Having another person’s trust is more powerful than all other management techniques put together.”
— Linus Torvalds
Trust is a powerful feeling. When you feel like you have someone’s trust, you’ll go to the ends of the earth for them. You’re in sync with them; you go about your business not worrying about what they think of you or what they might be doing. And depending on how much you value the person’s opinion, their trust alone can inspire you to do better.
For a relief pitcher, perhaps the biggest form of trust in baseball is simply being allowed to play, because your manager controls whether and when you enter the game. So you start to notice things: Do you get called on when the game’s on the line and there are runners in scoring position? Or do you get called on in the sixth inning when your team is up by seven runs? Either way, you start to develop an understanding of how much your manager trusts you.
But levels of trust aren’t static. Give up a few gopher balls as a closer, and you can find yourself relegated to mop-up duty. Conversely, start striking out batters and limiting walks, and you may find yourself the team’s new closer when the current guy hits the disabled list.
Seeing these changes play out from year to year made me wonder: Which relievers in baseball history have gained or lost the most trust from one season to the next?
How does one quantify trust? I used FanGraphs’ gmLI stat to do it. gmLI is the leverage index of the game when a player enters it. Because relievers enter only at the behest of a manager, measuring a reliever’s gmLI is a good proxy for how much the manager trusts the reliever. High gmLIs indicate the manager is trusting the reliever to get the team out of jams. Low gmLIs indicate the manager considers the reliever when the stakes aren’t high.
This method isn’t perfect because it doesn’t account for fluctuations in a team’s overall gmLI. A lower gmLI could indicate not a loss of trust but a year where the team needs fewer high-leverage innings overall, perhaps because they’re getting creamed every night.
I decided against accounting for this because leverage is still leverage. Every team gets into jams, and managers aren’t thinking about league average when deciding when to insert a reliever into the game. They’re thinking only: Who can give me the best chance of putting up a goose egg? (Full disclosure: I’m not and never have been a manager.)
With each reliever’s gmLI in hand (no pun intended), I went back to 1974 and computed year-to-year differences for relievers who met the following criteria:
- Started fewer than 50 percent of their games in both seasons
- Faced at least 150 batters in each season
These criteria removed guys like Jimmy Key, who entered the league as a reliever, had a distinguished career as a starter, then ended his career in the bullpen again. These criteria also removed guys like Derrick Turnbow who were injured or ineffective for some intervening seasons. Lacking a way to project their gmLI for that year, removing them is okay.
When talking about a reliever gaining or losing the trust of his manager, the reliever’s performance probably is the dominant factor. But there are others. A change in managers could bring about a different evaluation of the reliever in question. The reliever could have changed teams. And of course, the team could have changed out other relievers, making the guy in question look better by comparison.
Relievers Who Gained the Most Trust
Kevin Gregg, 2012 – 2013: +1.33 gmLI
Gregg’s gmLI increased here because different teams have different needs. A playoff-bound team like the 2012 Orioles needed every save locked down as tightly as possible, especially since the franchise hadn’t sniffed the postseason since 1997. Gregg had shown in 2011 that he couldn’t do that, so in 2012 he was relegated to setup duty. Late in the season the team DFA’d him in favor of Jim Johnson.
But the 2013 Cubs, a year into their rebuild and perhaps understanding a 96-loss season was possible, didn’t much care who was in the closer’s role. They just needed a guy to eat innings, and Gregg provided that just fine. He was mostly the same pitcher in both years, but becoming the Cubs’ closer in 2013 increased his gmLI from 0.48 to 1.81 and handed him third place on this list.
Bill Caudill, 1981 – 1982, +1.35 gmLI
Here’s another team-changer. Caudill was a high-strikeout, high-walk reliever for the Cubs from 1979 to 1980. His 1980 season was particularly nice, pitching over 127 innings with a FIP- of 91 and an ERA- of 56. But in 1981 he lost some of his mojo, recording a FIP- of 123 with an ERA- of 156.
Looking back, his 1980 was fueled by a crazy-low .260 BABIP and a crazy-high 84.3 percent strand rate. In 1981 those numbers regressed to .320 and 65.2 percent respectively, leading to a mid-career-low usage of 0.93 gmLI. His gmLI was lower only in his first and last seasons in the majors.
Caudill’s talent hadn’t deserted him, but in the early ’80s baseball decision makers didn’t know about regression to the mean. The Cubs traded him to the Yankees, who turned him around to the Mariners. Caudill responded with an excellent season, recording a 63 FIP- and 56 ERA- in high-leverage spots for the Mariners (2.28 gmLI).
