September 17, 2009
Closing Out Closing
Brian Fuentes' umpire-aided blown save last night was the latest in a recent stretch of poor performances, ones that have opened the door to questions about his role in the Angels' bullpen. Just a couple of days ago, the speculation was already rampant.
"But now that they've figured out how to start games, they aren't sure how-or with whom-to close them."-Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times
The Angels should be on cruise control, headed to the postseason with their best offense in years, with a rotation that has become a real force in the second half, and home-field advantage in the Division Series. Instead, they're dealing with a story that is in part their own creation, a remnant of the decision to use a closer-centric bullpen. They're not alone.
"Lidge and Manuel spoke after Wednesday night's game against the Washington Nationals. The following day, the manager wouldn't say if or when Lidge will get his job back as closer."-ESPN.com
The Phillies allowed Brad Lidge to put up one of the worst seasons in the history of one-inning closers, with double-digit blown saves and an ERA above 7.00 before finally calling on someone else in a ninth-inning save situation. So instead of a quiet September playing out a big lead and getting ready for the playoffs, they're managing a controversy that was avoidable with a bit more imagination.
The Cubs, even with their recent stretch of good play, aren't going back to the postseason or even set to make the last couple of weeks of the regular season interesting. This is in part because they let Kevin Gregg cough up a whole bunch of games during the summer, enduring weeks of will-he/won't-he speculation and a spate of late losses before finally moving him out of the ninth inning and moving Carlos Marmol in.
One of the less-visible, but nevertheless valuable benefits of not designating a single closer is that your season never becomes about that one guy. The three teams mentioned are the most visible cases of closer controversies this season, and if you look back, you find a few good teams hampered every year not just by the absence of good relief pitching late, but by the burdens created when one guy, christened as The Man, becomes a lightning rod due to injury or ineffectiveness. As an industry, baseball has turned closers into quarterbacks, and for no good reason. Quarterbacks touch the ball on every play, determine where it goes after that, and are the nerve center of a football team's offensive operations. A bad quarterback has no choice but to cripple a team, because the position in too important to its success. It's also unavoidable but to have one; short of direct snaps to the other backs-and the old-is-new-again Wildcat formation and its derivatives, all updated versions of pre-war offensive approaches, have a tinge of reducing the quarterback's importance-in a way that the closer position is not. It's a decision to assign one reliever the job of protecting small leads in the ninth inning, and it's a decision to position that job as one of high importance.
That decision isn't inevitable, and in fact, is only about a generation old. Relief pitchers don't have to be used in this manner, and as the examples of the Angels and Phillies show, putting these pitchers on pedestals-deciding that getting the last three outs of the game with a small lead is a skill over and above "pitching"-creates not just resource allocation issues, but can be the spark for ongoing controversies that detract from the goals of the team. It's one thing for a team to be incredibly reliant on it's best starting pitcher, its middle-of-the-order bat with a 950 OPS, or its All-Star shortstop. These players make contributions that are invaluable to a season, and their skills are generally impossible to replace in the short term. There's no good way to replace Carlos Beltran on the fly. When Brandon Webb goes down, his absence probably chops a good six wins off of your season total.
Closers aren't those guys. Closers are relievers who have been given a particular role and succeeded in the first half-dozen opportunities in that role. Relievers are just failed starting pitchers with adaptable skill sets, and those are, if not a dime a dozen, maybe a million bucks each. New closers are minted every season, usually once a month, and they prove that the skills necessary to "save" games are common and not at all distinguishable from the skills necessary to pitch from behind in the sixth, or ahead in the eighth, or in a tied game in the 11th. There are 30 closers in baseball, and many of them-even some very good ones-have had the job for about 15 minutes. No matter how good any one of them might be in a given season, and Brad Lidge was incredible a year ago, it's a mistake to treat them as gods, as superstars, as inviolable. For the Phillies, Chase Utley is that guy. Cole Hamels is that guy. Brad Lidge? Brad Lidge is a two-pitch righty who can get strikeouts but who has also been prone to walks and homers; the gap between him and Ryan Madson is 90 percent opportunity and 10 percent skill. Allowing the usage patterns of the past to dictate the usage patterns of the present-no, allowing the usage patterns of the past at all-is the mistake.
