May 12, 2006
Mommy, Where Do Closers Come From?
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.
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:
MGS: Minor League Games Started
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.