When Mariano Rivera went down in center field of Kauffman Stadium, clutching his knee and writhing in pain, he not only crushed the 2012 World Series hopes of New York Yankees fans across the world, but he also may have effectively eliminated the closer position as we know it.
It sounds extreme, but Rivera was one of the last legitimate closers that we had left in a league that is increasingly devaluing their role.
There’s a saying in fantasy baseball: “Don’t pay for saves.” It basically means you shouldn’t waste high draft picks on closers because they are known to blow up and lose their effectiveness at any moment. Because of this, there are always replacements that step in during the season and do a comparable, if not better job than the guy they’re replacing. It seems as if real MLB teams (that is, teams that don’t conduct their drafts in their mothers’ basements) are beginning to adopt this same philosophy.
Do me a favor. I want you to close your eyes and recite, off the top of your head, the best ten closers in baseball right now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Okay, how about the top five?
Now that Rivera is hurt and has taken away the obvious number one, it’s really a struggle to come up with even a handful of closers that you would trust to end games for your team. Previously steady closers like Carlos Marmol, Heath Bell, and Javy Guerra have all lost their jobs. The White Sox are already onto their fourth closer of the season, after seeing the brilliant idea of reconverting Chris Sale back into a reliever to close games, fall apart.
Just in case you were wondering, here is a list of teams and their closers (and their stats) at this point in the 2012 MLB season, which are of course subject to change…possibly by tomorrow:
Baltimore Orioles – Jim Johnson: 11/11 Saves, 0.59 ERA, 0.77 WHIP
Atlanta Braves – Craig Kimbrel: 11/12, 2.77, 1.38
Boston Red Sox – Alfredo Aceves: 7/9, 6.14, 1.57
Miami Marlins – Edward Mujica: 2/4, 4.60, 1.34
New York Yankees – Rafael Soriano: 2/2, 2.57, 1.57
New York Mets – Frank Francisco: 9/11, 8.59, 2.05
Tampa Bay Rays – Fernando Rodney: 10/10, 0.54, 0.90
Philadelphia Phillies – Jonathan Papelbon: 10/10, 2.40, 0.87
Toronto Blue Jays – Casey Janssen: 2/3, 4.38, 0.89
Washington Nationals – Henry Rodriguez: 8/11, 4.60, 1.34
Chicago White Sox – “Closer By Committee”, but the last save went to Addison Reed: 3/3, 4.76. 1.32
Chicago Cubs – Rafael Dolis: 4/6, 3.22, 1.07
Cleveland Indians – Chris Perez: 12/13, 3.68, 1.09
Cincinnati Reds – Sean Marshall: 6/7, 4.15, 1.54
Detroit Tigers – Jose Valverde: 7/9, 4.60, 1.66
Houston Astros – Brett Myers: 9/10, 1.42, 0.79
Kansas City Royals – Jonathan Broxton: 8/9, 1.32, 1.17
Milwaukee Brewers – John Axford: 6/7, 6.10, 2.03
Minnesota Twins – Matt Capps: 7/7, 3.86, 1.00
Pittsburgh Pirates – Joel Hanrahan: 7/8, 3.55, 1.18
St. Louis Cardinals – Jason Motte: 6/7, 1.98, 0.80
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Scott Downs: 3/5, 0.00, 0.90
Arizona Diamondbacks – J.J. Putz: 6/8, 9.00, 1.50
Oakland Athletics – Brian Fuentes: 2/3, 3.86, 1.14
Colorado Rockies – Rafael Betancourt: 6/7, 2.08, 1.00
Seattle Mariners – Brandon League: 8/10, 2.12, 1.18
Los Angeles Dodgers – Kenley Jansen: 4/5, 2.29, 0.86
Texas Rangers – Joe Nathan: 7/8, 3.29, 1.17
San Diego Padres – Dale Thayer: 3/3, 0.00, 0.71
San Francisco Giants – Santiago Casilla: 8/9, 1.29, 1.07
So how many of those guys did you name? I’m sure Dale Thayer and Casey Janssen were right on the tip of your tongue. Compare that to ten years ago when the list of save leaders at the end of the year contained names like John Smotz, Eric Gagne, Jose Mesa, Robb Nen, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner.
