Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Time To Seriously Reconsider The Closer's Role

  • The designated closer is hit-or-miss:

How many closers in baseball are absolutely trustworthy to hold a lead?


Mariano Rivera.

How many closers are mostly trustworthy to hold a lead (despite recent events)?


Jonathan Papelbon.

The majority of their trustworthiness comes from playoff performances. Rivera is, of course, beyond reproach; Papelbon has gotten the job done in the big spots almost every time aside for last Sunday and manager Terry Francona was as much at fault for his screw-up in walking Torii Hunter to pitch to Vladimir Guerrero as Papelbon was for everything else.

It's not that Huston Street of the Colorado Rockies has immediately become the poster-child for faltering closers; it's that the designated "stopper" has entered so many games in recent years and blown the whole thing up when his whole persona as the "ace" out of the bullpen should preclude such things from happening. The best guy is the best guy for a reason. It's only in the role of closer that you see journeymen the likes of Ryan Franklin and David Aardsma recording the misleading "save" stat.

Even the very good closers or recent years like Brad Lidge, Billy Wagner and Francisco Rodriguez have made it a habit of getting themselves into trouble only to wriggle out of it like Houdini from a locked box. Many times they don't extricate themselves from their self-made messes. And more often, those meltdowns occur when they're most important and/or memorable.

When you have second-tier pitchers such as Street entering the game in the most important inning and he continually gacks up wins, it's time to go back to the drawing board for some courageous organization to make required changes.

Tony La Russa is blamed for creating the so-called "one-inning closer" with Dennis Eckersley, but what people fail to acknowledge or understand is that prior to hooking up with Eckersley, La Russa always had two or three pitchers he'd use to close games and would use them for multiple innings; with Eckersley, the decision was one based on effectiveness. Eckersley was more effective when his innings were regulated and relegated to one; that's how La Russa used him. It was based on cold, calculated reality. It was only the Jeff Torborgs of the world who started following La Russa's blueprint to the letter not because it was best for the club, but because it was easier to explain to the press and shield oneself from criticism by saying, "that's his role; that's his job". In other words, "Blah, blah, blah; don't criticize me."

While most teams don't have a Rivera in whose hands to put any and every game, they do have pitchers to record outs. Teams and managers have tried to take differing routes to finishing their games in recent memory with good intentions and misplaced personnel.

In his final days with the Athletics, La Russa realized that his club had little chance to compete due to the shoddy construction of the roster (nice work by Sandy Alderson there); in his desperation, he tried a strategy that he and longtime friend Jim Leyland had kicked around for years of putting numbers on the backburner and implementing his entire pitching staff as a unit designed to win games. What he did was have designated starters pitch three or so innings, then make a change to the designated middle relievers and so on like something of a mini-rotation with no designated starters/middle-relievers/set-up men/closers. It didn't work because the pitchers he was using weren't any good, but it was an idea that shouldn't be dismissed out-of-hand and could be fine-tuned to work.

The Red Sox made a great show of not having a designated "closer" in 2003, instead choosing to use whichever pitcher made the most sense against the scheduled batters. This failed miserably because the pitchers the Red Sox used were journeymen, youngsters and fringe big leaguers who couldn't handle the mental stress of the job and didn't have the stuff to blast through it. More so than Grady Little's decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch in game 7 of that year's ALCS, it was the failed closer-by-committee that cost the Red Sox a World Series appearance that year. Their shoddy bullpen cost them 23 games they should've won. Had they won even a third of those games, they would've won the AL East and perhaps avoided the Yankees entirely. Little was a convenient scapegoat for what was an organizational decision of arrogance and adherence to dogmatic, out-of-context sabermetrics.

What would be wrong with coming up with a viable alternative? Why not have a "reliever rotation" based on the opponent and the stuff of the starter. Let's say hypothetically that the Tigers are starting Justin Verlander with his 100-mph fastball; and the decision is predetermined to use, say, Nate Robertson if and when Verlander tires. Robertson would treat the game as a scheduled appearance as if he was a starter; the contrast of power stuff from the right side of Verlander and the lefty Robertson (whose stuff is better suited to go one time through the lineup anyway) might be more effective than the current system of the seventh and eighth inning set-up men and the closer. How much worse would that be than Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney?

It would take talent recognition; cold analysis; an ability to sell the idea to the players on the idea; to ignore naysayers on talk radio, in the media and fans; and someone with the sheer balls to do something radically different. Given the way "closers" have done nothing more than close out games for their own team----by blowing the games----how much worse could things get after the past week? Not very much.

  • Viewer Mail 10.13.2009:

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes:

Yup. Jeter is a genius. I guess he's what people always mean by "intangibles," except that his talent is tangible. He's always at the right place at the right time and executes.

You really do want Valentine managing somewhere, don't you.

Nothing more needs to be said about Derek Jeter. Maybe the Mets should arrange an internship for Jose Reyes to hang with Jeter and learn how to comport himself. I'm serious about that.

As for Bobby Valentine, I want him in one uniform----that of the New York Mets. It's really starting to appear as if he's not going to be on a big league field to start 2010. The perception will be that he's "vulturing" waiting for a big job worthy of Valentine's high opinion of himself, but that's not his problem. The newest rumor is that the Japanese Yokohoma Bay Stars are pursuing him heavily and lucratively----MLB Fan House Story.

Valentine likes attention; he likes the idol-worship he receives in Japan; and he loves money. Plus, he's not going to walk into a situation in MLB where he's got no chance to win and no sway with the organization. He wants the Mets job; and if he sits out next year or goes back to Japan, chances are it'll be open for him.

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes:

As a Captain myself, I second your assessment of Derek Jeter. One of my favorite things about Jeter (and as an anti-Yankees fan this sorta hurts to say) is watching him play the infield. He almost always uses two hands; and say what you want about his speed, he finds a way to get to the ball and field it the way one is supposed to. It's a thing of beauty as his grace makes difficult plays seem effortless.

It's amazing how Jeter has been able to cultivate a niche where no one can say anything negative about him and mean it. This is how universally respected he is for the way he conducts himself and he backs it up in the field. He's a pleasure to watch whether you hate the Yankees or not. That might be his greatest accomplishment of all.

Speaking of Jeff, in handling a stunning show in disregard for my power by one (all-too-frequent to the point of being disturbing) inhabitant of the entity known as Twitter, he wrote the following regarding yours truly:

All I know is his dark side is dark. Dude shoots lightning from fingers.

You Goddamn well better believe it!

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I'm sure LaRussa's contemporaries were shaking their heads when he started that trend. Out of all the collective entities I'm familiar with, one of the most stubborn, most closed-off, most 'old-boy-networked' factions is Major League Baseball. It's not very open to change, innovation or sometimes even reason. Your idea is interesting. Just don't count on ever seeing it come to fruition.

And having spent many years in East Asia myself, I'd bet the house there's another, more titillating reason why Bobby Valentine enjoys Japan so much. I won't go into details here, but let's just say 'a shower' can often be a group thing with a pleasant guy-to-girl ratio (1:2 or 1:3 or, if you can handle it, 1:4, etc).