Fun fact: Caudill was Scott Boras’ first client.
Mike Timlin, 1994 – 1995: +1.40 gmLI
What makes Timlin’s feat more impressive is that he didn’t change teams or managers in these years, and he didn’t become the team’s closer. Cito Gaston and the Toronto Blue Jays employed–and therefore evaluated–Timlin in both years, and although he did get some saves, Tony Castillo was the primary closer.
What changed is that Timlin became a better pitcher. In 1994, Timlin pitched poorly with runners on base, strandeing only 67.9 percent of baserunners. He also struggled with command, walking 11.2 percent of batters. In 1995, he cut his walk rate by 1.5 percentage points while keeping an above-average strikeout rate, leading to a much nicer K-BB% and a 79.1 percent strand rate. Gaston noticed the increase in Timlin’s effectiveness and used him in higher-leverage spots, causing Timlin’s gmLI to jump from 0.69 in 1994 to 2.10 in 1995.
The funny part is that, despite being a better pitcher overall in 1995, Timlin actually hurt his team more that year. His WPA decreased from -0.13 in 1994 to -0.62 in 1995. Oh, well. If he ever feels sad about this fact, he can just gaze deeply at his four World Series rings.
Relievers Who Lost the Most Trust
Not everyone gets handed the keys to the big house. Some guys get the keys taken away from them after they knock over a lamp, track mud all over the rug, and start a fire in the kitchen. So it goes with these three guys, the top three year-to-year decliners in gmLI since 1974.
Donne Wall, 2000 – 2001: -1.38 gmLI
Wall spent 1998 through 2000 as a trustworthy member of the San Diego Padres, averaging at least a 1.50 gmLI each year with a 2.92 ERA in his time there. Unfortunately, he may be best remembered by Yankees fans. In Game One of the 1998 World Series, Chuck Knoblauch hit a game-tying, three-run home run off Wall to knot the score at five.
Following the 2000 season, the Padres traded Wall to the Mets, who were fresh off their World Series loss to the Yankees. Wall pitched well for the Mets, better, in fact, than he’d pitched for the Padres the previous year. But his Clutch score of -2.46, and his HR/9 of 1.69 indicate why new manager Bobby Valentine lost faith in Wall.
Wall started the season terribly, allowing three runs in two innings. He worked a few scoreless games before another two-run, two-inning performance on April 24 in Milwaukee. His next appearance was fine, but on April 29 against the Cardinals, Wall allowed six hits, three walks, and four runs in 1.2 innings. He got torched again on May 11 against the Giants: two walks and one run in 0.1 innings. Overall, he recorded five meltdowns against zero shutdowns as his gmLI dropped from 1.75 in San Diego to 0.37 in Queens.
Jordan Walden, 2011 – 2012: -1.423 gmLI
Walden burst onto the scene in 2010 with a 100 mph heater and a 24.6 K-BB%. In 2011, the Angels made him their closer, replacing Fernando Rodney, and Walden rewarded them with an 83 xFIP- season, averaging a 2.15 gmLI in the process. At age 23, he seemed to be baseball’s next great reliever, although his high 10.5 percent walk rate was perhaps alarming, and he tied for the major league lead in blown saves with 10.
Walden opened 2012 with an 8.31 ERA in his first six games, the sixth one ending in his first blown save of the season. Two days later, Mike Scioscia announced Walden had lost the closer job. Walden finished the season with an 83 xFIP-, albeit in much lower-leverage work, as his gmLI fell to 0.72. If it’s any consolation, on the same day Scioscia announced Walden’s demotion, he also announced the promotion to the big leagues of some guy named Mike Trout.
Luis Sanchez, 1984 – 1985: -1.427 gmLI
Score another one for the Angels. Sanchez was the team’s primary closer in 1984, and he pitched okay, recording a 100 FIP- with a 2.11 gmLI. Prior to the 1985 season though, the team acquired Donnie Moore to be their closer. Manager John McNamara also left for Boston and was replaced by former Angels skipper Gene Mauch. Under Mauch, and having been replaced by Moore, Sanchez fell into setup and middle-relief duty and saw his FIP- rise to 115 even as his gmLI declined to 0.68. 1985 was his last year in baseball.
The following graph shows not only the top three gainers but also the 17 guys who round out the top 20:
The following graph shows the top three decliners as well as their compatriots:
We all know reliever performance is fickle, different teams have different needs, and different managers evaluate the same player in different ways. If you needed any more convincing of these facts, the graphs and discussions above should do the trick.