Basically this year’s rag-tag group of relief pitchers can be broken down into a few categories:
Pitchers That Took Over Due To Injury (8)
Aceves (Andrew Bailey), Soriano (Rivera), Rodney (Kyle Farnsworth), Janssen (Sergio Santos), Rodriguez (Drew Storen), Marshall (Ryan Madson), Thayer (Huston Street), and Casilla (Brian Wilson).
Established Closers Performing Well (9)
Kimbrel, Papelbon, Perez, Myers (sort of…it’s been a while since he closed effectively), Broxton (who lost his job with the Dodgers last season), Capps, Hanrahan, League, and Nathan (who lost his job last year with the Twins).
Established Closers Performing Poorly (4)
Francisco, Valverde, Axford, and Putz.
First Time Closers From the Beginning of the Season (3)
Johnson, Motte (didn’t become full-time closer until last postseason), and Betancourt (had some saves but was never a full-time closer).
Pitchers Taking the Place of a Struggling Closer (8)
Mujica (Bell), Soriano (if you count David Robertson‘s one blown save), Janssen (Francisco Cordero, who originally replaced Santos), Reed (Hector Santiago), Dolis (Marmol), Downs (Jordan Walden), Fuentes (Grant Balfour), and Jansen (Guerra).
The closers that have performed the best are Rodney and Johnson, who have both closed in the past with less than stellar results (particularly Rodney, who was brutal with the Angels). While it would be great to see their run continue, they’ll most likely head the way of Javy Guerra or Frank Francisco, who started off the season hot only to see their ERAs balloon in just a few games.
As you can see, there are only nine established closers who are performing well, including Myers, Broxton, and Nathan, who have all been ousted as closers in previous seasons. Compare that to eight that have already taken over for struggling closers…and it’s only mid-May. Out of the group of established closers who are struggling, any one of them could lose their job after one more bad outing.
Granted, it seems as if this year a high number of closers got hurt, which is leading to a lot of unfamiliar names in the back end of the bullpen, but that just speaks to how difficult it is to give these guys long, high-paying contracts. When you come out of the bullpen, sometimes three nights in a row, throwing in the mid-to-high-90s, you’re going to put a considerable amount of stress on your arm. And once you get hurt, as evidenced by Brian Wilson, it’s hard to come back and be the same closer you once were.
The injuries, coupled with advanced stats pointing to the virtual irrelevance of saves, are leading fewer and fewer teams to value the closer position as it once was.
ESPN commentator Joe Morgan has stressed for years that the final three outs shouldn’t always be reserved for the closer. He thinks you should use your best relief pitcher whenever you need him, regardless of what inning it is.
This works in theory, but anybody who has played baseball knows that the last three outs have an incredible amount of added pressure. It doesn’t matter if you’re facing the 7-8-9 hitters; they’re still tremendous hitters who are chomping at the bit to help their teams come back and win. We’ve seen many teams attempt a “closer by committee” approach with catastrophic results.
Because of this, I don’t think we will ever see closers disappear altogether, but I do believe that the position is evolving into a “ride the hot hand” scenario. Name a closer at the beginning of the year, but as soon as he struggles send him to middle relief and promote someone else. If the original closer starts pitching well again towards the end of the season, put him back in the closer role.
It will take a significant amount of humility on the part of the pitcher, but the attachment of “closer” to someone’s name is sometimes a hindrance for team success. If a middle reliever struggles in the 8th, he starts pitching the 7th until he figures it out. Why should it be any different for a closer? If we stop giving the position so much weight, teams will be free to shift around their bullpens the way they feel will give them the most success.
Take last season for example, when both Kimbrel and Papelbon, two of the game’s best, faltered down the stretch. It happens to everyone, but this just happened to be particularly bad timing. Because the teams felt they needed to stick to their guns, both the Braves and the Red Sox suffered epic September collapses. I know many other factors were involved, but perhaps allowing someone else to finish games (Johnny Venters or Daniel Bard) could have made a difference.
Rivera may be the last true closer we see for a while. At 42, who knows if he will be able to come back and continue the glorious ride into the sunset he has produced for the past four seasons. One thing’s for sure, though: when Rivera finally does retire he will take the closer position, as we have come to know it, with him to Panama.