melancon’s was nearly 50% worse at 75.

Why should Davis not get recognized for his dominance? He can’t control the fact that his team didn’t keep games as close as the Pirates did or that Ned Yost used him perhaps differently than Clint Hurdle used Melancon. What he can control is how he pitched, and he pitched brilliantly, much better than Melancon did.

Using WPA/LI would account for these facts. But even doing this will not change the fact that managers will rarely have their “closers” pitch before the 9th. Managers are humans and humans are afraid to break the mold because when that backfires in public, they have to justify their decisions to said public, a public that rarely takes the long and rational view when it comes to baseball or any us-vs.-them competition.

Whether you measure closers’ achievements by saves, WPA, or hoogleboogles (look it up!) you’ll still run up against the psychological aspect of managers wanting to take the safe route so they don’t get blamed if their team loses.

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