The Flawed Importance of the Closer

For baseball fans, nothing is more heartbreaking, more infuriating than a blown save. Your team spends the better part of an afternoon or evening mounting rallies, pushing all the right buttons, getting out of jams, and building a lead. Your closer trots in for the ninth inning. A few pitches later, three hours of hard work have been flushed down the toilet.

It’s enough to drive people mad …

 

… mad enough to want to trade arguably the best hitter and best pitcher on the planet for a 43-year-old reliever a few months away from retirement, because the current closer’s serving up a nightly buffet of trash casseroles.

Decades after Bill James published his first screed on managers and their rigid, self-defeating methods for using closers, very little has changed. Every team still saves its closer primarily for ninth-inning leads of three runs or fewer. Every team still places far too much credence in the title of Proven Closer. And yet, teams are still blowing as many leads as they did 10, 20, even 50 years ago, while Jose Valverde threatens to institutionalize half the state of Michigan.


Jerome Holtzman accomplished more in his sportswriting career than most of us could hope to achieve in 100 lifetimes. He wrote for Chicago papers for more than half a century, served as MLB’s official historian, held sway over his peers and helped determine player legacies with his influence on Hall of Fame voting, and won the BBWAA’s Spink Award, thus gaining his own career-capping ceremony in Cooperstown. Yet ask your average smart-aleck baseball writer to sum up Holtzman’s legacy today and odds are you’ll hear about one accomplishment: He created the formula for the save. Today, managers run their bullpens as if a million dollars in fantasy league winnings and the fate of all future Holtzman heirs rests on an ironclad, preselected closer bagging the save.

We’ve linked again and again to Crashburn Alley’s post on Charlie Manuel sending inferior pitchers in during tie games in desperate attempts to save Jonathan Papelbon for hypothetical leads that often don’t materialize. Tony La Russa, the most prolific overmanager of his and maybe any other generation, would perform otherworldly feats of contortion to avoid inserting his closer into tie games on the road. Even Joe Maddon — the self-styled contrarian who presides over elaborate dance parties after every Rays win, stacks his lineup with same-handed hitters whenever a changeup specialist toes the rubber, and makes versatile players do everything but sling peanuts — rarely deviates from traditional closer usage. As I’m writing this, the Cubs and Reds are playing in the 14th inning of a game at Wrigley in which a late Reds bullpen breakdown sent the game into extras — and still we haven’t seen Aroldis Chapman throw a single pitch. Wait, there’s more! The Yankees and A’s have completed 12 innings in Oakland, yet there’s still no sign of Mariano Rivera, who hasn’t pitched in four days.

A few Farnsworths, Rodneys, and grilled-cheese sandwiches aside, teams have also become slaves to the cult of the Proven Closer …

(The Cubs just won in the bottom of the 14th. Chapman, one of the best relief pitchers on the planet, never got in the game. He did warm up about five times, though, which means the Reds might’ve made him more tired by not using him than by using him. So they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.)

… the Tigers are merely the latest offenders. Detroit might not have any blatantly obvious options for the ninth, given (a) managers’ traditional reluctance to use lefties in that role, (b) Joaquin Benoit’s struggles in his brief time as closer, and (c) young fireballers Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon failure to pair their blazing fastballs with good command. But Valverde’s fastball-splitter combination has been deteriorating for a while now, and you’d have thought the tire fires he set off last October would’ve been the last straw. Instead, due to the team’s past comfort with Valverde, their fear of the unknown, and their valuing résumés over skills, Papa Grande continues to trot in for the ninth inning, and continues to blow games.

(We go to the 15th in Oakland. Still tied, still no sign of Mo.)

(Jonathan Broxton was the pitcher who lost the game for the Reds in the 14th. Asked just now about his pitcher usage in the loss, Reds manager Dusty Baker said: “We didn’t want to use Broxton because he was sore. He was our last, last, last resort.” Chapman was healthy, and the extent of his recent workload were the eight pitches he threw on Wednesday. Yet somehow an injured, vastly inferior pitcher was the last resort.)

