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September 17, 2009

Prospectus Today

Closing Out Closing

by Joe Sheehan

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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.

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

Related Content:  Closers,  The Who,  Managers Of The Year

55 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

antoine6

While I generally agree that closer usage is mismanaged, you overlook one key thing, that at least mitigates your point. First, let's assume that "key situations" are evenly distributed throughout the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings (which I think you seem to be saying). The reason managers keep their best pitcher for the situations that occur in the 9th is simple. They have less chances to get the lead back if they lose it then. If they lose the lead in the 7th, they have at least two chances to get it back. If they lose it in the 9th, half the time they don't have the chance to get it back at all. Thus, even if these "key situations" are evenly distributed, the ones in the 9th, over time, are of much higher leverage. It then follows that you want your best relief pitcher in those situations.

And if you're going to touch on the intangible costs to providing a structured closer role (distractions and controversy), you should at least mention that most managers believe in intangible benefits to roles as well (comfort level for players).

Overall though, there's no question bullpen usage could be more intelligently structured than it is. Coming from a Phillies fan, let me assure that sentiment is genuine.

Sep 17, 2009 11:13 AM
rating: 2
 
Todd Herr

I'll stipulate that you're correct in an even distribution of key situations, but consider that using the best pitcher in the key situation, regardless of when it occurs, might be a better play.

Rather than giving up a lead in the 7th due in part to your 3rd/4th/5th best reliever pitching during the key situation, and hoping you get the lead back later, why not use the best reliever in the 7th to increase your chances of not surrendering the lead in the first place?

I'd rather lose with my best in the 7th than have him sitting in the bullpen unused as my team never comes back from that newly-created deficit.

Sep 17, 2009 11:46 AM
rating: 5
 
sbnirish77

"The reason managers keep their best pitcher for the situations that occur in the 9th is simple. They have less chances to get the lead back if they lose it then."

"Thus, even if these "key situations" are evenly distributed, the ones in the 9th, over time, are of much higher leverage. It then follows that you want your best relief pitcher in those situations."

An argument even the best WXRL'er can understand ...

Sep 17, 2009 11:57 AM
rating: -3
 
mglick0718

Sure, this is true, but if a key situation comes up in the 7th worthy of using your relief ace you have no idea if a later such worthy situation will arise. That's why I can't stand the common practice of managers losing with their 5th best reliever in extra innings on the road, holding back their closer for the save situation that may or may not materialize. I suppose I should be impressed that they've figured out this is pointless strategy at home.

Sep 18, 2009 13:16 PM
rating: 1
 
Morley

Joe---Thanks for this article. You've said what a lot of people have thought for a long time. Let's hope that those on the "inside" are listening.

Sep 17, 2009 11:20 AM
rating: 0
 
Ira

All its going to take Joe, is someone winning the WS without a closer.

Sep 17, 2009 11:39 AM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

The Rays were pretty close to doing just that last year

Sep 17, 2009 12:41 PM
rating: 1
 
Ameer

I'm not trying to be a jerk, but I feel like I've read this same article four or five times this season. I love Joe, I love BP, I agree with your point, but it's almost becoming some kind of crusade here. I agree with irablum above--this will change when someone goes without a closer and has significant success doing so.

Until that happens, can we, I don't know, set up some kind of counter or running Unfiltered or something that just keeps track of the many, many examples of what a big mistake the closer mentality is over the course of a season? That might be fun, and free up column time for some different topics.

Sep 17, 2009 11:46 AM
rating: 9
 
Travis Leleu

Joe,

You forget the real reason closers exist: to have the saves category in fantasy baseball. How would we survive if we didn't have to deal with THAT stupidity!

Sep 17, 2009 12:03 PM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

Joe is really confounding two issues here

1-Whether you best reliever should be used to close the game or used earlier in a high-levereged situation

2-Whether Fuentes or Lidge should remain in the closer role after numerous confirmations they &%$&.

The Red Sox game last night was a perfect example of why you would keep your closer till the 9th because there were many other tough situations prior in the game that you might have thought were high leverage only to be supereded by the 9th.

On the other hand, Fuentes putting 5 runners on base in a row after getting the first two outs only confirmed what should have been apparent many games, if not months, before.

