The Craig Kimbrel Conundrum: Does a team’s success require an elite closer?

San Diego Padres v Chicago Cubs

By Casey Boguslaw

Craig Kimbrel’s start to the season hasn’t been surprising to anyone, even if it experienced a change of scenery. The trade, on the ground level, made sense for both teams. The Braves are clearly in re-building mode (making their 6-3 record as one of the more surprising in baseball). They did most of their selling of parts in the offseason but Kimbrel was the final piece to go right before the season kicked off. An elite closer, perhaps the best in the game, doesn’t belong making a lot of money on a team that’s not ready to win now.

The Padres are trying the exact opposite plan as the Braves bringing in seasoned veterans to try to win right away. One of the missing pieces to their roster was a seasoned closer so if you’re going for it, why not go all the way in? So far so good, Kimbrel has pitched five innings, has only allowed three hits and is 3 for 3 in save opportunities on the young season.

The Kimbrel trade brought up a conversation with me and my friend that had little to do with the Padres’ playoff hopes or the Braves’ rebuilding plan. The conversation was rooted in fantasy but it brought up a larger picture question in baseball. My friend argued that Kimbrel moving to the Padres would lower his fantasy value, perhaps not being the best closer in the game anymore. His argument was the Padres are a better team than the Braves. With being a better team, according to him, would cause the Padres to win by larger margins, thus disallowing more save opportunities. The common belief in baseball is a team wins 60 games, loses 60 games, and their fate is determined by the remaining 42. The Braves are more than likely to win at least 60 games this year, but according to this argument; those wins will be by lesser margins, thus giving a lot of save opportunities.

My argument is that the Padres higher likelihood of winning more games than the Braves will give Kimbrel more save opportunities just due to the simple reason that a team has to be winning to even offer a save opportunity.

Which argument is correct? Are there numbers to back up either correlation? Furthermore, did the Braves and Padres make the correct decision to proceed with the Kimbrel transaction?

First off, we’ll start by showing the 2014 teams sorted by wins and show their rank in season saves.

Team Wins Saves Rank
LAA 98 10
BAL 96 3
WSN 96 12
LAD 94 8
STL 90 1
DET 90 18
KCR 89 3
PIT 88 6
SFG 88 10
OAK 88 29
SEA 87 5
CLE 85 20
NYY 84 6
TOR 83 12
MIL 82 12
ATL 79 2
NYM 79 16
MIA 77 16
SDP 77 18
TBR 77 23
CIN 76 15
PHI 73 20
CHC 73 23
CHW 73 25
BOS 71 25
MIN 70 22
HOU 70 29
TEX 67 28
COL 66 31
ARI 64 27

Upon first glance, one can see that the top half of teams generally are amongst the league leaders in saves. In fact, the correlation is fairly high between wins and saves, giving a 0.6875.

Quick statistics lesson: correlations are calculated between -1 and 1. A correlation of 1 is very strong; as one set of numbers goes up, so does the other set. A correlation of -1 means as one set goes up, the other goes down. A correlation of 0 means there is no correlation.

Ok, back to baseball. A few hypotheses can be created from this correlation – the best teams have the best closers, this being part of their recipe for success. Another can go back to my argument – a team that wins more, allows more save opportunities. Let’s take a look at that.

Team Wins Save Opps Rank
LAA 98 2
BAL 96 7
WSN 96 11
LAD 94 8
STL 90 3
DET 90 4
KCR 89 16
PIT 88 10
SFG 88 14
OAK 88 26
SEA 87 16
CLE 85 26
NYY 84 29
TOR 83 11
MIL 82 5
ATL 79 9
NYM 79 18
MIA 77 6
SDP 77 31
TBR 77 15
CIN 76 25
PHI 73 21
CHC 73 22
CHW 73 1
BOS 71 22
MIN 70 19
HOU 70 20
TEX 67 30
COL 66 28
ARI 64 22


(Note: the numbers that were used for save opportunities were per player. Therefore there could have been multiple save opportunities in the same game).

This is not as directly correlated (r = 0.3916) however it still is rather top-heavy and bottom heavy. At least in 2014, it does show that the more wins a team has, the more save opportunities they will get.

Now, my argument is looking fairly strong but let’s go back to my friend’s.  Again, he said that a team that is forecasted for less wins will have more chances for saves due to lower margins in their contests. Here is a table of teams, again sorted by 2014 wins, with their rank of how many one-run games they played last season.

Team Wins 1-Run Games Rank
LAA 98 14
BAL 96 5
WSN 96 16
LAD 94 22
STL 90 5
DET 90 27
KCR 89 19
PIT 88 2
SFG 88 29
OAK 88 14
SEA 87 22
CLE 85 21
NYY 84 12
TOR 83 31
MIL 82 28
ATL 79 10
NYM 79 5
MIA 77 1
SDP 77 9
TBR 77 16
CIN 76 2
PHI 73 5
CHC 73 29
CHW 73 12
BOS 71 4
MIN 70 22
HOU 70 22
TEX 67 19
COL 66 26
ARI 64 10

As you can see, these ranks are all over the place. The correlation between wins and one-run games was only 0.1666 in 2014, almost no correlation at all. Apologies to my friend, but 2014 certainly doesn’t back up his argument. If this argument were to be true, we would be looking for a negative correlation because a less successful team should mean that they play in more one-run games. Let’s look at the last few years to make sure last year wasn’t an anomaly.


Wins to saves correlation: r = 0.5137

Wins to save opportunities correlation: r = 0.6424

Wins to one-run games correlation: r = -0.1346


Wins to saves correlation: r = 0.7789

Wins to save opportunities correlation: r = 0.5823

Wins to one-run games correlation: r = 0.0279

The numbers for 2013 and 2012 are even stronger in correlating the fact that teams that win more games will have more save opportunities. They also get much weaker in correlating that how often a team wins with how often they will be in closer-scoring games.

So what does this mean for the Braves and Padres and all teams moving forward? If you plan on being a successful team and are built to do such, then it’s the time to invest in a great closer. The more often a team wins, based on the numbers above, the more likely they will have the opportunity to bring in that closer. And as for you fantasy players, a closer on a winning team is more likely to net you those coveted saves.

You can find Casey on twitter @CaseyBoguslaw or join in the conversation @CTBPod

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