To see these practices repeated again and again, even by supposedly progressive managers, you’d figure that teams are preserving more late-game leads now than they have in the past. Turns out that teams are no more successful in holding leads after eight innings, or seven, than they were 53 years ago, when Holtzman codified the guts of the modern save rule.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Major league managers might make tactical mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. We also shouldn’t presume that an outsider with a run-expectancy chart has all the answers. There are reasons why managers run their bullpens, and especially their closers, the way they do.

Let’s start with the best possible reason: Some managers understand that bringing a closer in for the ninth inning, up one to three runs, bases empty isn’t the best way to use your best pitcher. For most of this season, Dodgers fans have had to suffer through the bumblings of closer Brandon League. Putting aside that signing League to a lucrative three-year deal was a terrible idea from the start that had little or nothing to do with Don Mattingly, you’d have thought the skipper would’ve replaced him as the ninth-inning guy weeks ago, given how poorly League has pitched this year. But when asked after Monday’s blown save why he didn’t use hard-throwing, highly effective right-hander Kenley Jansen instead of League in the ninth, Mattingly gave an extremely logical answer: The heart of the Diamondbacks order came up in the eight, not the ninth, so Mattingly preferred to use his best reliever for that more challenging spot.

(After getting him up to throw likely at least five times himself, Rivera entered the Yankees-A’s game with one out in the 18th. A couple of bloopers later, A’s win. Sometimes bringing your best reliever into a tie game on the road works, sometimes it doesn’t. Making him throw the equivalent of three or four innings’ worth of warm-up pitches before entering the game probably doesn’t help — and is another argument in favor of tapping your relief ace earlier, lest he have to play the sit-down-stand-up game multiple times over the ensuing two or three hours.)

There’s the idea that only certain pitchers have a ninth-inning mentality. This might seem difficult to prove. But many people within the game — including some of the sharpest players and managers you’ll ever meet — swear by this principle. So for the sake of argument, let’s grant that this is true, that only certain pitchers have the mind-set to pitch the ninth.

First question: If that mentality exists and the ninth is when the pressure’s highest, why do managers opt not to use their closers in the ninth when the game is tied? Does this mentality only become relevant when a team’s ahead? And if that’s the case, are we supposed to believe that pitchers require more mental fortitude to pitch when up three runs than when dead even? Then there’s this: What exactly is the right ninth-inning mentality, and how exactly do you know if a pitcher has it? I once had a conversation with a player talking about a relief pitcher, one who’d put up excellent numbers as a non-closer. He said that pitcher had a 10-cent head, and thus could never be a good closer. Let’s say for the sake of argument that he really did have a 10-cent head. Is that a bad thing? If all a pitcher wants to do is fire 98-mph fastballs with little regard for finesse or nuance, if his baseball IQ allows only for post-game-winning-strike grunts, if he’s so lacking in self-awareness and introspection that he forgets about his last meltdown 30 minutes after it happens … aren’t those good traits to have?

As for the question of how you can tell when a pitcher has the mentality, the simple answer would be, “Because he’s done it before.” Which is fine, to a point. There’s value in having something resembling a reliable commodity, even if relief pitchers can and do turn into pumpkins in a hurry. But there’s a difference between handing Rivera a multiyear deal for being Rivera and handing your closer job to someone like League or Valverde, for little reason other than, “They’ve saved games before.” It’s not that all relief pitchers are fungible. It’s that the game is stuffed with mediocre closers who rode short hot streaks into their jobs and never excelled at them, or were once good but are no longer. Those relievers are fungible — keeping them in high-leverage roles should be assessed and reassessed almost daily, and they can safely be tossed overboard the minute they’re due to make real money.

Think also about where elite closers come from. Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Eric Gagne, Jonathan Papelbon … all of them were one starting-pitching prospects who were either good but not great in that role, couldn’t stay healthy when carrying a starter’s workload, or both. What happened when they were freed to throw 15 or 20 pitches per outing instead of 100 or 110? They eliminated the weakest pitches from their repertoire, and dominated with just one or two offerings, with one of those being a fastball that they could suddenly throw significantly harder, since they no longer had to keep up their velocity for seven or eight innings a night. We’re seeing the same thing happen in Baltimore this year, albeit on a more modest level. Tommy Hunter was mediocre or worse throughout most of his career as a starting pitcher, lacking the stuff to blow pitches by hitters. A full-time reliever this year with the O’s, he’s pumped up his velocity to where he’s touched 100 mph multiple times, he’s posting the best stats of his career, and he now looks like he might one day get cool closer music of his own.