Don't let the perfomance of a 'poor closer' enter anywhere into the discussion of whether a 'good closer' should be pitching in the 7th or 9th.

Sep 17, 2009 12:11 PM
rating: 0
 
fireorlime

I agree that if you are a team competing for a playoff spot it's best to use your bullpen in a way that maximizes your wins. However, if you're a team like the Orioles, you can use baseball's stupidity to your advantage. You can (hypothetically speaking of course) take a LOOGY a few years removed from the independent leagues, make him your "closer," and then after building perceived value based on a silly statistic, move him for a young and cheap power hitting 3Bman and a young and cheap potential 4/5 starter.

Yes, the Orioles might have won a few more games with nontraditional bullpen management, but what's the difference between 66 and 68 wins? Baseball thought's unwillingness to evolve presents one of the few opportunities for small market teams to compete with the big boys in an unfair playing field.

Go O's!

Sep 17, 2009 12:17 PM
rating: 7
 
smansell

This was actually discussed in Moneyball - I believe Billy Beane called it "packaging the closer," or something to that effect. Billy Koch was cited as an example.

Sep 17, 2009 16:32 PM
rating: 5
 
Richie

Teams seem to understand that closers aren't all that valuable. What did Sherrill return to the Os in trade?

Sep 17, 2009 12:30 PM
rating: -1
 
Drew Miller

The Dodgers clearly didn't. Either that or they just don't like their own prospects (which might be more accurate, given their treatment of LaRoche and their supposed peddling of Kemp).

Sep 17, 2009 17:48 PM
rating: 0
 
TGisriel

In the Sherrill trade the O's got Josh Bell, who is now considered the O's third baseman of the future. See the reference to him in the O's "Kiss em Goodbye" article. He is a switch hitter with significant power who finished the season in AA. His defense is apparently adequate and improving.

They also got Johnson, a starting pitcher with local Baltimore roots, and the son of former Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson (not the second baseman/manager) He is projected as a back of the rotation starter, who closed the season well.

Sep 18, 2009 13:45 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Until we establish how quickly relievers can regularly warm up, rushing them in whenever a 'key' situation develops is a theory eminently shatterable upon collision with actual reality.

If closers: a), pitched 8th + 9th innings; b), weren't wasted on 3-run leads; c) of COURSE! came into tie games, and possibly even top-of-the-9th down-a-run situations, I would consider that to be self-evident and considerable improvement, and possibly darn close to optimal. And isn't that roughly how Sparky Andersen used Mike Henneman? Goldman, get on that!

When you have 2-3 roughly equal relievers, insisting on anointing one of them 'CLOSER!' is certainly darn silly.

Sep 17, 2009 12:38 PM
rating: 4
 
baserip4

Why can't managers just define their roles differently? Instead of grunting "You get 7th inning; he get 9th inning", can't they instead say "Since you are very adept at retiring hitters that approach the plate from the third base side, we will ask you to perform this invaluable skill when tight spots arise and many of these types of hitters are due to bat"? If the relievers aren't smart enough to read the lineup card, isn't that why you have a bullpen coach?

Sep 17, 2009 12:39 PM
rating: 1
 
Vinegar Bend
(477)

I believe this is the first time Joe has laid out the reasons for eliminating the closer-centric bullpen model in one fully formed essay. This has been a pet issue, and I'm glad to see it laid out here.
I think his point is very difficult to dispute.
Another thing he could have said is to question why teams will bring their closer into the 9th inning with a 1, 2, or 3 run lead but not with a 4-run lead. That only became the norm after the save statistic became popular. There is no doubt that bullpen usage patterns are direct effect of modern statistical conventions, and not statistical evidence, which is a poor basis for how to employ your best pitcher(s).

Sep 17, 2009 12:43 PM
rating: 2
 
havens


A potential above-average big league 3B with many years of service time still to be exploited. And that's George Sherrill.

Sep 17, 2009 12:45 PM
rating: 0
 
Rob Moore

You don't think Jonathan Broxton is in that top tier of closers? I think the only reason I'd like Torre to use him more flexibly is that the Dodger bullpen is so deep with great arms that should be better deployed situationally.

