Black Thursday For Closers

CINCINNATI, OH - Sean Marshall #51 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the game against the San Francisco Giants at Great American Ball Park. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Not to be one of those dinks who reflexively quotes something he wrote several months ago, but check out this thing I wrote several months ago. It's about closers, and how while it never seems like a good idea for a team to overpay for them, teams keep doing it. I ultimately gave up and appealed to authority, figuring teams and GMs know something I don't. Now you don't have to check out that thing I wrote several months ago.

This comes up again because Thursday was a dark and stormy day for closers. Within the span of a half-hour, three closers blew a save and took a loss. Three teams -- the Angels, Marlins, and Reds -- had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, and their closers were to blame. Here's an attempt to make too much of Thursday's closer failings:

Theory: Paying a lot of money for closers is a horrible idea
Heath Bell was given $27 million to save baseball games. For perspective, Jeffrey Loria paid about $12 million for his initial 25-percent stake in the Expos back in 1999, which is why we know who Jeffrey Loria is. That perspective doesn't really add anything to the Bell story, but it might have made you mutter an expletive, which is all I ask.

Bell has not been successful at his job. He has two saves (neither of them in a one-run game) and three blown saves. Sometimes a team that blows a save can come back and win the game in the bottom of the ninth, or in extra innings. These were not those kinds of blown saves. All three resulted in a loss. Some teams can go an entire season without those kinds of blown saves. The Marlins are 7-11; it's only a bit of a stretch to suggest that they could be 10-8 if the Marlins had signed Rich Loiselle, Jeff Shaw, or Bob Wickman to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training.

Does this mean that Bell is done? No, it's too early for that. But in six innings of work, he's already guaranteed that he won't provide any of the excess value that the Marlins were hoping for.

Counterpoint to the above theory
Sean Marshall was not who the Reds thought would close games this year. They paid good money for a closer -- Ryan Madson -- who is out for the year. Marshall was a stopgap, and he blew a save against the San Francisco Giants.

If Madson wasn't hurt, maybe the Reds win. It's probable, even. You can argue that the Reds' idea to pay for a closer was right in theory, if not in practice.

Counterpoint to that stupid counterpoint
Santiago Casilla came into a game minutes after Marshall blew the save for his team. He's taking over for the Giants, with Brian Wilson (who makes $8.5 million) out for the year, and Casilla struck out the side on 14 pitches. This is Casilla's second year of arbitration, in which he's making $2.2 million. He came over to the Giants as a minor-league free agent, and since then, he's thrown over 100 innings with an ERA under 2.

That isn't to say that closers grow on trees, or that Casilla will be successful next week. Of course not. Closers are completely unpredictable. Which brings us to the Paying For Closers Paradox:

  • The only reason to pay a lot of money for a closer is to prevent blown saves
  • You will never prevent blown saves by paying a lot of money for a closer.

There you go. Teams are paying for certainty. Teams will never get certainty. I will never understand modern bullpen usage and the expensive closer. The Marlins and Angels each blew a save today, but only one of them paid their closer a lot of money. The other team was able to apply their savings to a huge free-agent pickup like Albert Pu … well, that's not the best example right now.

But the overall point stands: Closers are going to thrill and depress whether they're making the league minimum or being paid Heath Bell money. The odds are still good that teams and GMs are a lot smarter than I am, and that there's a good reason for the overpaid closer. But I ain't seeing it.

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