The Oakland A’s started the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1973 World Series ahead 5-1. There is video of this. Rollie Fingers is on the mound. The great A’s relief ace is already the great A’s relief ace by this point. He was an All-Star in ’73, his 1.92 ERA the fifth best in baseball (minimum 50 innings; third best minimum 100). He saved 22 games, third-most in baseball. He had pitched in six of the seven World Series games, for a total of 12 2/3 innings as John Milner worked him to a 3-2 count leading off the ninth in Game 7. Milner pulls the pitch foul, and that’s when the video of Game 7 cuts off. The final half-inning of that game doesn't appear to exist online.
There’s another video of highlights from the 1973 World Series that does include the final out, though. In it, the Mets third baseman Wayne Garrett lofts a lazy flyball into right center. The catch is made, the camera cuts to the mound, where a pitcher with a mustache leaps into the air, then gets swarmed by teammates and field-storming hippies. What happens in between those two clips, though, almost defies belief, because that’s not Rollie Fingers jumping up in the air. Rollie Fingers was pulled from the game with the tying run up and two outs in the ninth inning of a World Series Game 7.
There are a lot of ways the role of relief ace has changed, but this is an underrated one: Before they were called closers, closers didn’t always close. Sometimes they’d come into a game and then leave the game. There was no pretense that the last out is harder to get than the other ones, and just as you might not bring Rollie Fingers in to face Wayne Garrett one batter earlier than he actually came in, you might not leave him out to face Wayne Garrett, either. The A’s removed their relief ace, and they brought in Darold Knowles, a lefty with a 3.09 ERA, to face the lefty Garrett. It's not even as though Fingers was getting bombed; he had seemed to get the final “out” when Ed Kranepool grounded to the first baseman. The first baseman botched the play and Kranepool reached on an error. That was Fingers’ last batter.
I don’t know. This just blows my mind.
There’s nothing permanent about closer roles, anymore than there was anything permanent about who should bat second or where the shortstop should stand when David Ortiz was coming up to bat. Earlier this year—very early in the season—Ben and I did an episode of Effectively Wild on some seemingly non-traditional things that clubs were doing with the back ends of their bullpens this year. Now that we’re well into the season, it’s a fine time to assess the state of the closer in 2016 and see if any of these non-traditional things are taking hold.
So here we go: All 30 teams, ranked by how “traditional” their reliever usage has been.
Huston Street famously said last year that he would retire if a team started bringing him in based on leverage rather than traditional save situations. Good news for the Streets: A team hasn’t! The only two exceptions to by-the-book usage were a four-out save on June 5—Joe Smith was out, and setup dude Deolis Guerra had thrown 28 pitches—and a rare tie-game-on-the-road appearance, though even then Street was the eighth Angels pitcher and entered only once the winning run reached base in the 12th. The Angels paid a fair amount in trade to get him, and they pay him a fair amount in dollars to keep him. He’s as Closer as Closers get.
But that’s not the only reason the Angels are in the top spot. Rather, it’s because, when Huston Street and Joe Smith were simultaneously unavailable, the Angels gave the save(s) to Fernando Salas. Salas, in 2 ½ years with the Angels, has an ERA+ of 99, and in his career it’s 106. But he has closing experience, and it’s easy to assume that’s why Cam Bedrosian, who is having a fine season, was passed over.
Jake McGee hasn’t pitched in the eighth inning yet this year. He has only come into a tie game once—at home, of course—and only pitched one inning even as the game stayed tied. He has pitched from behind only once, in a getting-work situation. And he came out to get the one-out save in a three-run game once it was officially a save situation, even though, by win expectancy, the game was less close by that point than if McGee had started the inning up four.
3. Tigers, Padres, Marlins, Mets, Pirates, Royals, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Mariners, Orioles
By the book usage, with well-compensated relievers pitching the ninth inning in every save situation while occasionally—once or twice per team—wandering into the eighth inning or a tie-game on the road. The Mariners, Cubs and Mets are ever-so-slight deviations, in that they pay their setup men more than their closers, but otherwise it’s the highest paid player in the ‘pen getting the money stat, simple enough.