Sep 17, 2009 13:12 PM
rating: 0
 
Dave Pomerantz

I'd like to see Broxton used more flexibly because he is (in my opinion) one of those top tier relievers. I want him used to get out the best hitters on the other team, not the 7th and 8th hitters and a pinch hitter - even if those heart of the order guys come up in the 7th or 8th inning.

Sep 17, 2009 13:23 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Platoon issues come into play here as well. I'll be curious to see how Torre manages against the Phillies, because if Sherrill is getting Ruiz/PH/Rollins in the eighth, leaving Broxton to face Victorino/Utley/Howard/Ibanez in the ninth, that's pretty clearly a mistake.

To answer the original question, I named those guys because of their longevity (and almost didn't include Soria for that reason) in the role. I think it's not worth it for the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, et al, to rock the boat because some of the goal here is to get away from controversy.

Sep 17, 2009 13:41 PM
 
Patrick

Torre did that at least once this year. Ironically, maybe he's they guy that will have success with that in the playoffs and wake a few other teams up.

Sep 17, 2009 20:28 PM
rating: 0
 
redtopcowboy
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

My observation of bullpens leads me to disagree. The guy who closes out the game with a "hanging by a thread" lead, with the crowd going crazy, with the other team jumping and shouting and wearing their rally caps - THAT guy has a different skill set than a middle reliever.

I've talked at length with a couple of bullpen guys and there is absolutely no comparison on the amount of pressure on the pitcher in the 6th and 9th innings.

Maybe some of the teams mentioned here have the wrong guy closing, but they still need to try to find a closer with a closer mentality.

Joe, I think you are full of crap.

Sep 17, 2009 13:23 PM
rating: -14
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

This is my point. Players have been taught to believe this, and I think you can unteach it. That some pitchers have told you as much confirms the thesis, it doesn't counter it.

Moreover, the situation you describe--crowd, rally caps, lead "hanging by a thread"--happens in the seventh, it happens in the eighth, and it happens in the ninth. The inning is the least significant of the various factors (score, bases, out, batter).

The "closer mentality" didn't exist until the mid-1980s, and it doesn't have to exist in the mid-2010s.

Sep 17, 2009 13:47 PM
 
Drew Miller

True. However, few teams are willing to pioneer that unteaching. It'd basically be that team taking on the difficulty of unteaching the closer role, and then, after that, other teams reaping the benefits.

Perhaps a team out of contention should try it first. For them, the trials and tribulations that might come out of this rethinking would be diminished, because the team wasn't going to reach October anyway.

It's also exacerbated by the idea that "The Red Sox tried it, and it failed miserably, so it must be a poor idea".

Sep 17, 2009 15:20 PM
rating: 0
 
buddaley

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been arguing this for quite a while. Not only does designating a closer make for inefficient use of the bullpen. It creates expensive payrolls for no good reason. Once someone gains the reputation of closer his salary skyrockets. For low budget teams that can be an albatross.

I kept hoping the Rays would see the financial as well as baseball benefits of avoiding the closer label, and it seemed as if they were about to last year and early this year. With both famous closers hurt, the opportunity was there. But Maddon, even without the designation, started using Howell just that way. I don't claim that's what led to the bullpen meltdown, but I think it made his bullpen usage too stereotyped. Last year he seemed to be stretching out his relievers; this year he went to the opposite extreme.

I don't want to ignore benefits of relievers knowing their "role" so that they can be warmed up less often. And there may be other benefits as well. But fundamentally the job of all pitchers is identical: get outs without allowing runners to score. It doesn't matter what situation or inning, it is exactly the same role requiring exactly the same skills. The only variance depends on the type of pitcher-strikeout, fly ball, ground ball et al. That is a matchup issue, not an inning issue.

Sep 17, 2009 16:34 PM
rating: 0
 
danlbfaks

Different skill set?

The implication is pitchers will inherently have a tougher time pitching the ninth and will see their results suffer unless they have some mystical Closer skill.

How does that explain the countless times mediocre pitchers have functioned just fine as closers? See Aardsma, Sherrill, etc. Or how about the countless Closers (TM) who lose it some years? See Lidge, Wagner, etc.

I continue to lean towards the idea that pitchers (and hitters) who can't handle MLB pressure are weeded out long before this point.

Sep 17, 2009 19:24 PM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess
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It's not going to change. The player's union would never allow the role of "closer", which usually comes with a huge paycheck, to go away.

