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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).

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Thanks for this article. Interesting contradiction in Leyland's comments. In addition to the second guessing diminishing with an established closer it could also be that there is a real or perceived value to predictability of roles and routines for the pitchers, the coaches, and the manager. Or there may be team-specific knowledge about entering at the start vs. in the middle of an inning and so on.

But couldn't those roles just as easily be specified as high, medium, and low leverage instead of 7th, 8th, and 9th inning (but for the predictable routine factor, if positive)?
Agreed. I always thought the "role" argument was flimsy. Not that many players don't fervently buy into it as, like most managers, they've labored under that system for their entire careers.

So, it is just a matter of breaking that mold not only at the managerial level, but among the players, too. Drill it into their heads that they can and will be used at any time, depending on the game situation, not the inning, and they will eventually adapt. Redefining roles by leverage as you've suggested is an excellent way to acomplish that shift in pen management.
I can see in Leyland's comments--and in the way Bochy has managed the Giants bullpen with the loss of Wilson and the mid-season collapse of his replacement, Casilla--that we may be working our way out of this historically recent madness of the designated closer. Absent a Rivera, I can see a day looming when the cognitive dissonance of Leyland's comments gets reconciled by more & more managers opting for a "temporary" "Closer by Committee" approach that runs longer and longer as they get more value in situation and batter-specific matchups.

A few things stand in the way of this:

1) the safety in avoiding second-guessing, but that's as much the media's issue as the manager's, and as the media gets younger and more sabermetrically inclined, I think the questions the managers get asked will shift away from there being value in protecting the closer role.

2) The same as #1, but substitute the front office, and again, I think that shift is clearly underway.

3) Player contracts. I think this could be the toughest, as closer-designated players often have incentives tied to saves. Ultimately though I think this will wither away, as front offices become more resistant to those clauses with their change in attitude, and agents start to see value in promoting incentives based on less crude statistics that also can add value to every member of the bullpen.

So, for the first time in maybe 25-30 years I'm starting to see a light. That light got a lot brighter this morning reading that even an old-school guy like Leyland has at least worked out the anti-closer logic, even if he can't manage to overcome the mindset.
Your number one is an interesting point and I hope it's correct. And also that I live to see it.

One small thing: I'm fairly certain (I really ought to check but I'm on my phone and impatient) that incentives are tied to games finished, not saves, because performance incentives are not permitted. Now, it's effectively the same thing because nobody reaches a GF incentive unless they're a closer, and it's clearly there as a proxy, and a shift to "relief ace" will destroy that proxy just as surely as it would an actual saves incentive. But I thought I'd mention it.
Interesting. I claim no first-hand knowledge of player contracts, so this may well be, although somehow allowing GFs to be used but not Saves is sure odd. But when you get lawyers and the great minds of baseball together, I guess any bizarre outcome is possible.

In any case, given restrictions on the stats that can be used as "non-performance" contract incentives, the evolution I envision will definitely be harder to get to. But I've lived long enough to see the Berlin Wall built and fall, so I've got faith I may live long enough to see the absurdity of the closer fall too. I'm less sanguine about the DH.
Great work. A really nice explication.
I never really thought about it this way. Clearly Jim Leyland is not a dumb guy, but there's some cognitive dissonance in his comments. Of course Rivera was a no-doubt decision during his career but that doesn't mean he has 29 equals in the same "role" with every team. Does it really boil down to giving the manager an easy answer?
My only comment is that while it's true that the Potato is the designated closer, at this point he isn't that much better than any other arm in the pen. Dotel was a closer at one time, Benoit closed for a time while Potato was injured, and they say Alburquerque has what it takes. If this is true, then any of them could pitch in innings 7-9, depending on the situation. And yes, this is by circumstance now, but during the season I think you sorta saw this.
This is a great analysis:

"*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."

When sabermetricians talk about "closer by committee" they mean using the best relievers, given the handedness of the batter or batters (and other characteristics like a pitcher's expected K% or GB%, when particularly needed), given the leverage of the situation. For example, Ben's suggestion for the 9th inning, use Coke for Ibanez and then one of the righties for Martin and A-Rod, is using a "closer by committee" correctly.

(And, BTW, if you bring in Benoit to face Martin and A-Rod, you can also use him for Grandy, since Benoit not only is an excellent pitcher, but has almost no platoon split.)

Leyland's idea of a "closer by committee" is to pick someone else to pitch the 9th and keep him in there regardless of the handedness of the batter, as long as he is "hot." I mean, wasn't that the intention of Leyland - to keep Coke in the game until he let up a run or a couple of base runners? And didn't he primarily start Coke in the 9th because he had successfully retired a few batters in the 8th (going with the "hot hand")?

So, let's not confuse the sabermetrician's concept of a "closer by committee" and that of a manager of Leyland's ilk.