15. Rangers, Brewers, Phillies
Basically the same usage, except with “non-proven closers.” The Rangers switched closers mid-season, but the transition was clean—Sam Dyson simply stepped into the by-the-book closer role when Tolleson’s awfulness was too much to bear. The Phillies might be a slight deviation in that their closer, Jeanmar Gomez probably isn’t their best reliever, but there’s no indication that that’s intentional. The Brewers were said to be considering closer-by-committee in spring, but ended up as traditional as any other team.
18. Indians, White Sox, Blue Jays, Dodgers
Basically the same usage as the others, except with a bit more urgency: Cody Allen pitches in tie games on the road (he’s done it four times already this year!). It seems that David Robertson does, too, and each pitcher has a couple eighth-inning appearances. Roberto Osuna has three saves of at least four outs, and Kenley Jansen has been called on in such situations four times. It’s not much—we’re more than two-thirds of the way through the league and we’re still at almost perfect traditionalism—but it’s something.
22. Yankees, Red Sox
The corollary of arguing that the ninth inning isn’t necessarily more important than the seventh and eighth is that the seventh and eighth are almost as important as the ninth! While teams have always wanted to have good, deep bullpens with great setup men, we’ve never really seen teams invest in multiple closers. We’ve never seen teams treat the seventh as they would the ninth.
So the Yankees especially, and the Red Sox to some degree, did that. Notable, and interesting. But what’s notably uninteresting is that they’ve used these multiple closers in the most uninteresting ways possible. They have better seventh, eighth and ninth inning guys, but they still have seventh, eighth and ninth inning guys, corralled into their limited roles. e.g.: Dellin Betances has only appeared in the sixth inning twice (both times with two outs), and he doesn’t have a save. Andrew Miller might be the best reliever in baseball, holding lefties to a .167/.160/.167 line, and he’s being used pretty much exactly how, say, Tyler Clippard is being used. For a team that has three relievers striking out a combined 16 batters per nine, it’s pretty boring.
The Rays pledged not to name a closer after Brad Boxberger went down in March, and they were helped along by not having a save opportunity for nearly two weeks into the season. But Alex Colome, previously a swingman with no saves in his career, got the first one and got all the ones after that, shattering the dreams of Ryan Webbheads everywhere. But the nice thing about having a swingman as a closer is that he might have a little extra length in that arm. Colome’s first save was five outs, his 12th was a full six outs, his four multi-inning saves are the most in baseball, and along the way he threw two innings in a one-run game the Rays were trailing. Still not much, but unproven closer working long outings, including high-leverage non-save outings, without the promise of job certainty in the ninth—it’s a little bit genre-busting.
In April, Russell Carleton wrote about the Braves’ assault on the traditional closer role.
There’s been an Avogadro’s Number of articles written about how the rigid “ninth inning only” closer is a horribly inefficient use of the guy who is supposed to be the best reliever on the team. And this year, the Braves(!) are finally going to do something about it. They’ve told Vizcaino that he is their ace reliever and that he will pitch to protect a close lead. The Braves innovation? Before the eighth inning, manager Fredi Gonzalez will look at who’s due up for the opposing team. If it’s the heart of the order, Vizcaino will go in and pitch the eighth. Someone else (on Opening Day, it was Jason Grilli) will handle the ninth against what is likely to be inferior competition and hopefully notch the “save.” If the 7-8-9 guys are due up for the other team in the eighth, Grilli will pitch to them, hopefully with Vizcaino ready to protect a still-extant lead in the ninth inning.
There’s a lot of outdated information in there. Fredi Gonzalez is gone. Jason Grilli is gone. And that Opening Day appearance Russell pointed to was literally the only time the Braves have done this all year. Vizcaino has pitched in a number of eighth innings, but in most cases while trailing, and in most cases because he needed work—him needing work being, of course, the result of him being the Closer on a terrible team. He has twice entered the eighth inning to face the heart of the order with a lead, but in both cases he simply stayed in and finished the save, giving him a pair of four-out saves but very few direct hits on the traditional closer role. At least it’s still plausible that the Braves intend to follow through on this in the future.
