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April 4, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Closer Carousel

by Larry Granillo

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By the close of baseball business on Friday, when all thirty teams had finally had a chance to start the season, the state of the National League Central's closers looked like this:

  • On the eve of his 28th birthday, Brewers closer John Axford entered the game on Thursday at the top of the ninth with the Brewers up 6-3. After a single, a walk, and a botched fielder's choice, Axford lost the game thanks to a sac fly and a three-run bomb by Ramon Hernandez.
  • Two hours later, St. Louis closer Ryan Franklin entered the Cards' inaugural game in the top of the ninth with a 3-2 lead over the Padres. St. Louis had taken the lead only a few minutes before, when Matt Holliday hit his first homer of the year off Mike Adams. With two outs on three pitches, Franklin looked like he'd breeze through the inning until Cameron Maybin took a first-pitch curveball over the center-field wall to tie it back up. The Padres would go on to win it in 11 innings.
  • On Friday, the Astros handed their 4-2 lead over Roy Halladay and the Phillies to Brandon Lyon in the bottom of the ninth. The seven at-bats against Lyon went: single, single, pop fly, single, single, single, and single. With those six ninth-inning singles, Philadelphia was able to squeeze three runs across the board and win the Opening Day match.
  • Pittsburgh's Joel Hanrahan was the only closer in the Central to achieve any success on Opening Day. Facing the Cubs on Friday, Hanrahan successfully converted the 6-3 lead he was given in the ninth inning into the Central's first save of the year. It wasn't completely clean, though, with Chicago grinding out a walk and an infield single before the inning was over.

With four of the Central teams playing each other to start the season, these were the only four save opportunities available to the division's closers. Carlos Marmol and Francisco Cordero did well enough on Saturday to salvage the division's dignity by converting their save opportunities, while Hanrahan notched his second save in as many chances on Sunday.

Opening Day (and Opening Weekend) is a weird beast. While we all know that any single game is much too small a sample size to tell us anything meaningful about anything, the pomp and circumstance of the festivities, as well as our own self-inflicted anxiety and anticipation for the new season, serves to heighten our sensitivity to the game's ups-and-downs. The common storyline that the Opening Day lineup represents each team at its peak doesn't help any, either. The natural reaction to seeing your team make a terrible mistake while supposedly "at its best" is, after all, to think the worst.

While the import of this blown-save trifecta can easily be overstated, the events of Opening Day do help to remind us of something a little more enduring: the volatility of the closer role. The Washington Post published abrilliantchart last week that showed just how many closers each team has gone through since Mariano Rivera took over the Yankees' job in 1997. Needless to say, other than the Padres/Trevor Hoffman and Angels/Troy Percival-Francisco Rodriguez pairings, teams haven't had much success in maintaining their closers.

The Reds, for example, are tied with the Astros and Mets for the next fewest closers since 1997 (with "closers" defined, for the purposes of the chart, as "saves leader") with five. Francisco Cordero has held that title since the 2008 season, when he signed with the Reds as a free agent. This will be his fourth and final season anchoring Cincinnati's bullpen, as his 4-year/$46 million contract is finally set to expire after 2011. This can only be a good thing for Cincinnati. Not only is CoCo aging, but his contract overpaid him from the beginning, and the Reds have Aroldis Chapman waiting in the wings. Chapman's career is still too young to tell us what Walt Jocketty wants to do with the flame-thrower, but the example being set in Texas with Neftali Feliz seems all too likely.

The fact that the Astros tied with the Reds by using only five closers over the last 14 years is a bit misleading, since the majority of those years went to Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge. This year should see Houston's third saves leader in as many seasons. Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon were brought in at the start of the 2010 season to bolster the bullpen when closer Jose Valverde went to Detroit. Lindstrom began the 2010 season as the Houston closer, but injuries sidelined him in August. Lyon, who was acting as Lindstrom's setup man, took over and closed out the rest of the season, earning 20 saves in his stead. Lyon remains the closer today, but he will need to raise his strikeout-to-walk ratio from its 1.74 level in 2010 if he hopes to continue to succeed.

Pittsburgh is one notch below the Reds and Astros, having used six primary closers since 1997. It is expected that 2011 will add a seventh. Joel Hanrahan was traded to Pittsburgh by the Nationals in 2009 in the Lastings Milledge trade. He pitched well in the second half of 2009 as a setup man, and was probably expecting to be Pittsburgh's closer in 2010 until the Pirates signed Octavio Dotel late in January. Dotel pitched well enough as closer for the first half of 2010 until he was traded to Los Angeles for James McDonald and a minor leaguer. Hanrahan was moved from eighth-inning duties to the closer's spot after the trade, pitching well in his new role. Hanrahan struck out 37 batters in only 24 innings after the trade.

Tony La Russa's bullpen usage is a thing of legend that will be spoken of for decades. I just can't decide if, when they speak of him, it will be as a Sgt. York or Dick Winters, a textbook example for future generations, or whether history will regard him as a General Custer. Either way, La Russa has managed to use only six closers in the last 14 years, with only two closers in the last ten. Ryan Franklin has been closing out games for La Russa since 2008, when he transitioned from Jason Isringhausen's setup man to closer after Izzy cut his hand punching a television. Since then, Franklin has saved 82 games with an 85% success rate.

Milwaukee’s closer story is dismal. In 14 years, the Brewers have used ten different closers. In that time, only three of them—Bob Wickman (1998-2000), Dan Kolb (2003-04), and Derrick Turnbow (2005-06)—have led the team in saves for more than one year. That wasn't supposed to be the case in 2010. With Trevor Hoffman coming off a 37-save season for the Crew in 2009, it seemed like a fair bet for Milwaukee to expect Hoffman to put up something resembling a respectable season in 2010. Instead, Hoffman just about imploded in the first month and a half of the season, blowing five of his ten opportunities, usually in grand fashion. In stepped mustachioed John Axford, who managed the Brewers' transition from legendary closer to newcomer with remarkable ease. Axford converted 14 saves before finally blowing one. Overall, he saved 24 games and allowed only one home run. If his success follows him to 2011, the Brewers will be able to add another name to that short, unimpressive list of multi-year closers.

As bad as the Brewers' run of closers has been over the past 14 years, it's still not as bad as that of their neighbor to the south. No team in the majors has had a revolving-door bullpen quite like that of the Cubs, who have had eleven different closers over that span, with only a three-year run from Ryan Dempster on their list of multi-year closers. Most recently, Kevin Gregg was the club's leader in saves in 2009 with 23, with Carlos Marmol not far behind with 15. Marmol inherited the role from Gregg in August of that year, earning nine saves in the month of September alone. Something happened in 2010, though. Whereas Marmol had always been a strikeout machine, averaging 5.5 BB/9 and 11.8 K/9 ratio in his three prior years as a reliever, those numbers shot up in 2010. By the end of his first full season as closer, Marmol had a 6.0 BB/9 ratio that he more than made up for with an otherworldly 16.0 K/9. In 77 innings pitched, Marmol struck out 138 batters.

The Cubs may own the division’s most up-and-down recent closer history, but what's past is past. With Carlos Marmol ready to deliver another knockout performance from the bullpen in Wrigley, no Central division team has a brighter future ahead of it in the late innings. Of course, considering the volatile nature of the closer role, that future is far from certain.

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