Sep 17, 2009 14:07 PM
rating: -8
 
R.A.Wagman

Closer is not in the rules, or in the CBA - if teams don;t want to use "Closers", nothing can make them.

Sep 17, 2009 14:19 PM
rating: 3
 
Drew Miller

True, but I think the sentiment is correct. If the "closer" went away, I bet the MLBPA tries to enforce higher salaries for relievers in general. Or--gasp--higher salaries than current for "better" relievers.

Sep 17, 2009 15:22 PM
rating: 0
 
ryanlazenby

Well, I don't know. I think specialization is going to head were everyone wants the pens to go anywhere. Most teams now have a LH setup man and a RH setup man. Most have a LOOGY, most have a groundball pitcher. All a closer is is the pen ace. In the near future I'd be amazed if teams didn't start taking advantage of that guy the way they're learning to take advantage of those other guys and putting him in situations that best help the team.

Sep 17, 2009 14:13 PM
rating: 0
 
jdavlin
(630)

The 1970's being my coming-of-age as a baseball fan, I remember how the great relievers of that time were referred to as "firemen", there even being a yearly "Fireman of the Year" award. The idea being that your best reliever was the guy brought in to "put out the fire"at a crucial point in the game, often NOT the 9th inning. As a rabid A's fan, I can remember all the games when Rollie Fingers would come in in the 7th or 8th with runners on base in a close game (heaven forbid, even DOWN a run!), and pitch the rest of the way.

The most important point, in my view, is the idea that you should maximize the number of innings thrown by your best pitchers. The relentless specialization of the modern game forces far too many innings pitched by bad pitchers. I'll always regard the Earl Weaver philosophy as best - 4-man rotation, 3 or 4 short-relievers, and a couple long-relievers, often young starters being broken in. But then maybe I'm just old.

Sep 17, 2009 14:47 PM
rating: 7
 
Vince Galloro

"Guys like Jose Valverde, Heath Bell, and Bobby Jenks are good pitchers, but they're not immovable objects."

I don't know, Bell and Jenks are pretty big guys...

I think one thing has been overlooked in the column and the discussion so far. While the "closer controversy" is a headache for the manager, the alternative pattern of usage involves explaining his reasoning for choosing one reliever over another perhaps several times a week. A lot of managers might prefer the occasional "closer controversy," in which the focus is more on a player than the manager, than having reporters question his choices all the time.

Sep 17, 2009 14:56 PM
rating: 10
 
BP staff member William Burke
BP staff
(963)

"I don't know, Bell and Jenks are pretty big guys..."

Absolutely agree... Joe, you need to get out and see more games, b/c seriously, Jenks is the nearly the definition of 'immovable object'.

Sep 17, 2009 23:36 PM
 
Vinegar Bend
(477)

I think a lot of clubs are scared by what happened to Boston when they tried closer by committee in 2003. They blew some leads, a few to woeful TB--an abject humiliation at the time -- and got ripped by the local media for defying conventional wisdom.

Sep 17, 2009 15:45 PM
rating: 4
 
WaldoInSC

No question. The pioneers are the guys with the arrows in their backs.

Sep 17, 2009 20:17 PM
rating: 3
 
Dr. Dave

Except the Red Sox problem was not that they didn't anoint a closer; it's that they didn't have any good relief pitchers. Naming one of them 'closer' wouldn't have fixed that; it would have made it worse.

Sep 18, 2009 09:27 AM
rating: 0
 
oira61

Joe: The hardest significant group of people to convince is not the managers, GMs or pitchers. It's the mainstream media and fans.

It has been interesting following the Orioles' media coverage since the Sherrill trade. Everyone at BP wrote, "Great deal!" Mainstream Baltimore media generally said, "But who's going to close games in September?" And now every time Jim Johnson pitches poorly fans bitch and moan over missing out on a chance at 68 wins instead of 66.

The team that could break this paradigm, as often, is Oakland -- Billy Beane wouldn't care what people think, he'd order the manager to do his bidding, and the severely downsized local media still gives him the benefit of the doubt. But the A's would have to win a World Series, because everything less by them is seen throughout the rest of the country as "the failure of Moneyball," which really means the failure of logic.

