Closing Time

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2009 at 12:42 pm
Paps blows another one

Paps blows another one

On the heels of yet another Jonathan Papelbon choke job, I think it’s time to offer up a controversial – but easily supported – opinion:

The closer is the most overrated, overhyped, and overused position in baseball.

Closers are simply good relief pitchers. That is all. They aren’t superheroes who deserve their own trademark entrance music. They aren’t scary, no matter how many saves they rack up (more on that later). And they certainly don’t earn their enormous salaries and widespread cult status.

Don’t believe me?

A few stats for your consideration:

In this study by Dave Smith of Retrosheet, it was found that between 1944 and 2003 (with 14 earlier seasons also taken into consideration), teams that entered the 9th inning with a lead went on to win the game 95% of the time.

95%. That’s a pretty significant statistic.

But that accounts for any lead, you say. Of course teams with huge leads are going to win games. Yeah, you’re right. But Smith has close games covered too. During those same 73 seasons, teams with a one-run lead after 8 innings have held on to win 85% of the time. If they had a two-run lead, that number jumps to 94% and then 95% for three-run leads. (Credit here must go to the aforementioned Smith and’s Jim Caple, who had a great piece about this last year).

Now consider that a “save” situation involves a pitcher – usually the closer – entering a game with a lead of no more than 3 runs and finishing that game to ensure the win.

So, basically a “save” is a statistical pat on the back for accomplishing something that happens 95% of the time anyway, regardless of the pitcher. So, to all the closers out there who are intensely proud of their saves – congratulations. You’re irrelevant.

Look at it this way: In 1944, there weren’t any closers. The pitching strategy was completely different. Starters were workhorses who actually threw complete games – they didn’t need a closer to come in and help them out. And, when relievers were used, the system was actually much closer to the dreaded “bullpen by committee” that the Red Sox were widely denounced for in 2003. Rightly denounced, many would argue, because – as we all remember – the Sox went on to lose dramatically to the Yankees and their late-inning bullpen was largely to blame.

But the Sox didn’t lose because they didn’t have a “closer.” The Sox lost because they didn’t have good relief pitchers. There’s a difference. If the Committee of Closers had actually included several talented arms, the outcome would have been completely different. In 2004, they won. Why? Because Keith Foulke was a good pitcher, not because he was some kind of superhuman closer.

Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera

A common argument in support of the closer involves the psychological edge provided by having a dominant pitcher on the mound in the 9th inning. Great closers shorten games, people say. Just look at Mariano Rivera in the late 90’s. Even I can’t argue with that – having a good pitcher pitching in close games is probably a good idea. But, I guarantee that there were times during Rivera’s tremendous run in which he would have been better suited coming in earlier in a game to get the team out of a jam. Saving a guy like that – the best relief pitcher on the team – to pitch in a statistically meaningless situation (with a 2 or 3-run lead) is a waste of talent. It is. There’s no other way to put it.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that some pitchers aren’t better than others. I would absolutely rather have Jonathan Papelbon – er, the 2007 Jonathan Papelbon – on the mound in the top of the 9th at Fenway than, say, Scott Williamson. But that’s simply because Paps is a better pitcher. He’s better at throwing the baseball effectively than a guy like Williamson. But he’s not some kind of hardened, focused specialist who is somehow dominant just at the end of games. That’s merely a media concoction, a general opinion that came from somewhere and seems to have settled over baseball.

Sure, some athletes are better under pressure – that’s just the way sports work. But to say that a pitcher’s schedule should be manipulated so as to ensure that he is used only in 9th innings, in save situations, is ludicrous. If I’m a baseball manager, why wouldn’t I want to use my best relief pitcher in relief – to relieve the team in a desperate situation, regardless of the inning? Why not bring in Papelbon with 2 guys on in the 6th to get out of a jam and then work a scoreless 7th, instead of saving him for the 9th and a “save” situation, where he’s just going to accomplish something that would happen 85% of the time anyway? It just makes too much sense, I guess.

But you never, ever see managers do this with their closers. They’d be crucified for it, especially if – heaven forbid – the game gets close at the end and a different reliever has to come in and ends up blowing the game. WHY DIDN’T HE SAVE HIS CLOSER??, fans and the media would cry. What an idiot! But that manager wouldn’t be an idiot, actually. In fact, he’d be relying on statistics – and who doesn’t in this Bill Jamesian-era of baseball? – and smartly utilizing the talent at his disposal. That’s not dumb. That doesn’t make somebody an idiot.

The outside pressure, however, is simply too great for managers to even consider employing their bullpen in that fashion. I mean, the Red Sox Closer by Committee was a national story in 2003. Coaching jobs are so fragile in this media-driven, Internet-fueled age that people are unwilling to change their thinking, for risk of failure and subsequent firing. There is so much pressure on coaches of all sports to win and win fast that the job has turned into a veritable revolving door. But, change and innovation takes time and it courts early failure. Imagine if Bill Walsh had been experimenting with his now-famous and widely-implemented West-Coast Offense in today’s era. He would have been message-boarded out of a job, run out of town by an angry, nerdy lynch mob.

The reasons managers employ – coddle, celebrate, overpay, waste etc – one-inning pitchers (and really, isn’t that all closers are?) are all based solely on outside forces: Agents, organizational hype, media criticism, money, psychology. They are the same reasons why we don’t see NFL coaches going for it on fourth-and-short or why basketball coaches continue to choose not to foul with a 3-point lead at the end of a game. The sports world is simply dominated by tradition; there is a suffocating need to do things The Right Way. So NFL coaches don’t take risks on fourth down, basketball coaches rely on their defense in the final seconds, and baseball managers bring closers in to pitch the 9th inning. It’s just the way things are done. But that doesn’t make it right. And statistically, it’s stupid. That’s just a fact.

Now cue my entrance music.


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