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October 17, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Jim Leyland, Jose Valverde, and Why We're Stuck with the Conventional Closer UPDATED

by Ben Lindbergh

During his pre-game press conference on Sunday, Jim Leyland announced that Jose Valverde—while remaining his closer—would not be closing ALCS Game Two, should the opportunity arise. Instead, Leyland said, he’d go with a “closer by committee” approach while he and pitching coach Jeff Jones worked with Valverde to straighten out his mechanical (and possibly psychological) kinks. That led to this exchange between Leyland and a reporter:

Reporter:  If you can explain two more things: If you take a Dotel, let's say, from a seventh‑inning spot and put him into a ninth‑inning role, just if you were hypothetically to do that, what does that do? How much stress does that place on that seventh‑ and eighth‑ or sixth‑inning situations? How much of a factor is that? The second part, a lot of people think that closers should be interchangeable parts. The guy who pitches is the closer, regardless of whatever his particular role maybe. Could you talk about those two points? 

Jim Leyland:  Yeah. I will answer your second one first. I totally disagree with anybody that thinks the closer can be interchangeable parts. And if I was ever in the right place to have a lot of people on my side, this is the place because they had a guy named Mariano Rivera that I don't think they wanted to interchange too damn often. That's the answer to one question. I disagree with it totally, I mean the thought process. 

The other part of the question is very tricky. This is why I don't think like today I want to name a closer because of the fact, what if the seventh inning becomes the urgent part of the game, and I think I need to use the best guy for that matchup right then, I have to use him then. I can't say, I want to close with him today, so I will not put him in now. There is a point in the game, sometimes the biggest out is in the seventh inning or eighth inning, not always in the ninth inning. 

That's why when you start going by committee, that's what "committee" means. You say, this is the most important out I have to get. I will use my bullet now and take my chances later. If you don't use your bullet and you get beat in the seventh—it's like saving a pinch‑hitter. I will save him for the ninth, well, you may not need him in the ninth. You better use him when you have the opportunity to use him, or you will be sitting there with him in your pocket at the end of the game. And they will say, Jim Leyland is really smart, he had the pinch‑hitter waiting. Yeah, he was waiting and the other team was on the bus going to the airport. I think it is a little tricky. 

I definitely disagree with the stuff about not having a definite closer. All I know is I go to Winter Meetings every year, and everybody is talking about closers, and everybody is talking about trying to get one, and some of the new philosophy in baseball is that anybody can close; I totally disagree with that. And I am not staying I am right, but I totally disagree with that. Like I said, I am in a pretty good place to state my guys today. That guy No. 42, they didn't interchange him very often.

As it turned out, Tuesday’s closer was Phil Coke, who entered the game in the eighth to face two lefties and a switch-hitter, then stayed in for the final inning.* Coke preserved Detroit’s three-run lead, allowing only one baserunner over the final two innings.

*Even without an anointed closer, Leyland showed little inclination to mix and match. It made sense to leave Coke in to face Raul Ibanez for the first out of the ninth,  but not to let him face Russell Martin and Alex Rodriguez, the next two batters. Leyland’s explanation for letting Coke face Martin was that “the numbers said [Martin] has not hit lefties that great,” which certainly isn’t what either his career splits or his 2012 splits suggest—Martin has hit southpaws far better this season. His explanation for letting Coke face A-Rod was that “Granderson was on deck, and you get a lefty for him.” Assuming Drew Smyly was available—he pitched two innings in Game One—it didn’t make much sense not to bring in Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, or Al Alburquerque for Martin and Rodriguez and use Smyly to get Granderson, especially with an off day on Monday.

After the game, Leyland was asked how he felt about the way the bullpen performed on day one of the closer-by-committee experiment. Leyland said “It worked out today,” rambled a bit about what Valverde has meant to the Tigers, and ended with this:

And a couple of guys on and it becomes a tough scenario for a manager, and you will never be right. And as they were saying this morning, a lot of people believe in the moving part, the closing thing. I don't believe in that. And the other thing is, that if you use the closer like I did Valverde and it didn't work out, everybody wants to change the closer. At the same time what will happen if you go by committee, the next question is going to be why did you use Dotel instead of Alburquerque? Why did you use Alburquerque instead of Coke? That's what's going to happen next. And it's kind of fun, but it's pretty nice to have a closer. And like I said this morning, these guys had the best of all time. And I am sure that Joe Torre will tell you it was a nice luxury to have because you never going to get second guessed bringing in Mariano Rivera. 

Two thoughts:

  • No, the Yankees didn’t interchange Mariano Rivera and other relievers often. But when they were forced to swap in Rafael Soriano for Rivera this season, they didn’t have much cause to miss Mo. Soriano pitched almost as well as vintage Rivera, and the Yankees played just as well without Rivera as they had before he got hurt.

    Also: if Torre hadn’t been so committed to saving his closer for save situations, Rivera might have been even more valuable to his team. It’s unlikely, at least, that the Yankees would have lost Game Four of the 2003 World Series with Rivera watching from the bullpen while the Marlins walked off on Jeff Weaver.
     
  • Before the game, Leyland made as compelling a case for the closer-by-committee or “relief ace” approaches as any sabermetrician ever has. He acknowledged that the most important out of the game might come in the seventh or eighth. He said that saving a closer for the ninth might be a waste of a team’s best bullpen arm. And yet he’s switched to a more flexible plan only out of necessity, because his designated save-getter has struggled. Once he believes Valverde is back to being dependable, or that someone else has established himself as the best fit for the role, he’ll designate him the capital-c Closer and keep in carbonite until the eighth inning is over.

    How can Leyland see the benefits of the closer-by-committee or “relief ace” approach and still prefer the now-conventional conception of the closer role? His post-game comments make it clear. Using different pitchers to close games, or the same pitcher at different times, means more questions and more moves perceived as mistakes. Having a defined closer means never getting second guessed. It’s easy, and it’s safe. Managing is a difficult job that rarely comes with a lengthy contract, and most managers—most human beings—will opt for ease and safety over the alternative.

    It’s often said that the closer-by-committee approach wouldn’t work because relief pitchers prefer to have defined roles. That may be true, though it’s hard to say what effect it would have without trying. But in light of Leyland’s comments, I’m not so sure it’s the relief pitcher’s preference for defined roles (or affection for saves) that matters. I think it might be the manager’s. 

*Update, 10/17* Before Game Three in Detroit, Leyland doubled down on his closer comments from a couple days earlier:

The reason I love a closer that is a definite closer and a good one, like Valverde has been and Mariano Rivera has been, it takes a lot of pressure off the manager. My mom never even used to second‑guess me when I brought in a top‑notch closer. So it is nice to have that guy, because it takes a lot—and people think I am kidding, but I am not. It takes a lot of stress off a manager. When you explain why you brought this guy versus that guy, it is a nightmare for you. But when Joe Torre or Joe Girardi bring in Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning with a one‑run lead, there is no human being that has ever questioned that. That is a delight for a manager. 

Commenter "xanderC" makes a compelling case below that Leyland's use of a designated closer in conventional save situations is his way of shielding himself from second-guessing without preventing his most effective arms from pitching in high-leverage spots earlier in games. That's a theory worth exploring, given the mediocrity of many of the pitchers Leyland has employed as his closer in recent years (shout-out to Todd Jones).

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

Related Content:  Jose Valverde,  Closers,  Jim Leyland

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