May 17, 2004
A Slave to the Save
The closer role developed over a period of years, evolving out of the 1970s role of ace reliever, a guy who would pitch 120 innings a year in chunks of up to three at a time. Herman Franks ratcheted down Bruce Sutter's workload for the Cubs in the late 1970s, using him solely to protect leads late in games, and Tony La Russa went even further by eliminating multiple-inning outings for Dennis Eckersley in 1988. With Eckersley, a new meme took hold: a team's best reliever had to be used to get outs 25 through 27 if those outs coincided with a lead of less than four runs. It was the ultimate triumph of statistics--the convoluted save rule--over logic.
At its core, the closer myth holds that those last three outs are the most important, and therefore the ones you want your best pitcher throwing. If the closercentric bullpen is to go the way of pullover jerseys and flying-saucer ballparks, convincing people within the game that there are other, more important outs will be a good place to start.
One way to chip at that is to compare the situations in which closers are being used, as opposed to their teammates. For example, the Tigers have Ugueth Urbina closing and Jamie Walker pitching in many of the high-leverage non-save situations. This year, Urbina has six saves, Walker none. Without even getting into the issue of which pitcher is actually better, look at how each has been deployed this season. Walker has inherited 12 baserunners, Urbina just three. Walker has been brought into games in which the tying or go-ahead run was at bat, on base or in the on-deck circle seven times; Urbina, eight times. Walker's first batter has been in the top four lineup spots 12 times, Urbina's eight times.
Who has had the tougher go of it? To me, that last statistic is the most damning indictment of the closercentric bullpen. Teams routinely deploy their set-up man and closer backwards, basing the usage on the inning and not the opposing hitters. Too often, the second- or third-best pitcher in the bullpen--or worse, if you employ Eddie Oropesa--is allowed to face the meat of the lineup in the eighth inning, saving the closer for the lesser batters should the inferior pitcher not screw up. Wouldn't it make more sense to use the better pitcher for the toughest hitters? Don't you want John Smoltz pitching to Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell, with Kevin Gryboski or someone working on Mike Lieberthal, David Bell and Chase Utley?
That's what the closercentric bullpen gives us: lesser pitchers being used against better hitters in higher-leverage situations. Just yesterday, the Tigers let Esteban Yan pitch to the heart of the Rangers' lineup up 3-1 in the eighth, then brought Urbina in to face the 6-7-8 hitters with that same lead in the ninth. The Reds' used John Riedling with a one-run lead against the heart of the Dodgers' order in the eighth, and Danny Graves to get out three non-hitters in the ninth with a three-run lead. If the save rule did not exist--if it had never been invented--would anyone think this was rational?
(There's a side issue here, in that often the "closer" isn't actually the best pitcher in the team's bullpen. While I can debate the relative merits of, say, Riedling and Graves, Dave Miley isn't doing so, and the pitchers aren't being paid or handled in that way. "Closer" generally is a proxy for "best reliever" in MLB.)
The closer strategy isn't actually a strategy at all, but a cover that provides managers with a way to deflect reponsibility and defer actual decision-making. It's a suboptimal deployment of talent that costs teams games while inflating the salaries of fungible players. There's no special talent involved in being a closer; three or four guys every season inherit the job and rack up a bunch of saves simply by not being terrible. The idea that getting the last three outs is somehow more difficult than getting the previous three is a myth perpetuated by, generally speaking, the guys who have had closer jobs. Any examination of actual usage will show that the work done by the set-up men is no less difficult, and usually more difficult, than starting the ninth inning with a lead and getting three random guys out. Entering in higher-leverage situations, such as tie games, specifically to face tough hitters with runners on base, has more impact of the outcome of the game without being nearly as glorified.
The development of the closer has reached its natural end, where teams are doing the exact opposite of what would make the most sense in the absence of the save rule. For the best possible chance of winning, teams need to ignore saves and revamp their bullpens to make sure their best pitchers are throwing the highest-leverage innings. The first teams to move to this structure will hold a competitive advantage until the rest catch up.