One more thing: The primary disconnect with how a sabermetrician might use a pen and how a manager like Leyland might use one is in the notion of who matches up well against whom. Managers consider pitchers "good" when they are "hot" or rack up lots of saves and sabermetricians go by projections based on 3 or 4 years of performance. Managers consider lefty/righty matchups based on batting average for the current season, with no regard to regression. And finally, managers take great stock in batter/pitcher past results - for example, 4 for 6 against a particular pitcher, or 0 for 8, is deemed very significant for a manager (and will help dictate a decision) whereas the sabermetrician would pay no attention to any sample of batter/pitcher results.

So a manager like Leyland may try and bring in the best possible pitcher in high leverage situations but he really has no idea how to determine that.
This all sounds so much like classic corporate CYA. The reason to have a closer is that you can transfer the blame from the lack of manager's decision to the failure of the subordinate (player) to perform. Apparently the desire to avoid blame trumps the desire to consider innovation in order to win.

On the other hand, kudos to the Yankee's manager for sitting ARod.
I would argue that there is no contradiction in Leyland's statements, and this becomes apparent when one considers his history with the Tigers, which generally shows that he has found a way to use his best relief pitcher in high leverage situations, while maintaining a traditional closer. He does this by naming a closer who is not his best reliever.

Since Leyland became the Tiger's manager, his closers have been Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney, and Jose Valverde. Throughout their tenures as closer, the Tigers have consistently had other bullpen arms with better stuff and numbers, like Zumaya, Benoit, and Alburquerque, yet Leyland stuck with closers who have tended to be inferior pitchers.

This strategy has allowed Leyland to both be insulated from the second guessing that comes with a closer by committee, and has allowed him to use his best reliever in high leverage situations. Thus, there is potentially no contradiction in Leyland's statement, assuming that what I have argued for really is his thought process, and not my projection on to him. I do think that my argument is a good interpretation of Leyland's comments though, especially considering the blatant contradiction in the comments, and Leyland's considerable intelligence.
I updated the post to incorporate this comment and some additional statements Leyland made before Game Three.

is it possible that it's not just for the sake of the mgr, but also for the sake of the rest of the bullpens confidence and mental acuity? if you look at leyland's track record, he sticks with guys like ryan raburn for a sub-mendozian 40 games this year and really goes out of his way to do things to try to keep guys mentally sharp and their confidence high. i think he's a lot more phil jackson-esque than people realize and views the role of closing as more of a burden - like frodo and the ring, if you assign 100% of the burden to one guy, it shields the rest of the bullpen (mentally) from the stresses and confidence altering nature of that role. giving up runs in the 7th or 8th is a bummer, but nothing like giving them up in the 9th.

for example, in game 1 most wanted leyland to pull valverde for dotel vs ibanez, but if ibanez hits dotel out of the park, you have to pull him and lose his 1+ innings of solid pitching as well as valverde. you want one guy to take all the hits and rather than spreading the pain around to multiple pitchers, no? imho leyland's saying that he understands that it makes more sense to go by committee in terms of strategerie, but that gain is mitigated by the loss the rest of the bullpen's mental freshness and the potential for self doubt.
and as we all know doubt leads to hate and hate is the path to the darkside.
This would be brilliant.

I have had the "ace reliever" / "fireman" conversation more than once with a longtime friend. It usually revolves around whether it's more valuable to deploy Mariano Rivera in the 7th or 8th innings to preserve leads that were in danger, or keep him in the pen until the 9th to lock down a victory.

I never took the time to research it, but the questions that we tossed about were:

a) how many opportunities have there actually been where the opposing team was down by 3 or fewer runs and rallied in the 7th/8th with men on base, and how successful has the "closer" strategy actually been in these situations?

a1) the starter was kept in and blew the lead.
a2) the starter was kept in and preserved the lead
a3) the closer was brought in and blew the lead.
a4) the closer was brought in and preserved the lead.
a5) a different reliever was brought in and blew the lead.
a6) a different reliever was brought in and preserved the lead.

A followup question to a1, a3, and a5 is how often the Yankees rallied back into the lead or a tie such that the 'closer' was then required to come in and preserve the new lead/tie.

A followup question to a2, a4, and a6 is how often the preserved lead was later blown by a subsequent set-up guy or by the closer?

A followup question to a4 is whether the closer ended up finishing the game anyway.

b) how much better is your closer than the "different reliever"? (most of these are moot with Mariano, but relevant in other contexts)
b1) with men on base
b2) with the particular batter at the plate (handedness splits, matchups, etc.)

c) would deploying the 'ace reliever'/'fireman' in the 7th and 8th innings increase the number number of innings he pitches in a season?
c1) is this a good thing?
c2) is this asking for an injury?

... at any rate, this is a fantastic conversation to have, as long as it's done in the spirit of friendship. If only somebody could answer all the subsequent questions it raises.

It's interesting that Leyland keeps mentioning Rivera considering, during the playoffs, Rivera would often be brought in during the 8th inning to begin the save if the game situation dictated it.