Southpaw Closers: A Vanishing Breed? (Part 1)

The year was 1989: In a 26-team universe, 25 men logged 20 Saves or more, goosing the year-old record by more than one-third, and topping the total of all individuals with a 20-Save season through 1964. Another mark was set as 10 reached the once-historic 30-Save plateau.

And lefties were in the vanguard of the closer revolution, setting southpaw records with seven 20-Save years and four of 30+. They nailed down the year’s highest total (with bonus hardware), along with nos. 3 and 5. One team even boasted two southpaws with more than a dozen Saves, a truly unique occurrence.

But time marches on. The big question now is … Will any lefty reach 20 Saves in 2013?


With Aroldis Chapman slated for starting, Minnesota’s Glen Perkins is the only southpaw among the 30 projected closers. Perkins took that role last June when RH Matt Capps got hurt, and joined Chapman as the only lefties among the 37 pitchers with 10+ Saves last year. Lefties tossed 30% of MLB innings, so a normal share would have been 9 of the 30 closer jobs.

The number of lefties scoring even 10+ Saves has shriveled to three in the past two years combined.

How did we get here?

Damned if I know. But I sure am rooting for Glen Perkins. Maybe it’s because of my Tigers fandom; their two best firemen in my lifetime were southpaws. Maybe it’s the rigid situational roles throughout the game that make a body hunger for a little more variety somewhere on that spectrum.

The dearth of southpaw closers is a recent development. Lefties were deep in the mix throughout the evolution of the relief ace, including the first generations of closers. From 1962 through 2010, at least three lefties notched 10+ Saves, with an average of six per year. At least one lefty had 20+ Saves from 1983-2010, with an average of three per year.

More historical notes on lefty relievers:

  • From 1901-1984, lefties posted 30% of all 3-WAR relief seasons, although just 27% of all pitchers in that span were southpaws.
  • Lefties own three of the 10 Cy Young and/or MVP Awards copped by a reliever (counting doubles just once).
  • Their 53 seasons of 30+ Saves include record-setting years by John Hiller and Dave Righetti. A southpaw held or shared the season record for 30 of the past 64 years.
  • Numbers 4, 5 and 9 on the career Saves list are southpaws.
  • Lefties logged 36% of all World Series Saves through 1990 (16 of 27 in WS finales), including the only pitcher to work all seven games of a Series.
  • Two-thirds of the Nasty Boys tilted leftward. And there’s only one Wild Thing, one Mad Hungarian, one LaLob, one Tippy, one Tugger, and one Fat Tub of Goo. (Unless we count this guy.)

But all that feels so very long ago, no? Over the last 20 years, the percentage of saves claimed by lefties has settled into an all-time low:

Pct Saves by LH


A sea change: “Hard to starboard!”

As you see, from 1962 through 1993, lefties logged at least 20% of all Saves in every year but one. But since ’94, they’ve never topped 18%. They were under 10% in 2000 for the first time ever, and set new lows in 2004 and 2011.

From 1916-95, the 3-year average never dipped below 17% except in WWII. The 9% average for 2010-12 is the lowest ever.

Ten-year averages for the last half-century:

  • 1963-1972, 26%
  • 1973-1982, 29%
  • 1983-1992, 26%
  • 1993-2002, 15%
  • 2003-2012, 12%

Since 1991, lefties have just 5 of 60 World Series Saves (one of those from a starter), and none of the 13 Series-ending Saves.

