Jordan Walden had a pretty good rookie season. After being rushed into the closer’s role, the young fireballer blossomed early, before wilting late. He posted an impressive ERA below 3.00, which was good, but he also led the league in blown saves with 10, which was bad. On the surface, it looks like he wasn’t a very good closer, but if we look closer, that may not be the whole story. While the Angels would like Walden to cash in more consistently on his save opportunities, Walden handled the workload pretty well in 2011 when you consider that he was the most effectively used closer in baseball, coming in when games were really on the line.
The problem with looking merely at the quantity of saves a pitcher collects in a season is that it completely ignores the quality of the save opportunities. A save counts the same whether a closer comes in the bottom of the ninth with nobody on nobody out and a three-run lead as it does when a closer comes in with the bases loaded protecting a one-run lead. The degree of difficulty surely has to count for something, right?
Sabermetrician Tom Tango sure thought so, so several years ago he developed a measure called the leverage index (LI) which measures high-pressure moments in baseball. An average leverage index is 1.0, while a situation with a 2.0 represents a situation twice as crucial to the winning or losing of a game, while a 0.5 represents a save opportunity with only half the pressure. So, a typical save situation, where the closer enters the game in the bottom of the ninth inning protecting a three-run lead, isn’t particularly stressful, and so this situation would have a leverage index of about 1.0. On the other hand, if a closer were to come into a situation where the bases are loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth while guarding a one-run lead, that becomes much more “do-or-die” and the pressure is cranked up, so the leverage index bumps up to 10.9.
In 2011, no pitcher was more underrated by the save stat according to his LI than Jordan Walden. The Angels closer easily bested every other reliever who pithced a minimum of 20 save chances when it came to the importance of the situations that he pitched in, with a leverage index of 2.54, with only nine instances of a “low leverage” appearance. The next highest LI last season belonged to Giants reliever Brian Wilson with a 2.30, followed by Mariano Rivera with a 2.16 and Heath Bell with a 2.15. Manager Mike Scioscia knows when to use his best stopper in a game, and he has faith that Walden is that stopper.
The closer should be the guy that the team turns to in the toughest situations. The Angels showed they understood that and put Walden in the situations where they needed him to step up and close out a high-pressure situation. The only difference between Walden and the elite closers like Wilson and Rivera and Bell is that he needs to convert more of those tough saves. With another year of experience, and some wiley veterans to guide him along the way, Walden looks poised to become one of the best closers in baseball.