Classifying MLB's Closer Mentalities

Pitcher Heath Bell of the San Diego Padres prepares to throw the ball against the Colorado Rockies at Petco Park in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)

They say that the key to being a successful Major League closer is to have a closer's mentality. Here we use photographic evidence to explore just what that means.

For as long as I've been alive, there have been saves. For about as long as there have been saves, there have been closers. Relief pitchers entrusted to protect small leads at the end of a game. Closers haven't always existed, but, as with the designated hitter, the closer has grown to become its own distinct position.

Every so often, an inquisitive soul will ask what the difference is between being a closer and being a regular relief pitcher. It stands to reason that a good reliever could be a good closer, right? After all, the only difference between their jobs is the timing.

But it isn't that easy, the inquisitive are told. In order to succeed as a closer, a pitcher must possess a closer's mentality. They say the hardest outs to get in baseball are the last ones, and it's a closer's job to get the last ones. To do that, and to do that well, he must be of a particular mind. Any normal reliever without a closer's mentality will most certainly fail if asked to do more.

Well, all right. So what is a closer's mentality? What does that actually mean? When pressed on the issue, the authorities will cite qualities like toughness and determination. Fire, too. They'll talk about how important it is for a closer to be able to bounce back from defeat.

But this is dissatisfying to me, because it's subjective. I want objectivity. I want objective evidence of just what it takes to be a Major League closer. So I went in pursuit of it.

I watched footage of every closer in the league, and identified the mentality he brought with him to the mound. How did I do this? By observing him at his most natural. I wasn't interested in the way each closer approached the mound from the bullpen. I wasn't interested in any accompanying music. I wasn't interested in the way each closer would stare down the hitter. At these times, and others, the closer might be deliberately playing a part.

There is one time when the closer isn't merely playing a part. One time when the observant eye can see what's really going on underneath. And that's when the closer is looking in for a sign from the catcher. At that moment, the closer is being himself, in all of his personal glory.

I collected images of every closer looking in for a sign, and once my folder was full, I examined them closely. What I found is that there is a small assortment of seemingly acceptable closer mentalities, at least in the game today. Eight of them, to be precise. The eight mentalities:

  1. Disinterested
  2. Confused
  3. Stupid
  4. Hairy
  5. Terrified
  6. Blind
  7. Drunk
  8. Blind and drunk

A reliever who possesses one of the above mentalities might be able to cut it as a closer. A reliever who does not possess one of the above mentalities is probably best suited for the seventh or the eighth. Below, the groupings and corresponding explanations.

Disinterested

These closers pretty clearly don't give a s*** about pitching and would probably prefer to be somewhere else. The reason this works is because pitchers who don't give a s*** about pitching won't give a s*** if they're pitching in the fifth or if they're pitching in the ninth. They are impervious to the leverage associated with their roles, because they don't give a s*** about them.

Leo Nunez
Flanunez_medium

Fernando Salas
Stlsalas_medium

Neftali Feliz
Texfeliz_medium

Confused

These closers don't really know what's going on. They don't understand anything about the situation or what they're supposed to do, and that makes things difficult for an opposing hitter, because it's almost impossible to draw up a plan against a pitcher who doesn't have a plan. For closers, natural confusion can work to their benefit.

Mariano Rivera
Nyyrivera_medium

Javy Guerra
Ladguerra_medium

Joe Nathan
Minnathan_medium

Ryan Madson
Phimadson_medium

Kyle Farnsworth
Tamfarnsworth_medium

Joakim Soria
Kansoria_medium

Stupid

These closers are all completely stupid. Just looking at them makes it evident how stupid they are. They are the kind of stupid that is visibly stupid. It is impossible for them to understand that pitching in the ninth inning is stressful because it is impossible for them to understand zippers.

Kevin Gregg
Balgregg_medium

Jonathan Papelbon
Bospapelbon_medium

Brandon League
Sealeague_medium

Drew Storen
Wasstoren_medium

Andrew Bailey
Oakbailey_medium

Hairy

These closers are hairy. Hairy is a mentality in their cases because their hair has grown inwards and assumed control of their brains. If you can pitch, and if your hair has assumed control of your brain, you can be a closer.

Joel Hanrahan
Pithanrahan_medium

John Axford
Milaxford_medium

Brian Wilson
Sfgwilson_medium

Terrified

Closing isn't scary because these pitchers are already scared. These closers live in constant fear that something bad is about to happen to them or their families. When they muster up the courage to throw a pitch, though, they succeed, because the hitters pick up on the fear, and don't know how to handle it. They sense that something is wrong, but assume that the pitcher knows what it is, which gives the pitcher the unwitting advantage. Against these closers, many hitters have developed the habit of looking over their shoulders.

Jordan Walden
Anawalden_medium

Carlos Marmol
Chcmarmol_medium

Huston Street
Colstreet_medium

Mark Melancon
Houmelancon_medium

Jon Rauch
Torrauch_medium

Blind

These closers are blind! They lean in really far because they can barely see the catcher! They're capable of handling the ninth inning duties because nobody tells them it's the ninth inning when they come in, and they can't read the scoreboard.

Craig Kimbrel
Atlkimbrel_medium

Sergio Santos
Chwsantos_medium

Heath Bell
Sdpbell_medium

Chris Perez
Cleperez_medium

Drunk

This closer can handle being a closer because he's dependably s***faced to oblivion, adequately numbing the senses. He can't worry about the significance of every single pitch that he throws because it's all he can do to remain standing on the mound. It is a different means to a Disinterested end.

Jose Valverde
Detvalverde_medium

Blind and drunk

The amazing thing about blind and drunk people is that they're paradoxically capable of so much more than the rest of us.

J.J. Putz
Ariputz_medium

Francisco Cordero
Cincordero_medium

Jason Isringhausen
Nymisringhausen_medium

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