Sep 17, 2009 15:56 PM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member William Burke
BP staff
(963)

The bigger problem it would seem in Baltimore's situation isn't that Sherrill was lost it is that Jim Johnson is all that remains. The "closer by committee" approach doesn't absolve the team from putting quality pitchers in the bullpen.

Sep 17, 2009 23:46 PM
 
fireorlime

We'll have more next year don't worry! Uehara will be back, Mickolio looks really good, 1-2 of Berken/Hernandez/Arrieta will end up in the pen.

Sep 18, 2009 08:41 AM
rating: 0
 
fireorlime

Are you from Baltimore? I thought the news following the trade from The Baltimore Sun and MASN was surprisingly on point. The general consensus was, "this sucks, Flat Breezy was a good player for us and a good guy, but given the state of our team it's a trade you have to make." It also helped that the second guy we got back was a local and the son of former Oriole Dave Johnson.

I post regularly on the biggest O's message board and nobody disagreed with the trade, nor does anyone bitch about not having a closer. JJ hasn't performed well to date but Koji Uehara will fill the role nicely next year. Based on what I've read Baltimore fans understand this.

I would love to have Flat Breezy back on the team though for our 2012 World Series run.

Sep 18, 2009 08:39 AM
rating: 0
 
TGisriel

As a fellow Baltimorean, I agree. The Sherrill trade was recognized locally as a short term detriment in exchange for a long term benefit, and appropriate for the team in its present position.

Jim Johnson should be an OK closer. The problem with any system of choosing who pitches at the end of the game is that a poor performance loses that game immediately and obviously, and subjects that decision to substantial second guessing.

Sep 18, 2009 13:53 PM
rating: 0
 
BrianGunn
(439)

There's one other benefit -- beyond the tactical and strategic reasons Joe laid out here -- to teams that move away from the "closer-centric" usage pattern: it saves money! Closers are generally overpaid, and there are probably more dollars wasted on saves than any other statistic (including, I would think, RBI).

Sep 17, 2009 17:21 PM
rating: 3
 
ostrowj1

Buried in all this "save" nonsense is a very important lesson for the SABR-oriented community. Of course, everybody wants to find a statistic that serves as a good proxy for measuring talent. Originally, that is what the save was meant to measure. The problem is, that as soon as a statistic becomes "important" (widely used in the baseball community to measure skill), then there is incentive for players "game the system" so to speak... to change their behavior in order to benefit the statistic (because, after all that is what they are being judged on) at the possible cost of losing effectiveness.

Developing statistics to explain performance is great, but some care must be given in how the popularity of that statistic will change behavior.

Sep 18, 2009 06:50 AM
rating: 4
 
harderj

Very interesting, and I use the leverage chart from BP's book to guide my decision making in Strat-O-Matic, where I might have Nathan, Balfour, Howell, Devine, and Romo to select from.

There are two things that I haven't seen mentioned yet that I think drove this. "Genius" LaRussa's (see George Will's Men at Work for a glorifying example) exclusive use of Dennis Eckersley in this role, and agents (especially in arbitration cases) having a stat to point to that doesn't exist for set-up men and other non-closers.

Until negotiations start happening around WHIP, K/BB ratio, HR rate, GB/FB ratio, VORP or whatever else, I don't see this trend changing easily. Agents (and the Union) do have a lot of power in today's game.

Sep 18, 2009 07:36 AM
rating: 1
 
elm
(41)

I'm not sure what mechanism people think that the Union or agents have to stop this if teams do decide that they want to change bullpen roles. Since performance-based incentives aren't allowed, it's not like closers will be denies their saves bonuses, which might lead to a Union grievance.

The only thing I can think of is that agents might steer free agent relievers away from the first few teams that try this. Certainly, established closers will be hesitant to sign with a team that won't use them that way. And a set-up man who gets a closer offer from another team will probably sign with that team, maybe even for somewhat less money.

On the other hand, relievers who don't get offers to close from other teams might be more willing to sign with the experimenting team as they will probably find themselves in a handful of closing situations and might be able to demonstrate to the rest of the league that they have the requisite pixie dust to close and, therefore, get a better deal the next time they're a free agent.

So I'm not seeing much impact from the Union or agents, but maybe I'm missing something. The thing that I think makes this change unlikely to happen is the general (though not universal) risk aversion of baseball management.

