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June 22, 2007

Future Shock

Closer Mentality

by Kevin Goldstein

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In various chats and in a few articles, the writers here have made reference to our internal mailing list, which is the home to conversations which range from the mundane to the fiery. A recent topic that brought up widely divergent opinions was the concept of 'closer mentality.' More specifically, is there such a thing, and what is it? In the end, some believed in it, some didn't, but all agreed that it would be a difficult thing to prove. At Tuesday's Midwest League All-Star game, I got to sit down with a young closer to ask him his feelings on the subject. A ninth-round pick by the Blue Jays out of Oakland University in Michigan, Paul Phillips survived labrum surgery in college to earn a $75,000 bonus on the basis of his plus fastball/breaking ball combination. With heat that sits in the low 90s and an outstanding slider, the 23-year-old righty has a 2.54 ERA in 24 appearances, converting 10 of 11 save opportunities while recording 33 strikeouts and issuing just seven walks in 28.1 innings.

Kevin Goldstein: We've had a lot of internal discussions at BP lately about 'closer mentality.' Do you believe it exists? And if so, how do you define it?

Paul Phillips: I definitely think it exists. You have to have a short memory--about everything. If you're throwing great, remember how it feels and go back out there to do it next time--and if you throw badly, you got to let it go. The thing is, if you throw badly, your team normally loses if you're a closer. I mean, very rarely can you make a mistake and still win the game. I would define it as... I'm not sure if it's being cocky or just extremely confident, because you definitely need to have a little bit of a swagger about you--just because you're out there when it matters the most, and [laughing], if you throw bad you lose. So it's just rebounding and forgetting any bad things that happen.

KG: Do you think a closer mentality can be different with different guys? Like, people would say Billy Wagner has a closer mentality, and they'd also say Mariano Rivera has a closer mentality--but those are two very different kinds of guys, even on a mental approach to the game.

PP: I think you look at it this way--as a closer you need to either be extremely calm, or extremely...

KG: Jacked up?

PP: Jacked up. That's what you see with Wagner. Wagner's a real intense guy, he'll throw a fist, he'll do whatever he needs. Rivera just goes out there like he's been there a thousand times, he knows exactly what to do, and it doesn't matter to him, even on the biggest stage. It's one or the other--either being over-excited or extremely calm, but I don't think you can be in the middle and be a closer.

KG: Which one are you?

PP: [Smiling] I get after it. I'm excited when I go out there.

KG: Do you feel like you're throwing harder when you're out there protecting a one-run lead as opposed to a four-run lead? Does the emotion affect your stuff?

PP: For myself personally, I need to be under the lights a little bit. You're going to see my best stuff in the best situations normally. If I go out there to get a mop-up inning, just to keep myself sharp, I might not throw as hard. I don't know... different people react differently. Some people can go out there, and they don't like it when people are watching them, they don't like pitching with a one-run lead, but if it's relatively close, I'm going to be excited, because it doesn't take much for a game to turn.

KG: So you will throw harder?

PP: I'd say so. Sometimes, yeah. If it's a real exciting game, yeah, it's happened--it's definitely happened before.

KG: Did your control get worse?

PP: That's the thing you have to be careful about, you have to be able to calm things down while still being intense. If you go out there and say, 'man, this is a one run game--I'm going to go out there and throw as hard as I can,' all of a sudden you start missing up in the zone and then all of a sudden [mimes hitting a baseball], clack, you give up a home run or something. These hitters are too good, and they all can hit fastballs. So you don't want to miss. If you are going to throw a fastball, and throw it hard, make sure you locate it, because if you throw hard, and you miss, that ball is going a long way. It just helps the hitters out that way too, because they don't have to get it as good as they normally would because you generate some of the power.

KG: What about secondary pitches? Do you feel like if you get too jacked up you'll lose some of the spin on your breaking ball?

PP: I throw a slider, and that's a power pitch, so the harder you throw it the more it's going to break. So I don't feel like I lose anything... well, the changeup might get a little too fast, arm speed problems.

KG: Are you scheduled to throw tonight?

PP: I'm told that if we're winning, I'm throwing the ninth, so I'm looking forward to that.

Although pitching with a big lead, Phillips pitched a perfect ninth on Tuesday night, striking out the final two batters he faced to preserve an 8-2 victory for the East.

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

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