Another theory: Pitchers, and athletes in general, perform best when they have clearly defined roles. Regardless of whether this is actually true, pitchers might believe it to be true, and thus get flustered when called upon to pitch at an unexpected time in the game. We’ve seen enough closers get whacked for four runs on a day when they’re just trying to get work in to wonder if there might be something to all of that. On a more basic level, talk to enough relief pitchers and you’ll find that they have routines they use to ramp up to their specific entry time in a game. When Troy Percival was in his prime as a flame-throwing closer, he drank 10 cups of coffee and plowed through wad after wad of chewing tobacco; for today’s pitchers, that’s often two or three cans of Red Bull. Mess with routines and relievers could fail to get sufficiently wired — naturally or chemically — before coming into a game, or could load up on adrenaline too early, only to crash if and when the call doesn’t come until much later.

There’s more. Closers get paid differently than other relief pitchers, so altering the way save chances are allotted would cause a stir among those closers and their agents. There’s the expectations issue, where a manager who tries to be different can and will get crucified if and when a nontraditional bullpen setup doesn’t work. There’s the lack of precedent, where only a small handful of teams have tried a true closer-by-committee/bullpen-by-committee setup and none have truly dominated that way. (The 2003 Red Sox are one of the best examples of a team whose bullpen struggled in that scenario.) Finally, there’s the Rivera argument, where teams see how unbeatable one closer has been for so long, so they naturally want to find a Sandman of their own.

Getting past all these obstacles and biases wouldn’t be easy. The teams most likely to get more mileage out of their bullpens and change 53 years of stagnation are those that have more quality pitchers, period. If great relievers are often failed starters, and if throwing 200 very good innings is tougher than tossing 60 great ones, then scouting, drafting, developing, signing, and trading for very good starters allows you to use spillover talent to staff the bullpen. Two of the most effective young bullpen arms this year, the Tigers’ Drew Smyly and the Rays’ Alex Torres, were primarily starters just a year ago. Since Tampa Bay and Detroit are both stocked with starting-pitching talent, both could be pushed to relief, where they could take the reins off and smoke overmatched hitters for an inning or two at a time. And of course, the more good relievers you have, the less important it is to find the right roles for the right arms. The 1990 Reds could’ve done whatever they wanted with peak Randy Myers, peak Rob Dibble, and peak Norm Charlton — they were still going to dominate most games from the seventh inning on.

Of course very few teams have that kind of depth, and that kind of luxury. So for those teams that don’t, switching from a straight Capital-C Closer system to a bullpen in which your best reliever is inserted into the highest-leverage situations — say, top of the seventh, bases loaded, one out, tie game — will require a sea change. Pitchers will need to be trained both mentally and physically to be ready for anything. Managers and pitching coaches will need to become open-minded, didactic, and brave enough to train their pitchers well, then face the music when things go wrong. Teams will need to start compensating relief pitchers differently, rewarding core skills over raw save totals. As for skeptical fans and media … well, they’re going to roast you no matter what when you lose. If plugging your Aroldis Chapman into a true game-saving spot before the ninth makes you win more games, the skepticism will eventually die down.

None of these are easy steps. The first few teams to try it will require strong-willed field personnel, bosses who’ll stand behind their moves, maybe even a relief corps made up entirely of younger talent, such that no politics come into play when the 34-year-old who’s been closing for years is suddenly told to chuck all the routines he’s built up during his career.

But if we’re not doing any better now than we did in Don Draper’s prime, maybe these are risks worth taking. From Branch Rickey developing the first powerful farm system and embracing integration, to Casey Stengel’s system of platoons, to Earl Weaver’s love of on-base percentage, baseball’s boldest decision-makers have gone from being doubted to being copied after their calculated risks paid off. Who’s to say the manager who detonates the game’s blind adherence to a deeply flawed stat won’t be next?

Filed Under: MLB

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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