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May 12, 2006

Future Shock

Mommy, Where Do Closers Come From?

by Kevin Goldstein

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Over the last two days, Joe Sheehan has written a pair of pieces discussing relief use. These fell in line with some research I planned on doing eventually, so I thought I'd chime in now. People who know my background shouldn't be surprised to hear that I still look at every minor league box score every day. As I was doing this, I thought I recently spotted a trend when I noticed a number of two-inning saves being recorded. Were teams using their player development system to groom relief aces like the kind Joe talked about from the 70s and 80s? A closer look said no, but it also said we don't really have trends to go on when recognizing future closers, because they certainly aren't pitching in the 9th inning of minor league games.

Taking a look at the 60 closers for each team's Double-A and Triple-A affiliate, one finds a series of has-beens, never-will-bes, and only a few real prospects.

ORGANIZATION

Triple-A Closer

Age

Double-A Closer

Age

Arizona Jeff Bajenaru 28 Tony Pena 24
Atlanta Chad Paronto 30 Manny Acosta 25
Baltimore Julio Manon 32 Marino Salas 25
Boston Jermaine Van Buren 25 Barry Hertzler 25
Chicago (NL) Michael Wuertz 27 Clay Rapada 25
Chicago (AL) Jeff Farnsworth 30 Ehren Wassermann 25
Cincinnati Scott Chiasson 28 David Shafer 24
Cleveland Ben Howard 27 Edward Mujica 22
Colorado Nate Field 30 Manuel Corpas 23
Detroit Lee Gardner 31 Chris Homer 25
Florida Brad Clontz 35 Taylor Tankersley 23
Houston Travis Driskill 34 Jailen Peguero 25
Kansas City Joe Nelson 31 Leo Nunez 22
Los Angeles (AL) Jason Bulger 27 Richard Thompson 21
Los Angeles (NL) Jonathan Broxton 21 Mark Alexander 25
Milwaukee Jason Kershner 29 Alec Zumwalt 25
Minnesota Pat Neshek 25 Rob Korecky 26
New York (NL) Heath Bell 28 Henry Owens 27
New York (AL) Mark Corey 31 T.J. Beam 25
Oakland Santiago Casilla 25 Alex Santos 28
Philadelphia Yoel Hernandez 26 Adam Shafer 27
Pittsburgh Matt Whiteside 38 Josh Sharpless 25
San Diego Jon Adkins 28 Dale Thayer 25
San Francisco Merkin Valdez 24 Joe Bateman 26
Seattle Emil Fruto 21 Jon Huber 24
St. Louis Brian Falkenborg 28 Mark Worrell 23
Tampa Bay J.B. Miadich 30 Juan Salas 27
Texas Kevin Walker 29 Bryan Corey 32
Toronto Lee Gronkiewicz 27 Tracey Thorpe 25
Washington Bill Bray 22 Roy Corcoran 26

Of those 60 names, you'd be hard-pressed to find ten decent prospects, and you don't need one hand to count the number who might one day be future closers.

It's interesting that the closer is one of the few concessions given to minor league teams where winning is concerned. A player development system is designed to--obviously--develop talent; winning minor league games is not the goal. If the leadoff man in Double-A has a .300 on-base percentage, he's going to keep batting leadoff regardless of how it affects the team's ability to put runs on the board, because the parent team wants him to become a leadoff hitter. You don't bench the guy, because there's no way he's going to become better without consistent at-bats. That guy in the rotation with the 6.32 ERA? He's staying put, too. Yet the closer job is generally given to the player with the best shot at preserving the victory. Why is this happening? Primarily, it's because very few players are groomed as closers. For the most part, big league closers are former starters who were moved to the bullpen for durability reasons or because they lacked a third pitch. Here are the 30 closers in baseball right now:

TEAM

PLAYER

MGS

MGR

CLVL

CLYR

Angels Francisco Rodriguez 42 54 AA 1
Astros Brad Lidge 42 10 MLB 2
Athletics Huston Street 0 67 A 1
Blue Jays B.J. Ryan 4 100 MLB 3
Braves Chris Reitsma 74 1 MLB 3
Brewers Derrick Turnbow 55 98 MLB 2
Cardinals Jason Isringhausen 88 6 MLB 5
Cubs Ryan Dempster 88 6 MLB 8
Devil Rays Tyler Walker 129 43 MLB 3
Diamondbacks Jose Valverde 5 219 R 1
Dodgers Danys Baez 27 17 MLB 2
Giants Tim Worrell 99 22 MLB 8
Indians Bob Wickman 69 5 MLB 6
Mariners J.J. Putz 75 60 AAA 3
Marlins Joe Borowski 33 471 A 4
Mets Billy Wagner 73 2 MLB 2
Nationals Chad Cordero 0 19 A 1
Orioles Chris Ray 31 33 AA 2
Padres Trevor Hoffman 11 81 A 2
Phillies Tom Gordon 53 9 MLB 9
Pirates Mike Gonzalez 92 59 MLB 4
Rangers Akinori Otsuka 0 0 MLB 3
Red Sox Jonathan Papelbon 48 10 MLB 2
Reds David Weathers 146 7 MLB 14
Rockies Brian Fuentes 91 90 MLB 4
Royals Ambiorix Burgos 58 18 MLB 2
Tigers Todd Jones 60 108 AA 3
Twins Joe Nathan 93 33 MLB 4
White Sox Bobby Jenks 77 38 AA 1
Yankees Mariano Rivera 68 33 MLB 3

MGS: Minor League Games Started
MGR: Minor League Games Relieved
CLVL: First level in which the pitcher spent time as a closer
CLYR: Year in big league career in which he became a closer

Most closers were minor league starters and, on average, they did not become big league closers until their third major league season. In fact, only a third of major league closers had any experience at all as a closer in the minors.

This speaks to a secondary reason that future closers are hard to find. The limited workload given to a closer has a negative effect on a player's ability to develop. For the most part, this returns to the argument of leaving your hopeful-yet-struggling leadoff man in the lineup. Sixty innings a season is just not enough work for a pitcher to make the improvements necessary to reach the big leagues. So unless you are drafting a pitcher for the specific purposes of making him a closer (Street and Cordero for instance), he needs a far greater number of innings to work on his game.

For example, look at Craig Hansen. Hansen looked like the very-soon-to-be closer of the future in Boston when he was drafted in the first round last June, but that job now belongs to Jonathan Papelbon. While Papelbon still might eventually move back to the rotation, it's also now possible that Hansen might be asked to become a starter. To address this, the Red Sox want Hansen to work on being effective in longer stretches, and improve his third pitch, a changeup. Therefore, Hansen has not been closing this year, rather, he's been pitching in 2+ inning stretches every three to four days. In his last appearance for Triple-A Pawtucket, he faced 14 batters and threw 64 pitches.

In Joe's Wednesday piece on closers, he wrote the following:

The closer mindset--this whole mythology about the importance and the difficulty and the personal qualities required to pitch the ninth inning--is a farce.

Whether are not you agree with the notion that this is a farce, it's interesting to note that by never giving potential closers the opportunity to close in the minors, teams are often flying blind in the majors by throwing pitchers into that role with no track record to go on.

So it seems that if you're looking through minor league statistics for future closers, either as a fan or a fantasy player, they're not going to tell you much.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  MLB,  Closers

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