A splintered leader board

In 1994, there were seven active lefties with 100 career Saves, and three with 200. But when Brian Fuentes retired last fall, the leadership fell to a couple of guys whose career total is less than the season record:

1994 – Active Leaders in LH Saves   2012 – Active Leaders in LH Saves
Rk Player SV Years G IP   Rk Player SV Years G IP
1 John Franco 266 1984-94 613 770 1 Mike Gonzalez 56 2003-12 434 394
2 Dave Righetti 252 1979-94 708 1354 2 George Sherrill 56 2004-12 442 324
3 Randy Myers 205 1985-94 486 654 3 C.J. Wilson 52 2005-12 359 910
4 Mitch Williams 192 1986-94 592 674 4 Aroldis Chapman 39 2010-12 137 135
5 Dan Plesac 134 1986-94 476 642 5 Jeremy Affeldt 28 2002-12 621 802
6 Jesse Orosco 130 1979-94 754 972 6 Scott Downs 26 2000-12 496 670
7 Craig Lefferts 101 1983-94 696 1146 7 Matt Thornton 23 2004-12 546 525
8 Mark Davis 96 1980-94 605 1129 8 J.P. Howell 21 2005-12 267 403
9 Steve Howe 88 1980-94 416 540 9 Glen Perkins 18 2006-12 215 435
10 Mike Stanton 54 1989-94 278 270 10 Sean Marshall 16 2006-12 365 591

Neither Gonzalez nor Sherrill had a Save last year. No. 3 C.J. Wilson hasn’t relieved in three years. Chapman, no. 4, had one Save before last year. No. 5 Affeldt has 10 Saves in the last three years. The top 10 active lefties have 335 career Saves combined — just six more than Francisco Cordero.


All platoon proportions go through cycles, fueled by fads and fancies and the abnormal distribution of talent. Could this be just a random down cycle for lefty closers? Not so long ago (2005), four of the 19 with 30+ saves were southpaws, and three of them repeated in 2008. But as they faded, just two new ones emerged: Sherrill, sort of an accidental appointee in 2008, and Chapman, now reassigned.

It seems more than a cycle. In 20 years, most personnel would have turned over two or three times. And after all, a managerial preference for righty closers is openly acknowledged within the industry. But just to be sure, we’ll check the bigger picture of lefty pitchers (not just closers), when this series moves to the middle innings.


20 thoughts on “Southpaw Closers: A Vanishing Breed? (Part 1)

  1. 1
    Mike L says:

    Presumably managers look for the platoon advantage in both directions; bring in the right handed closer since he’s more likely to face right handed batters, and (burn) the left-hander against the other team’s left-handed power bats. Thirty years ago, they were more likely to just go with the best arm, period.

    • 3
      John Autin says:

      Mike L — What if I told you that last year’s top 14 RH closers (those with 30+ Saves) faced a combined total of 53% lefty batters?

      Of course, some of those were switch-hitters — about 14% of all regulars last year were switchies. And there’s no telling how many pure lefties would have been swapped out if the closer had been a lefty.

      But the fact remains that RH closers are not exploiting a big platoon edge.

  2. 2
    oneblankspace says:

    How did we get here?


    • 12
      brp says:

      Yeah, that pretty much covers this one.

      • 13
        John Autin says:

        I don’t think that quite covers it, actually. Since 2004, lefties’ percentage of all appearances — not innings, but games — is well below the norm of the previous 30+ years.

        As I’ll show in part 2, lefties’ share of relief games closely tracked their share of *starts* from the late ’60s to late ’90s — the rates were similar, and tended to move in the same direction over time.

        But the lines have since diverged. Since 2004, the LHRP% has remained a couple of points below the lefty starters’ percentage, which hasn’t happened since the mid-’60s.

        The change from 2003-04 is most intriguing: While lefty starts rose sharply, lefty relief games plunged.

        So, from 2004-12, the lefty start percentage has been above the average for the expansion era, but the lefty relief % has been well below the average. Simply shifting lefty relievers from normal duty (including closing) to more LOOGY-type usage, doesn’t explain the overall change.

        • 14
          mosc says:

          There’s a lot to that. If a lefty could get righties out, he’d be starting.

          • 15
            John Autin says:

            I’m not getting your point, mosc. Why wouldn’t we say the same thing of a righty?