Sep 18, 2009 07:45 AM
rating: 1
 
harderj

Partly, I'm influenced by having reading books by Whitey Herzog and John Schuerholz that included talk of negotiations around relievers (and others), where the agent actively expressed interests, opinions, and threats when a player was not used in a way to maximize the stats that would become negotiations fodder for his *next* contract (whether arbitration or free agency).

So, my argument is definitely not about bonuses for saves (which you quite rightly point out are not allowed) and more subtly about the power dynamics, supply and demand, superstar agents (or monopsonistic, if you will), and other behind the scenes plays that I have only passing knowledge about.

- Joe

Sep 18, 2009 07:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

If that's your bullpen, you can pretty much just pull the cards at random and be fine. Yeesh. Balfour, Devine *and* Nathan?

Sep 18, 2009 10:12 AM
 
harderj

Yeah, but it's an 11 team all star league, so having multiple good arms in the pen isn't that unusual ;-).

I'm 5-5 so far in a 60 game season. I've been using Balfour predominantly as the reversed righty, Nathan the traditional righty, Howell LOOGY, and Devine if Nathan's tired. When Ervin Santana, James Shields, or Justin Duchscherer start I'm in good shape.

So far, with all of this being based on few occurences, Howell's ERA and batting average against are 0.00/.000, with 8.1 K/9 and 8.1 BB/9, since he has walked three of 12 batters faced in 3.1 innings. Nathan's ERA is 0.00 with a batting average against of .125 on one hit and one walk in 2.1 innings, 11.6 K/9. Balfour, with 3.0 innings pitched has an ERA of 3.00, an average against of .182, and a whopping 15.0 K/9. He actually has been hit at a .333 clip by lefties (2 for 6), negating his raison d' etre so far. And Devine has an ERA of 4.91 and average against of .267 in his 3.2 innings, but an otherworldly 19.6 K/9 (no walks). None have allowed a homer and Nathan and Balfour have WHIPs under 1.

Then again, I also have Mike Pelfrey (or Francisco Liriano) who have to start, Duchscherer's a 4-inning guy, and Seth McClung and Chad Gaudin are the long guys, so no great shakes...

Sep 18, 2009 12:03 PM
rating: 0
 
stephenwalters

One of the best summaries of the "folly of the closer" ever written. Interestingly, the mainstream media and Baseball Lifers are constantly complaining about how starters these days are coddled with pitch counts and 5-man rotations, yet all have bought in deeply to the coddling of potential relief aces. Why don't we ever hear them grumbling about the good ol' days when relievers pitched (gasp!) a couple of innings at a time?

Sep 18, 2009 07:45 AM
rating: 2
 
terryspen

Go beyond the closer issues, what about the set-up guy? We've all been there, our team down by a run in the eighth or ninth, the heart of the opponent's lineup coming up and instead of bringing in the best or second-best reliever, in comes the fourth- or fifth-best guy because it's not a save or hold situation. Next thing you know the one-run lead is now a four-run lead. The only hope left is that the other team will now bring in one of its shmoes to face the heart of our lineup because it's no longer a save situation and we can get a couple quick runs before the other manager can react.

Sep 18, 2009 07:48 AM
rating: 3
 
Tank
(989)

So true. You'll bring in a mop-up guy in the seventh, facing the heart of the order with runners on and down one run, but bring in your best in the ninth with a three-run lead to face the bottom of the order. It's absurd.

What's interesting is that during the playoffs, these relatively recent but fully calcified and foolish conventions often get tossed out the window, and a measure of reason returns. Suddenly, winning becomes important

Sep 18, 2009 10:20 AM
rating: 1
 
wonkothesane1

Weren't the Braves basically doing this? I don't remember them ever saying that either Soriano or Gonzalez was the closer.

Sep 18, 2009 10:55 AM
rating: 0
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

But the fact that closers are overpaid and overvalued is in fact a reason for a bad team to develop closers to trade to contenders. If you take your average decent bullpen pitcher on a bottom 10 teams and turn him into a "closer" through giving him all your save opportunities you are increasing his trade value and you can then trade him away for something more valuable. Repeat each year or two. The overvalued nature of closers makes it more likely that you want to use a closer as a weak team.

Sep 18, 2009 15:54 PM
rating: 1
 
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