In a world where relief usage was dictated not by scoring rules and the myths they created but by win maximization, managers would have much more flexibility in using their personnel. The most game-critical situations often come before the ninth inning, and without a one- to three-run lead. They occur in the seventh, with runners on and a great hitter at the plate. They occur in the eighth, with two high-OBP hitters coming to the plate to start the frame. And yes, they do occur in the ninth, but with much less frequency than is imagined, and much less pressure. Protecting a one-run lead in Fenway Park against the middle of the Red Sox' batting order-Fuentes' task last night-is no joke. Retiring three low-OBP fly-ball hitters with a three-run lead at Safeco Field-David Aardsma's job yesterday-is barely work. We call both those pitchers closers, but you can't remotely compare the door they were asked to shut.
Major league teams need to move away from the practice of christening individuals for the job of getting three outs in the ninth inning, and move towards more rational assignment of duties for relievers. In all likelihood, this will entail fewer appearances with more work per appearance. Eight teams are in line to average fewer than one inning per appearance for their relief pitchers this season, which would be 20 percent of the teams that have done so in all of baseball history to date. This is the nadir of a trend that dates back to the 1980s, and it has led to the most bizarre roster constructions in baseball history, a standard of 12 pitchers and some teams carrying (if only briefly) as many as 14 hurlers. It all begins with the decision to ask less and less from the best relievers. That has to stop. Get more from the best pitchers. Use them earlier in the game, get more outs from them when you need them, and be willing to not have your very best guy available for that three-run lead in the ninth with the six/seven/eight-slot hitters coming up.
If you spread the load, not only minimizing the importance of getting the save but minimizing the importance of any one pitcher to the overall operation of the bullpen, you'll have a stronger bullpen, but you'll also never find yourself in the position of Mike Scioscia, taking questions about the role of a guy who will throw less than five percent of your team's innings all year long as if he's Tom Brady. You'll never be Charlie Manuel, locked into using an ineffective pitcher to protect small leads in the ninth because he has a label you can't shake. There will never be a closer controversy because there will never be a closer, just relievers who get used as the score, inning, and opposition demand, and whose role it is to get outs.
Now, the most consistent objection I've heard to this idea is that the pitchers themselves won't stand for it, that they "have to know their roles." My standard counterargument is to spend a day at Retrosheet (God bless Retrosheet!) looking at boxscores from games in the 1970s up to about 1984. Look at the usage patterns for relief pitchers. There were no "roles" beyond "pitch when the manager calls upon you." I'm not advocating the more extreme examples you'll find in those years, guys coming in in the fifth and throwing four innings. The point is that this idea of "roles" isn't even 30 years old, it's been bred into the species by the industry, and it can just as easily be bred out. Pitchers won't be happy about it? Adapt or die, and for that matter, how many relievers' opinions are worth caring about? Seriously, how many closers are there who you might argue are so good and so established that rebuilding a bullpen with them would be an issue? Can you find a dozen? A half-dozen? I see Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Rodriguez. Guys like Jose Valverde, Heath Bell, and Bobby Jenks are good pitchers, but they're not immovable objects.
Two-thirds of the teams in baseball could implement a bullpen plan that ignores the closer rule without creating a controversy worth worrying about. If even half did so, you'd have a revolution. I'm not saying you need even that many. I'm saying that over a period of years, it's in the best interests of the industry and the individual teams to develop relief pitchers who expect not to graduate to limited, low-workload, high-specificity roles, but who merely expect to pitch when their teams need them. Not at random, and not in a manner injurious to their arms, but in a way that maximizes their teams' chance of winning without making any one pitcher/role combination inviolable. You'll win more games by matching talent to leverage, and you'll win more games by making logical matchup decisions, and you'll win more games by getting more work from your best talent.
And if all those reasons aren't enough, well, you'll never have a closer controversy. Ask Mike Scioscia how much he'd give for that right now.