Claimed they were going closer-by-committee after J.J. Hoover lost the job. “"I talked to J.J., I told him 'I'm going to bring you in different situations and sometimes that might be the ninth and sometimes it might be the seventh or eighth,'” Bryan Price said. Basically a lie. Tony Cingrani has every Reds save since then except one, and J.C. Ramirez only got that one because Cingrani was on the verge of blowing it. The whole thing, man, it’s not working that well.
Casilla has traditionally been used very conservatively, but this year has been pulled from active save situations—just as Rollie was—multiple times. The first time, on May 12, he allowed a double, a single, and a walk, and with two outs in a two-run game Bruce Bochy brought in Javier Lopez to get the lefty and the save. Casilla was not happy.
The second time, Casilla didn’t even do anything wrong: With a one run lead, he allowed a runner to reach by error, then got a strikeout, then saw Bochy again come out to bring Lopez in for the lefty. (The lefty was David Ortiz.) Casilla was less upset. Hunter Strickland ended up getting the save. So that’s unusual. We’ve found something unusual!
In spring, after Glen Perkins went down, the Twins said they’d go closer-by-committee. They didn’t. Kevin Jepsen pitched in the closer’s role and was used as closers always are. He was terrible, and now here we are again:
After right-hander Brandon Kintzler picked up his first career save with a scoreless ninth in the Twins’ 7-5 win over the Marlins on Wednesday night, manager Paul Molitor announced he'll be backing off closer Kevin Jepsen in the short-term, using Kintzler and lefty Fernando Abad in situations based on matchups.
"We kind of had some discussions about how we're going to use our bullpen, and we're going to mix and match," Molitor said. "I don't know if it's a classic bullpen-by-committee, but we're kind of changing roles here in the short-term. But [Kintzler] has done very well."
Kintzler and Abad are the ultimate journeymen relievers, both over 30 and neither with a save to his name. Abad’s $1.25 million contract this year is the largest payday either has ever received. On the surface, this looks bold, so for now it’s at no. 28. But I’ll bet almost anything that within a week Kintzler is the closer and gets every opportunity, and we never talk about matchups again. (Considering Kintzler’s large reverse platoon split in his career, that might be for the best.)
They gave up a fortune in trade to land an elite reliever, then they put him in the eighth, while the 88-mph-throwing junkballer stayed in the ninth. Reasonably bold move. Now, they’re going with a committee—both Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson, and Will Harris, who has been considerably better than both (and considerably better than almost every other reliever in baseball). Harris got the first save under committee rule. And then he got the second. Last night, he got the third. I’ll bet you Harris is just the closer now, and the committee talk was empty. But even if he is, closer fluidity is an important part of closer eradication. Luke Gregerson hasn’t pitched poorly enough to lose his job on most teams, so making this move now is bold enough.
Gotta be honest with you. This whole thing was disappointing to me, the researcher. I had it in my head that teams were experimenting—and, early in the year, they were. But look at how dull this list of teams is. Slowly, they’ve pretty much all gone back to the way closers are always used, if they ever strayed at all. The closers-by-committee in spring training become Proven Closers by the second save; the tandems get broken up when one sucks or gets traded; the converted starter slowly forgets that he knows how to get four outs at a time and ends up in the same old rigid role.
Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson were going to share the closer role. There seemed to be genuine peace over the arrangement. Madson’s first appearance was in the eighth, then he got a couple saves, then a couple in the eighth, then a save, and then another, and then another, and uh oh. By April 22, an A's beat writer was saying "it's obvious" Madson is the closer, and by mid-May manager Bob Melvin confirmed it. It was Madson. He’s finished every game he has appeared in since April 16th, the sign of a truly rigid closer role.
Except one. On May 29th, Official Closer Ryan Madson entered the game in the eighth inning with a one-run lead against Detroit. He retired J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in order. And then… he left. Just like Rollie Fingers, Madson walked off the mound with outs still to go. He entrusted that lead to Sean Doolittle. Doolittle got the final three outs, and he was not swarmed by teammates and hippies. All the same, it kept alive a spark of hope.
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