          • 16
            mosc says:

            No, it’s not the same for a righty. A righty who can get lefties out may still be better off in the bullpen for other reasons. A lefty who can get righties out is going to be pushed much harder into the starter roll. Most lefty relievers are either young starting prospects or old former starters. A righty is evaluated differently, whither valid or not.

  3. 4
    ReliefMan says:

    I’m telling you, one of these days a LOOGY is going to make a name for himself by learning to play a secondary position so that he can be platooned out without getting burned for the game.

    More likely in the NL, of course, because otherwise such antics result in forfeiture of your precious little DH.

    • 5
      John Autin says:

      One thing I’ll look at in the next chapter(s?) is the absence of LOOGY saves. Think about it:

      Most teams keep a LOOGY. But if the closer is in, and a LHB comes up representing the tying or winning run with 2 outs in the 9th, you almost never see the LOOGY come in for that last out.

      So the LOOGY’s role is defined as facing a LHB or two in a high-leverage situation, but they’re generally excluded from the very highest leverage spots.

      It’s said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. I think that same committee laid down the “rules” for LOOGY use.

      • 6
        RJ says:

        Javier Lopez had seven saves for San Francisco last year. Five of those occasions were in a situation as you described: facing a lefty who represents the tying/winning run with one or two outs in the inning. I was going to say that this isn’t much to get excited about, but then again Lopez only had five saves total prior to last season, so managers just don’t ordinarily do this.

        I still have to imagine there were many more similar situations in which Bochy didn’t turn to Lopez, but SF’s instability in the closer role clearly persuaded Bochy to get creative, if only a handful of times. I wonder if in the coming season, with a defined closer in Sergio Romo, we will still see Lopez being used in this way.

        • 7
          John Autin says:

          RJ, good point about Javier Lopez and his 7 saves. However, the other 13 guys I’ve identified as full-time LOOGYs combined for just 8 saves, and only one of those faced the tying run.

          But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I hope you’ll stay tuned for part 2…

  4. 9
    Darien says:

    At the risk of being a jerk: I kind of hope Broxton barfs so we can see Marshall take the reins in Cincinnati. I’ve been a big Sean Marshall fan for years, ever since the Cubs first brought him up, and besides: he’s a leftie!

  5. 10
    Doug says:

    Using the B-R Split-Finder in P-I, for the 12 seasons since 2001, the average season PAs against LHP per team was 1687.

    For the 12 year period 1982 to 1993, the same average (excl. COL and FLA in 1993) was 1935.

  6. 11
    mosc says:

    I think there is more clear data that pull hitting right handed batters just feast on left handed pitchers without big fastballs. Lefties who want to face right handed pitchers need something beyond your standard 93mph 4SFB with a straight change, slider, and/or curveball. John Franco was murder on righties with more movement from a circle change than anybody I’ve ever seen. I know he didn’t throw it on purpose as one, but it sure looked like a damn screwball.

    The cutter is the great equalizer for offhanded batters and it gets more use every year. Lefties might see the light of day as closers more commonly. Coke is another strong possibility (little Rivera influence there too).

  7. 17
    MikeD says:

    My baseball-watching days began back around 1973 when the likes of John Hiller and Sparkly Lyle roamed the earth, or at least baseball fields.

    I wonder if it’s related to the one-inning nature of closers today. Hiller, Lyle and others pitched multiple innings. Today, a lefty capable of being more than a one-inning pitcher may be directed to the starting rotation. Lefties who are less effective are directed down the LOOGY path, leaving the closing role to righthanders. I’m quite sure Dave Righetti would never have been converted to a closer today. Perhaps Billy Wagner would have been a starter, too.

  8. 18

    fantastic put up, very informative. I ponder why the
    opposite specialists of this sector don’t understand this. You must continue your writing. I am confident, you have a huge readers’ base already!

  9. 19

    Currently it appears like WordPress is the preferred blogging
    platform available right now. (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re
    using on your blog?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *